An Interview with Gidon Bromberg | When Water = National Security

By | Apr 21, 2023

The 2014 war between Israel and Hamas destroyed much of Gaza’s water treatment infrastructure. On a hot July day three years later, with few other options to cool down, a five-year-old Gazan boy named Mohammed went swimming with his family at a nearby beach. Unaware that raw sewage was draining into the sea, they all came home vomiting. Mohammed fell into a coma and died from a toxic bacterial infection ten days later.

Last summer, after the construction of several new water treatment plants in Gaza, the Palestinian health ministry declared 65 percent of Gaza’s beaches clean, which meant the strip’s 2.2 million residents could return to the ocean. Environmental lawyer Gidon Bromberg had tears in his eyes. “I remembered the story of Mohammed,” he recalls. “Hopefully, we won’t see that again.”

Bromberg, 59, is cofounder and Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East, a tri-national­—Israeli, Palestinian,
Jordanian­—environmental NGO that was instrumental in getting the new water treatment plants built. EcoPeace is also a leading force behind the Green Blue Deal, a report and set of policy recommendations to address water scarcity in the region. One of the ideas in that report—a proposal for Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to exchange solar power for desalinated water—was introduced by U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry at the 27th official United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt in November 2022 and resulted in a memorandum of understanding between the three countries.

“Politicians speak of disengagement, like ‘Israel’s disengaged from Gaza.’ Well, environmentally, that’s bullshit,” says Bromberg. “It’s impossible to disengage from a shared environment. We share the same coastal groundwater. We share the same ocean. We breathe the same air. The environment doesn’t respect borders, and therefore the environment, by definition, creates interdependencies.”

“The environment doesn’t respect borders–it creates interdependencies.”

From the construction of sanitation plants in Gaza to the mitigation of water pollution in the Jordan River to an EcoPark in Jordan, EcoPeace has been able to build from these interdependencies. The group’s Jordan and Palestine directors have each been invited to speak to the United Nations Security Council, and last year EcoPeace was awarded a grant of $3.3 million from the U.S. Department of State.

“The organization punches significantly above its weight in its impact,” says Nigel Savage, the founder and longtime CEO of the Jewish environmental organization Hazon (recently rebranded as Adamah). “The Palestinian and Jordanian groups within the overall organization are equal in size and scale and voice to the Israeli group. In the time that EcoPeace has been active, we’ve seen wars in Gaza, instability in the region, and last year’s Jewish-Arab riots inside Israel,” Savage notes. “EcoPeace’s work has become steadily more important as each year goes by.”

Moment spoke to Bromberg about the organization’s push to advance water security and its insistence that regional peace can only happen by acknowledging ecological interdependence.

Where did the idea of EcoPeace come from?

The idea came out of my master’s thesis. I was studying international environmental law at American University in 1993 while the Oslo Accords were being negotiated, and I wanted to look at whether peace was going to be good for the environment. There was this sense that peace would bring tremendous economic opportunities, with major economic summits organized at the time in Casablanca, in Cairo and in Amman about what a new Middle East might look like.

That new Middle East frightened me, because it was just giving lip service to the environment. For instance, 50,000 new hotel rooms were being proposed to be built around the Dead Sea—how could the Dead Sea sustain 50,000 new hotel rooms? My recommendation was to put the environment on the political agenda of the peace process by creating a regional environmental NGO.

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Before going back to Israel, I met with some half a dozen individuals in Washington, DC, and asked if they’d be able to fund $20,000 for an initial meeting to bring together Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists. “Nice idea,” they said, “but come back when you’re a bit older.” One called me a week later, and said, “If you organize it, I’ll fund it, and I’ll be there.”

What in your background had equipped you to take this on?

Although I was born in Israel, I moved to Australia when I was a young kid. Australia has the second largest percentage of foreign-born residents in the world, after Israel. I grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants: Greek and Italian and Vietnamese and Lebanese and Turkish, you name it. So I saw a lot of prejudice, but I also saw a system that was trying to bring everyone together and promote understanding. I think that upbringing, in that setting, gave me a sense of confidence that I could contribute to peacebuilding in Israel.

How did the environment come in?

My first year of law school, I went off to join an environmental campaign in Tasmania to stop a dam being built that would have damaged the sensitive ecologies of the Franklin and Gordon rivers. What halted the project was community activism on the one hand but also a decision by the High Court of Australia that stopped the dam being built after both rivers were listed as World Heritage sites.

Image of the Middle East taken by NASA. (Photo credit: NASA)

We used that model later to stop the wall being built between Israel and the West Bank in the area of Battir, a mountainous region with 4,000-year-old terraces built to utilize and control spring water for agriculture. Palestinian farmers, through a special arrangement, continue to manage their lands not only on the West Bank side but also on the Israeli side. But the wall would have damaged the terraces and prevented access. We worked with the Palestinian community, particularly with the mayor of Battir, to convince the Palestinian Authority to register the area as a World Heritage site, which stopped the wall. Protecting a World Heritage site is clearly an issue that should go beyond the security interests of one particular generation.

