Olive Tree Initiative Discusses Water

Representatives of the Araya Institute speak at the UCI event on the need for conservation of the scarce resource in the Middle East.

The Olive Tree Initiative in cooperation with the UCI Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, UC Irvine Environment Institute, Center for Unconventional Security Affairs and UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, held a conference on Groundwater and Climate Change in the Middle East on Nov. 10 at the UC Irvine Beckman Center.

The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) promotes educated discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aiming to promote conflict analysis and resolution through education, training and experiences to better negotiate and solve conflicts.

Daniel Wehrenfennig, director for OTI, mentioned that the goal of the conference was to raise awareness on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issues associated. One of the major issues in the Middle East revolves around the environment, particularly the scarcity of water as a resource.

“We thought it would be a good idea to have a conference to bring together Americans and people from the Middle East who work on these issues and discuss how we can broader educate people,” Wehrenfennig said. “We come from different backgrounds and we think the way we think and speak is understood automatically by everyone else. So the idea of spreading awareness is crucial.”

Arturo Jimenez, who is in charge of education for OTI, mentioned that the main focus is spreading awareness on the water crisis.

“Nobody knows what’s going on. So the idea of spreading awareness and education that these things are happening might excite people to go out there and do something,” Jimenez said.

“What we mean by education is cultural, historical, environmental, economic awareness. If you don’t have cultural awareness and say something to the other side, they are understanding something completely different.”

Frank Williams, a student involved with OTI, mentioned that being in the organization opened his eyes to the complexity of the issues at hand.

“People refuse to communicate and I now see the importance of dialogue,” Williams said.

The event itself featured Dr. Gonen Sagy, Head Coordinator for the Youth Environment Education Peace Initiative (YEPPI) of the Araya Institute, YEPPI leader Tamer Jumah, Chairman and Jordanian Director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East Munqeth Mehyar, and co-executive director for the Abraham Fund Initiative Mohammad Darawshe.

Mehyar’s presentation focused on the water supplies in the Middle East, specifically in the regions of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The main shared water supplies are the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Mountain Aquifer and the Coastal Aquifer. Since water is scarce, all three counties have to share these water supplies.

Today, the Dead Sea has lost over 1/3 of its size and is losing 1 meter of water every year, with Isreal claiming 55 percent of the water, Jordan 20 percent and Syria the rest.

A project to rehabilitate the Jordan River began this year to improve the water supply. Efforts were made at the project’s start to avoid putting blame on any of the parties involved.

Currently, as a result of the conflict associated between Israel and Palestine, these countries have in the past attempted to accumulate as much of the water as they could before the other could arrive.

“If you go to any Jordanian about the water in the Jordan River, they will immediately tell you Israel took all the water. If you ask the Israelites, they will say the Syrians took it. It’s always somebody else to blame,” Mehyar said.

The rehabilitation project looked at the water economy of each country, which allowed certain methods to save water. Different governments have been influenced to build water treatment plants, as well as installing more tanks to save water.

The Araya institute is one of the few places in the Middle East where Jews, Arabs and Christians can be in the same area peacefully. The institute’s YEPPI program claims its goal is to reduce conflicts among the youth in order to advance solutions to environmental issues.

The long and bitter conflict between the two middle-eastern countries has revolved around the issue of culture. Currently, Israeli schools are religiously and ethnically segregated. In opposition to this, YEPPI teaches cross-cultural communication by allowing students from Arab and Israeli schools to create partnerships.

Darawshe from the Abraham Fund Initiative mentioned how the fund promotes coexistence among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Since the major problem revolves around the issue of cultural differences, the fund currently attempts to find methods for citizens to communicate with each other. These include teaching Arabic in Jewish schools and trying to change the hearts and minds of those who do not want peace.

“Water is life,” Mehyar said as the evening drew to a close. “I cannot wait for politicians to solve their differences and then talk about water. The game is over and we need change and we are working on that change.”