Nine Columbia graduate students landed in Amman, Jordan last Friday night, after over 20 hours of travel, to begin the field study component of the NECR K4160 Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East course. Though exhausted, they were eager to get to the hotel to meet students from Tel Aviv University – who had crossed the border earlier in the day – with whom they would be traveling through Israel and Jordan for the next 13 days.
Students in the group represent a mix of nationalities, religions, and life experiences; however, the members share a common passion for environmental sustainability and for learning how countries like Jordan and Israel are cooperating on shared environmental challenges, including water scarcity, the drying up of the Jordan River and the shrinking of the Dead Sea. Since arriving, students have heard from NGOs that are pioneering transboundary efforts to address these environmental problems, and the politicians who will ultimately implement cooperative agreements.
In Amman, the students met with Munqeth Mehyar, Jordanian Director of EcoPeace Middle East. EcoPeace brings together Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians to advance both sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in the region. Mehyar shared the NGO’s vision for rehabilitating the Jordan River – a site of ecological, historical, and religious importance — which has become extremely polluted and has lost more than 96% of its natural flow over the past fifty years. The decrease in flow is due to overuse by Israel, Syria and Jordan, who have diverted freshwater to use for drinking and agriculture. In some cases, water has allegedly been diverted as retaliation for political reasons. Pollution of the river comes from solid waste and wastewater, both from riparian industries and local municipalities. The end result is that less freshwater flows into the river and the water that remains is increasingly polluted. The environmental and economic impacts extend further to the Dead Sea, since the Jordan River is its main source of water. The Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth — is shrinking by 1 meter each year and is also a site of ecological, economic and touristic importance for both Jordan and Israel.
At the invitation of EcoPeace, students had the incredible opportunity to attend an international conference later in the week at the Dead Sea, about how to overcome these environmental problems. At the conference, EcoPeace publically unveiled its Regional Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley. Attendees included ministers and ambassadors from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the European Union, and donors. The plan outlined 127 interventions at a cost of 4.58 million USD through 2050, for rehabilitating the Jordan River. Goals included: eliminating pollution and establishing urban infrastructure; improving the use and efficiencies of water; establishing a governance structure for the Jordan River Valley; and restoring the ecological status of the Jordan River Valley to support tourism and economic development, and to restore its cultural heritage.
It was clear from the speeches that it is impossible to separate politics from environmental issues, but the mere presence of such high-level decision makers was testament to a regional commitment to finding joint solutions to these shared problems. Though the plan is built upon several optimistic assumptions, one of which is the creation of a Palestinian state by 2020, it is a strong advocacy tool that is already working to bring the governments of Israel, Palestine and Jordan to the table.
This course is jointly offered by Columbia University’s Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education, in partnership with the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University.