Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Auja Eco Centre provides some relief for Palestinians gasping for water in the Jordan Valley


By PM collaborators - October 06, 2016
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [In Pictures]
Tags: [Jordan Valley] [agriculture] [Water]

On the road that winds from Ramallah to Jericho, the scenery transforms as it gallops down the eastern side of the mountains towards the Jordan Valley. The land becomes healthier. Farms stumble out in a green line along the valley below.



But this fertile belt is not in Palestine: it is across the river, in Jordan. Most of the Palestinian bank is as stubbornly barren as the hills further west. How is this possible? After all, the River Jordan is only thirty-one metres across at its widest point.


As with many of Palestine’s complexities, the answer is a mix of foreign indifference and the Israeli occupation.


The Auja Eco Centre in Jericho
 


Mahmoud Driaat and his colleagues at the Auja Eco Centre, based near Jericho, are dedicated to fixing the water supply and ecosystem of the Jordan Valley.

Before Israel was established, the Jordan River supplied “1.3 billion cubic metres of water, annually,” Mahmoud, the manager at Auja, began. The river flows from its source in the Lebanese hills to its mouth in the Dead Sea, via the Sea of Galilee.


But following the 1948 war, and Israel’s ceasefire with Jordan, the two countries decided to split rights to the river. Each year, Israel diverts 400 million cubic metres of water from the river to the Negev Desert. Jordan diverts 250 million cubic metres to its farms on the east side of the river, and to Amman.


Syria is also involved, building hundreds of dams along the Yarmouk River, a tributary of the Jordan. Altogether, Israel, Jordan and Syria divert 94% of the Jordan’s water for their own purposes.


These measures have been catastrophic for Palestinians. Before 1948, Mahmoud explains, Palestinian farmers could use the river’s water for irrigation during the winter months. In summer, meanwhile, they could fish and sell their catch to towns in the West Bank.


But now, because only 6% of the river’s water reaches the Dead Sea, any economic use the River Jordan might have had is long gone. This is exacerbated by constant Jordanian fly-tipping, which makes the river “highly polluted.” For their part, Jewish settlers in the valley have fresh water pumped in especially by the Israeli state. The few green patches in the Jordan Valley are invariably Israeli-owned.


Anyway, even if the river did contain more clean water, Palestinians could not access it. In 1967, Israel heavily mined the west bank of the river. Palestinians are not allowed near, except at a few strictly-controlled points.


All this explains the bleak contrast between the lush Jordanian side of the river, home to over half a million people, and the arid Palestinian bank. “This land is now a desert,” summarises Mahmoud.


The barren Palestine side of the Jordan Valley, from the hills near Ramallah

With all these problems, any progress is a struggle. But Mahmoud, with his colleagues at Auja, are clearly passionate about improving the agricultural situation on the Palestinian side of the river.


The methods the centre uses are beautifully simple. Toilet water is unsalvageable. But water from the rest of the house (so-called 'grey water’) is treated by pouring it through tanks of gravel and sand that filters out impurities. The result is so clean, says Mahmoud, that “this water is even good for washing hands.”


This spirit of improvisation is typical of Auja. There are plans to build larders, to cool vegetables during Jericho’s scorching summers, with cheap concrete bricks. Irrigation systems are created from used plastic bottles. Condensation from air-conditioning units is collected and reused. Even in the dusty courtyard of the Auja Eco Centre, the landscape blossoms.


One of the benefits of this approach is that it can be used by local farmers, on the cheap. “We go to their houses and teach heads of the families” about saving water, explains Mahmoud.


A difficulty is that “the culture of these farmers is quite restricted” so it’s not easy to make them accept Auja’s recommendations. “These people are not educated,” he says.


But by first distributing water-saving devices to public places – “such as the schools, the mosque” – Mahmoud and his colleagues win over sceptics. “People start seeing this system work. They see the benefits.” Financial incentives also tend to be popular: “these measures save a lot of money.”


Indeed, the Auja Eco Centre and its methods have become so famous that local communities have started requesting advice on how to improve their irrigation and water-saving systems. Promoting self-sufficiency is especially important given that many local people work on farms in illegal Israeli settlements, often for low pay and in dreadful conditions.


The centre has managed to make plants grow even in the dusty lands around Jericho
 

Still, if these innovations help farmers in their daily slog, they do not deal with the Jordan Valley’s wider problems.


But here too, the Auja Eco Centre is trying to make a difference. The centre works with EcoPeace, a trilateral Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organisation that pressures the authorities to enact change.


Thomas Koenig is a thoughtful German with a background in agriculture. He now works for EcoPeace, and advises the Auja Eco Centre on how best to improve the broader environmental situation in the Jordan Valley.


“Last year, EcoPeace released its first 'master plan’ for the Jordan Valley,” Thomas explains. “This plan was launched in June last year…it was possible to create this plan for the entire Jordan Valley, across all three countries.”


Naturally, if the Jordan Valley is ever to be managed properly, the involvement of all three regional governments is vital. Indeed, Thomas contends that any long-term improvement to the Jordan Valley is “impossible” without regional cooperation.


Governments are slowly realising this. In 2014, Jordan finally agreed to buy some of its water from Israeli desalination plants on the Mediterranean, for instance. Last year, the two countries signed a deal to build an ambitious new canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.


This cautious collaboration extends to young people. In 2015, Thomas and EcoPeace organised an event for “young environmentally interested” students, from the three countries flanking the river. The volunteers, on opposite sides of the river, came together to raise awareness about “saving the Jordan River and improving the water quality. From an international perspective, it was a success.”


Indeed, both Mahmoud and Thomas are buoyed by the interest young Palestinians show in saving the Jordan Valley. Auja helps students “coordinate environmental activities like building grey water units,” says Mahmoud. “We have toolkits that will help them touch their environmental conscience.” Thomas agrees: children come up with some “fantastic ideas” to help the valley.


Nonetheless, enormous challenges persist. Another cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence, starting in October 2015, put an abrupt halt to any cooperation between the two sides. “This is a really challenging issue,” says Thomas.


And as long as the occupation of the West Bank continues, it seems unlikely that Israel will concede much to Palestinians on any issue, let alone something as fundamental as water. As Mahmoud put it: “water is used as another type of occupation.”
 

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