Israelis, Palestinians launch joint environmental diplomacy center

By Sue Surkes for The Times of Israel

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Palestinian organization Damour for Community Development have announced the establishment of a new Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy.

It is being launched in partnership with the Oxford University Martin School Program on Transnational Management of Natural Resources.

The school has been working for the past three years with scientists from Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza on the first project of its kind to model and forecast what will happen to regional natural resources as climate change takes hold, with an emphasis on energy and water.

“The need to equip national and regional policy makers, diplomats, community leaders, security experts, and health officials with the tools to deal with the growing risks of climate change is urgent,” a joint statement said.

These tools will include an understanding of the science of climate change and of the political, economic, and strategic implications for countries, nationally and regionally, the institutions said.

The center — thought to be the first of its kind globally — will be based at the Arava Institute in southern Israel’s Kibbutz Ketura, with offices eventually opening in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

It will combine joint academic research by Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians with regional diplomatic activity and on-the-ground projects in Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.

Working with other research institutions such as the Porter School for Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University and the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, the new institution will provide “a safe space to host researchers, community leaders, diplomats, entrepreneurs and government representatives for meetings, networking and project development, security, public health and sustainable economic development,” according to the statement.

“Applied Environmental Diplomacy is being developed as a feedback loop using environmental tools to alleviate conflict situations and using diplomatic tools to resolve environmental crises,” the statement read.

The founding members of the center’s International Advisory Council include Ambassador Dennis Ross; Marc Otte, former special EU envoy to the Middle East; Prof. J.M. Hall, Oxford University Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks; and Richard Caplan, an Oxford professor of International Relations.

The Arava Institute, Damour and various regional partners have been working together for five years, below the radar, as part of the Track II Environmental Forum.

The work has involved building trust with local communities and municipalities and cooperating on cross-border initiatives. These have included installing wastewater treatment and clean drinking water systems in the Gaza Strip, off-grid renewable energy and sustainable agriculture projects for off-grid communities in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.

Clive Lipchin, who directs the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, for example, has developed a solar-operated sewage treatment unit that has been piloted in a Bedouin village and is being scaled up in a community in the northern West Bank. The recycled water is being used to irrigate olive trees.

In the Jordan Valley, Lipchin has been working on desalination to help Palestinian farmers develop high-value, fast-growing cash crops that can be sold quickly, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and peppers.

The groundwater there is saline, forcing farmers to depend on the cultivation of date palms, which guzzle water and only start producing fruit after five to seven years as well as requiring prohibitively expensive storage equipment to maintain quality between harvest and sale.

The Arava Institute is also connected with a separate initiative, the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East Climate Change Initiative (EMME-CCI), launched in 2019 by the Cypriot government. That project held a large international conference earlier this month.

Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said the issue of climate change cannot be ignored in the region.

“The Middle East is a hot spot when it comes to climate change and we need urgent solutions,” he said.

“Despite the conflict, we recognize the importance of dialogue, especially in civil matters. We hope and believe that this regional initiative will receive broad international support from government agencies, international organizations, civil society organizations, and the business sector. It will contribute to the creation of a more stable and resistant Middle East, help restore confidence in future political negotiations, and in the future, serve as an inspiration to other conflict areas in the world.”

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