A Sight for Besor Eyes

Thursday, 16 Feb 2006

Kibbutz Ketura, Israel

The Besor River is just like the 14 other streams that begin in the mountains of the West Bank and flow west toward the Mediterranean Sea across the border between the Palestinian territory and Israel. Like the other streams, the Besor is utterly polluted.

The Besor looking sickly.

Photo: Lior Assaf

Raw sewage from 200,000 people in the Palestinian city of Hebron and the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba is dumped into the Besor. At its start, the stream is a milky white slurry, but 60 percent of this sewage will seep into the ground before the stream reaches the sea. On its 70 mile trip, the Besor picks up sewage from the Israeli industrial city of Dimona, turns velvety brown, collects agricultural chemicals from Israeli farms in the northern Negev, gathers solid waste, leaves Israeli territory for the Gaza Strip, and finally empties into the Mediterranean. The Besor is the largest watershed in Israel. In Gaza, it is the only flowing water.

Lior Assaf, an Israeli staff hydrologist at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, is part of a team of Palestinians and Israelis working together to model the hydrology and chemistry of the Besor. As happens at meetings like these, he presented a PowerPoint profile of the stream: “Biological Oxygen Demand,” “Index of Biological Integrity,” “Nitrate Concentrations,” and so on. Every measure indicates the stream is deadly. Lior summed up his presentation in Israeli-accented English. “If it smells like sewage and it looks like sewage, then guess what: it’s sewage.”

When he finished his presentation he was attacked. Jordanians, Canadians, and Europeans felt certain he was laying the blame inside the bathrooms of Palestinians for dumping their sewage into the Besor’s headwaters. First, Lior insisted he was only presenting data; the city of Hebron was simply the first to dump its waste. Second, he tried to remind the countries of NATO that Israel also added chemical, agricultural, and human waste. He could not assuage the audience. In the Middle East, even feces (this is a polite publication) is political.

A troubled river helps bring people together.

Photo: Lior Assaf.

Nevertheless, hidden in Lior’s message is a news story bubbling below the line of sight of the world’s television cameras: Palestinian and Israeli scientists are working together. While their leaders hurl vitriol at one another and their armed forces launch missiles, people who care about the environment have steadfastly continued to call, email, and meet.

The Besor River study is not the only cooperative venture in the region to cross borders. The last formal talk of our NATO Advanced Study Institute was delivered by David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and host for the meeting. David said the goal of the Arava Institute is to bring Jewish and Arab citizens together to protect the environment, “because nature knows no boundaries.”

In one example, college-level students attending the Arava Institute will prepare curricula on transboundary environmental issues during the upcoming semester. They will discuss the religion of birds in high-school classrooms in Eilat, Israel, and Aqaba, Jordan.

The cities of Aqaba and Eilat, which sit side by side on the Red Sea, separated only by the Israeli/Jordanian border, present the first food and rest for nearly a billion migrating birds a year, making it the busiest flyway in the world. The high-school students will be asked to decide whether squacco herons, white storks, little crakes, or tawny pipits choose Judaism or Islam before selecting which side of the border to land on, or whether the quality of the habitat and resources are more important. It proves David’s point. Migrating birds know no boundaries and only cooperative efforts between Jordanians and Israelis will ensure that open space is protected from developers.

There are dozens of cooperative environmental projects in the Middle East, each one rather tiny in the grand scheme of Middle Eastern politics. What they have in common is recognition that everyone here depends on the same dwindling aquifers and breathes the same polluted air. The Middle East is a densely populated, small, dry place, but seen from a bird’s eye view, environmentalists are defying politicians, building bridges across religious, ethnic, and political borders that separate people, but not nature.