The Good Water Neighbors program encourages communities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories to cooperate with one another to improve shared water resources.
By Andrew Tobin

Water and peace are two of the scarcest commodities in the Middle East. But Friends of the Earth Middle East, a nonprofit environmental and peace organization, has managed to find a measure of success by pursuing both at once.

The Good Water Neighbors program – which encourages communities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories to cooperate with one another to improve shared water resources – has steadily expanded over the last decade, even as other regional peace efforts have foundered. Friends of the Earth was founded in the United States in 1969.
Friends of the Earth – Courtesy of Friends of the Earth – 02032012

Friends of the Earth employee Yana Abu Taleb, left, in Sri Lanka.
Photo by: Courtesy of Friends of the Earth

“The peace camp in Israel has been decimated in the last decade,” said Gershon Baskin, a board member for several peace organizations, including the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. “Friends of the Earth is pioneering a new model, and it seems to be working.”

There are a handful of organizations that work on either water issues or grassroots cooperation among local communities, say the nonprofit’s directors, but Friends of the Earth is unique in that it does both. Its flagship program, Good Water Neighbors, pairs Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities on either side of the Green Line to teach residents about their mutual dependence on water resources and to encourage them work together to advocate for improvements.

“We chose water as an issue because it’s on everyone’s mind, said Gidon Bromberg, the director of the program’s Tel Aviv office, who was born in Israel and grew up in America. “There is real water scarcity and you can see it.”

Organizations in other areas of conflict have begun to take note of the program. Friends of the Earth’s directors have traveled to Pakistan, Serbia and Sri Lanka in the last several months, and they are now in the early stages of adapting Good Water Neighbors to each of these locations. While some analysts doubt that such a model can be transplanted overseas, Friend’s of the Earth and its foreign partners say that its basic principles are universal.

“Our region is the mother of all conflicts,” said Yana Abu Taleb, the assistant director of Friend of the Earth’s Amman office in Jordan. “If it works here it will work anywhere.”

Abu Taleb and Bromberg spent a week last month touring Sri Lanka’s Eastern District, which was devastated during the 25-year civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese. Following their return, the directors outlined a plan to implement a program styled after Good Water Neighbors in the area.

“We think that environmental cooperation can be powerful a vehicle for reconciliation at this time when Sri Lanka is in a post-war phase,” said Vinya Ariyaratne, the executive director of Sarvodaya, the Sri Lankan development NGO that will be implementing the program.

Leaders from other areas of conflict are also seeking to bring the program to their countries. In July, Abu Taleb traveled to Lahore, Pakistan, to speak to Pakistani and Indian members of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders program about adapting Good Water Neighbors to the Indus Valley between India and Pakistan. And in December, Bromberg traveled to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where he spoke about Good Water Neighbors on a panel with the co-presidents of Croatia and mayors from several Balkan cities.

Many more meetings are planned for this year.

However, the program has not actually been tested outside of the Middle East, and some analysts caution that it will not be easy.

“Conflicts are very complicated and unique, said Prof. Mordechai Tamarkin, head of Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Studies. “There are internal factors like history, religion, politics … and then there are regional and international factors. If you don’t have a deep understanding of a conflict, you’d be better off not intervening at all.”

Friends of the Earth’s directors respond that the very reason the program works is because it transcends regional differences. The prospect of clean water motivates people to work with “the enemy” and allows them to defend their work from would-be spoilers, they say.

“It’s an issue of self-interest that becomes common interest, because the water resource itself is common,” said Bromberg.

Friends of the Earth was founded in 1994, in the heady days following the signing of the Oslo Accords. It started with offices in Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and mostly conducted research and advocated for greater attention to environmental issues in the peace process, say its directors. But political negotiations soon collapsed with the outbreak of the second intifada. At the same time, public opposition to cooperation increased and international funding dwindled, say longtime activists.

Friends of the Earth’s Egyptian office closed in 1998 under pressure from then-President Hosni Mubarak’s government. The director of the Amman office was shot at while driving to work in 2000. And in 2001 the organization’s Palestinian director tried to convince all of the Arab staff members to quit.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Nader Khateeb, the director of the NGO’s Bethlehem office. “Especially during the intifada we felt that we were constantly under threat. We sometimes discussed not coming to the office and working from home.”

But the group’s directors say that trust and a shared purpose, forged in less trying times, enabled them to reinvent the organization. They created a united political front by publicly endorsing a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, overcame new limitations on travel by opening an office in Bethlehem, and initiated the Good Water Neighbors program.

Although social and governmental resistance has not abated since the intifada, and most surviving peace NGOs continue to struggle, Good Water Neighbors has expanded from 11 to 29 communities and from 14 to 35 staff members. It is working with mayors on a range of regional projects, including the construction of several multi-million-dollar sewage treatment plants and a proposed “Peace Park” along the Jordan River.

Good Water Neighbors has also become Friends of the Earth’s largest source of fundraising. Between 2001 and 2010 its annual funding ballooned from $278,000 to $2.8 million, according to its tax filings. Good Water Neighbors accounted for most of the increase, with contributions and grants to the program increasing from $400,000 to $1.9 million between 2009 and 2010 alone.