“I learned that you can cooperate with other people, even when there isn’t a common language and that a lot can be achieved if only we try.”
— Hani, a 15 year old Palestinian boy responding to a CGIS activity evaluation question ‘What is the most relevant social lesson you learned during the CGIS seminar?’
Community Geographic Information Systems (CGIS) is an EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) project currently operating in 17 out of 26 Good Water Neighbors communities in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Through the project, youth ‘Water Trustees’ are tasked with collecting field data about environmental hazards that endanger water sources in their own communities and using GIS computer software to map and analyze the data. Recently, teenagers from throughout the region met for a several days for regional seminars in Beit Alpha (Israel) and Wadi Rum (Jordan) to compare their findings and plan a joint campaign to protect their shared water sources. The seminar focused on building awareness among the youth participants that environmental issues have no borders or barriers, that streams and groundwater are either a shared treasure or a shared problem – one which cross-border communities share interests in resolving.
Through ongoing environmental studies taught as part of the regular curriculum at school, students discover the alarming consequences of climate change, the energy crisis and water shortage. They learn about environmental problems on a local and global scale, about natural links that create a sustainable system and the impact that one damaged link can have on the whole system.
However, the social aspect of sustainable development is often overlooked, staying vague and difficult to approach within the regular framework. The social challenge in sustainable development is to overcome and solve disparities and improve welfare and well being in order to work together to achieve shared objectives, such as the common interest in protecting the region’s water resources. Due to pedagogical priorities, politics and regulations, the formal educational system’s ability to develop and foster sustainable-ecological practices within the student body is greatly limited.
Informal education, on the other hand, opens up the possibility to involve youth in learning and experiencing, sometimes subconsciously, what sustainability and environmentalism is really all about. Projects such as CGIS, and Good Water Neighbors’ (GWN) link between youth who share a common water resource, for example Emek Hefer (Israel) and TulKarem (Palestine) communities who share the Alexander/Zommer River and the Mountain Aquifer; Beit Shean (Israel) and Sheikh Hussein (Jordan) who share the Lower Jordan River.
Under the guidance of FoEME community coordinators, students involved in these innovative programs learn about the water reality in their own communities as well as about the water reality in their neighbors’ community on the other side of the political border. Through these efforts the students come to understand the connectivity of our shared environment and our shared dependence on the cross border ecosystems.
The Environment as a Source of Common Ground
The annual Water Trustee regional camps and transboundary seminars are essential activities to reinforce this understanding and make the existential links between people in the region real. Before meeting their peers, they express curiosity and concerns, naturally since most of the youth participants have never had the opportunity to connect with their Palestinian, Jordanian or Israeli neighbors.
But very quickly the ice breaks (melts is a better verb for the Middle Eastern climate…) and following a few activities, whether building a bench from recycled car tires, mud and straw, or creating a poster promoting the use of eco-friendly detergents, they are already debating on crucial matters such as the best rock band and whether Brazil or Italy should have won the football league. Before saying goodbye they exchange email and Facebook addresses and we wonder how long they will keep in touch. We know that in order to build a lasting relationship it takes much more than two days, and hope they will meet again in future activities planned during the year.
“Participation of youth in informal education projects is voluntary, which differentiates it from formal education” explains Hagai Oz, FoEME community coordinator for the Jordan Valley Regional Council in Israel. Oz emphasizes the choice participants make, “Teenagers who choose to take part in our activities and camps, choose to venture out of their known environments and expose themselves to people from different cultures. In doing so they take on a challenge. Since it is their own decision, they feel committed to cope with the situation and following a positive experience, gain confidence to continue taking an active part in the activities.”
15 year old Hani’s quote, at the beginning of this article, reflects his challenging and empowering experience at the regional seminar. It shows that when given an opportunity, Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian youth can shift the focus from the differences between groups to developing a common vision of taking responsibility for their environment.
For more information on CGIS, visit FoEME’s website.
GIS project is supported by the European Union and GWN project is supported by the USAID’s Conflict Management and Mitigation program – “from the American People”, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and from Belgium’s Peace Building Desk.
This post was written by Amy Lipman-Avizohar, FoEME’s Israeli CGIS Coordinator.