What reactions have you experienced from Israelis?

After Oslo, there was absolute euphoria: So many Israelis were certain that it would be the end of conflict. In those years, an organization such as EcoPeace was very welcome. But when bus bombings became prevalent, things changed. I myself missed the Dizengoff Street bombing [which killed 22 and injured 50 in 1994] by five minutes and the attack on the café on Ben Gurion Boulevard [which killed three and injured 48 in 1997] by half an hour. The Egyptians had left EcoPeace, due in part to a demand from the Mubarak government.

At that point, and with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 even more so, working with “the other” came to be seen as working for the other. I would give a presentation and someone would stand up and say, “Don’t listen to him, he’s a traitor. He’s working for the Arabs.” That misconception is something we still face. It’s even worse for our Palestinian and Jordanian staff.

How do you grapple with that?

I’m constantly promoting the understanding that military security, as important as it is, is not the only security that matters. Water security, climate security and broader health security are all critical issues. Our different country directors think through what we’re trying to achieve together, but our messaging addresses the number-one concern of the respective populations. Security is something I speak a lot about at the Israeli office, water rights lead what our Palestinian office speaks to, and economic and development needs are the focus of our Jordanian office.

What’s an example of an environmental interdependency EcoPeace has been able to harness for cooperation?

After the 2014 Gaza War there was a water and sanitation crisis because Israel had bombed water and sewage infrastructure. In 2016, there were about 108 million liters of raw sewage flowing into the Mediterranean every single day. We were approached by an international NGO that had been trying for 12 years to get enough cement into Gaza to finish a modern sewage treatment plant. The Israeli military was restricting building equipment and electricity on security grounds, saying they had evidence that Hamas was stealing a high percentage of the cement coming into Gaza in order to build tunnels to attack Israel. The Israeli public was completely in favor of these restrictions. The sewage plant was something like 80 percent finished, with tens of millions of dollars already spent.

We understood that the likelihood of pandemic disease breaking out in Gaza was rising every day because when sewage is flowing, it’s mixing into the groundwater and people get exposed to it. Disease was not going to stop at the border. No fence around Gaza was going to stop cholera or typhus from also impacting Israel.

So we started testing the Israeli beaches north of Gaza for cholera: Shikmim Beach, Ashkelon Beach, Ashdod Beach. Out of pure luck, we chose the same laboratory for our tests that the Ashkelon desalination plant had been using. The lab had good news for us—no cholera. But they also told us that the Ashkelon desalination plant had been closed because of the sewage coming from Gaza.
It had been kept a secret, but the Ashkelon plant was 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water. We got hold of some satellite imagery which showed that Ashdod, the second desalination plant north of Gaza, was also at risk of intermittent closure. We knew that the combination of health security and water security was going to be persuasive to the Israeli public.

And at the same time, we were building on community work around Gaza with seminars and workshops, some of which included medical practitioners. Eventually, we got all the mayors of those communities, who would be at the forefront of the threat of a tunnel attack (including the heavily right-wing city of Sderot) to say that these interests needed to be better balanced.

The sewage treatment plant was completed within two years. The change in mindset was so dramatic that four years after that, in 2022, two additional modern sewage treatment plants were built.

Can this kind of effort help build peace in the long run?

Water insecurity across the West Bank and Gaza not only leads to increased animosity, but under a climate crisis where we have declining precipitation, it could lead to an uprising like what we saw in Syria in 2011, when rain-dependent farmers lost their livelihoods.

But the rationale as to why water issues were hard to solve back when Oslo was negotiated is no longer relevant today. At that time, there was only natural water. Now, thanks largely to Israeli leadership in the water field, you can desalinate or treat sewage water and reuse it for agriculture. Today, half the food in Israel is grown with treated wastewater. So, the water “pie” has tremendously expanded. Palestinians can gain their water rights without Israelis losing a drop—Israel can just increase its manufacturing. And guess what? The prices are even attractive.

As it stands now, Yatta, in the southern Hebron Hills, gets water once every two months in the summer. People can spend a quarter, a third of their income on water. But water rights are held hostage to the difficulty of resolving the other issues: Jerusalem, refugees and so on. By addressing the question of water rights we could build trust, show that there is a partner and improve the situation on the ground in every Palestinian home. Meanwhile, with the Israelis, we can strike a deal to move forward on a design to stop Palestinian sewage from polluting both the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. It would be another set of win-wins.

One thought on “An Interview with Gidon Bromberg | When Water = National Security

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Thanks for addressing a little known problem and how cooperation with like minded nations and those with special environmental needs can lead to a more peaceful co-existence. At the least, it allows a different emphasis that unites and not divides.

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