“The Murray-Darling River is confronted with high levels of salinity, its wetland ecosystems are endangered, its water is diverted and used inefficiently, especially in agriculture, and in some years, its waters do not reach the estuary. Does this sound familiar?” This is how Chris Hammer, an Australian journalist with 20 years of experience, author of the book The River, began his speech in Amman at the Australian’s ambassador’s residence. The crowds unanimously nodded. Invited by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), with the financial and logistic support of the Australian Embassy, Chris Hammer came to share his expertise concerning the Murray-Darling River system’s demise and ongoing Australian rehabilitation efforts. Hammer’s visit to the Middle East was an opportunity for FoEME to showcase the real possibility of before unprecedented extensive reform geared towards rehabilitating the Lower Jordan River, as well as the creation of momentum for reform among decision-makers on all sides.
The idea of inviting Chris Hammer to the Jordan Valley came from Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israeli Director. As he traveled through Australia, he was struck by the similarities between the challenges faced by those trying to save the Murray-Darling and those advocating for the Lower Jordan River.
The similarities between the two rivers are, first of all, historical: development of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) between 1914 to the 1960s occurred in a similar manner to the development of the Lower Jordan River in the 1960s-1980s. For both rivers, development included diversions, dams, and irrigation canals. No consideration was given to environmental flows: water take was heavily over-allocated and natural ecosystems were driven to a close collapse.
The comparison between the two ecosystems may seem far-fetched in terms of scale and political structure. The Murray-Darling River is located in one country, whereas the Lower Jordan River is situated in a conflict zone, shared by Jordan, Israel and Palestine. However, Australia is a federation of highly independent states, formerly separate entities, and the creation of a common Basin commission was a difficult, but significant, advancement in managing the trans-boundary river.
Those interested in rehabilitating the Lower Jordan River would benefit greatly from studying the Australian method of rehabilitating the Murray-Darling Basin. “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.” Gidon Bromberg noted in an op-ed piece recently published in the Jerusalem Post.
Finally, some have critiqued FoEME’s rehabilitation goal of returning flow levels to approximately a 1/3 of the river’s historic flow as unrealistic and unachievable due to water scarcity and the national (and international) conflicts over water in the region. Similarly, in the efforts to rehabilitate the MDB, there were voices that said the Australian goal of returning 50% of the river’s historic flow was too ambitious; others said that goal was not ambitious enough. In both cases, using scientific studies can help decision-makers strike a fair balance between the competing needs of nature and of people.
As Gidon Bromberg states, “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.”