Chris Hammer is a journalist and expert on Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. This three-part blog series explores lessons learned from his visit, particularly parallels between Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin rehabilitation and FoEME’s efforts to rehabilitate the Lower Jordan River.
On a family visit to Australia in 2010 I heard about a new book entitled The River. “It’s all about the Murray Darling Basin and the great changes taking place [there],” I was told. “Maybe there are lessons here for the River Jordan.”
The next day I purchased a copy, and by the end of the day had read it cover to cover. I loved the style; a travelogue, telling the story of the basin’s demise through the eyes of people living along its banks. The story reminded me of my own countless journeys down the River Jordan.
The similarities were indeed stark: natural waterways whose flow had been captured by dams, diversions and irrigation canals.
Making the desert bloom was the motto in Australia as well, and in both places it was carried out in the spirit of man conquering nature – with no concern for environmental consequences and nothing left for natural systems.
What lifted my spirits however was that the author, Chris Hammer, documented the change in mindset in Australia and how the public had come around to understand that the demise of the Murray Darling Basin was both unacceptable and unnecessary.
The Australian Federal Government had intervened, and with carrot and stick enticed the all-powerful states of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia to accept a new balance with nature.
The Water Act of 2007 that later created the Murray Darling Basin Authority reversed the spirit of the river’s function, setting diversion limits for the first time based on sustainable use and the needs of a healthy ecosystem in a manner seeking to optimize economic and other social interests.
The Australian model reflected real political will that we at Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) are still trying to create for the lower Jordan River. Years of advocacy efforts in the region have led to sewage being removed from the river, a first commitment for a limited fresh water release and a FoEME-led master plan being launched recently. But FoEME’s rehabilitation call is still generally seen as unrealistic and unachievable due to water scarcity and the national conflicts over water.
When I wrote to Chris Hammer inquiring as to whether he would come to the region and be willing to speak before Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian decision makers about the political will created in Australia, a land of water scarcity and water conflict between states, he immediately responded with a “yes, I’ll do it.” With the support of the Australian Government through her embassies in Tel Aviv and Amman and the Representative Office in Ramallah, Chris has this week completed a set of round-table discussions with parliamentarians, government ministries, scientists and local NGOs in each city.
The political will created in Australia for water policy reform is clearly not directly transferable to the Middle East but there are clear lessons from the experience that can be useful. The use of scientific method to determine sustainable take, the stick and carrot approach that the international community can offer through new investments in water infrastructure, the creation of water markets to further increase efficiencies and principles of localism where, though targets are set basin-wide, implementation of reforms are determined at the community level. These lessons and more can be drawn from the Australian experience and are relevant to the lower Jordan Basin.
While typical skepticism remains, clear statements were made during the round-tables in Amman, Tel Aviv and Ramallah that each side would be willing to join the effort of river rehabilitation if only they had a partner on the other side. Some would say a lack of trust remains the greatest hurdle to political will. At FoEME we have come to understand that the lack of trust is being used as a political excuse for delay and inaction and that as in Australia, when the public outcry is loud enough, politicians will follow suit.