To celebrate Earth Day, Good Water Neighbor trustees and alumni from the Kishon Basin came together at the Kishon Park in Haifa on April 25th to bring awareness to the pollution of its very waters and, organized by “Green Course” and other environmental NGO’s. EcoPeace’s mission was to bring awareness to the upper part of the river, an area that ultimately goes unnoticed and unattended to.
The Kishon is known by many for its industrial pollution downstream so it is worth noting the significance of having access to a green park near both the Haifa port and Marina. The bustling stream of residents constantly funneling onto the banks for their family BBQs to celebrate the holiday off gave a more bona fide purpose and feeling to the experience of Earth Day and our mission.
The residents of this area suffer from contaminated groundwater that is damaging the ecosystem and creating a noxious odor. These issues are spurred by low quality treated wastewater, untreated sewage, and agricultural runoff that ultimately flow downstream invariably affecting residents of both Israeli and Palestinian communities that share water from this same basin within the mountain aquifer.
Alona Rosenfeld, community coordinator of the Kishon Basin, stood as our chief advocate that day to engage with the community. As a fairly new intern to Ecopeace, I wanted to take advantage of being able to speak to someone who actually serves as boots on the ground in these communities. After a day of real conversation with the residents of a community whose health and environmental safety is at the whim of industry actions, she offered me an insightful reflection about both the work being done to raise awareness for the rehabilitation of the upper part of the river and her experience with the youth of our communities.
What is the importance of the geographical focus on the upstream part of the Kishon? How underexposed do you think the issues surrounding this part are?
The common people don’t know where the Kishon starts; they just know where it ends. They are not aware that it starts in Jenin and think it’s [origin is] in Israel. They think that the border between Israel and the West Bank, which is near Ram-On – a small village in Gilboa Regional Council – is very remote and far away but in actuality it’s really very close. The people who live there know it starts there, but the people in Haifa aren’t aware. We have to raise the awareness of where the river’s origins lie, emphasizing the closeness of its communities in Israel to the communities at its origins in the Palestinian Authority.
What are the most significant threats to the future vitality of the Upper Kishon River?
Sewage. This morning I got news of approval to build a power station that will supply electricity to operate the Jenin wastewater treatment plant. This would help to mitigate a huge amount of the problems of pollution because sewage currently spills from Jenin into the Kishon and we are left in communities downstream to treat the contaminated water. There is an additional wastewater treatment plant in Ram-On, which is new but non-operable. When that comes online as well then there exists quite a solution to the problem of dumped wastewater into the Kishon [with its consequential] hazards. Although because dumping is on the decline, the sanitation of the Kishon water is being hugely improved. It has been more than a year since the Kishon drainage authority [began] cleaning the downstream section and it should be another six to eight months before they finish.”
What do you hope to get across to the public by participating in these community events that engage with the community and their youth?
First, when we deal with youth we want to communicate to them how close we are to our neighbors and how dependent each side is on the other. Currently, Palestinians are dependent on the electricity that we sell them [for their waste water treatment plant] and we, in turn, are dependent on the water [treated from their plant that flows downstream]. Each side has a mutual interest. What I hope people come to understand is that we can negotiate around this and that we have not only a self-interest but a mutual one to preserve the water resources that we have; it is not solely ours nor is it solely theirs. It is a mutual resource that everyone from every side has an interest in.
Second, youth tend to think about the other side as their enemies. And I always tell them that they are actually very similar to the youth from the other side with many of the same interests. I want them to see the other side as real people rather than as enemies. When they meet one another they witness it with their own eyes and see that these youth are not very much different from them. They start talking to one another and start working with one another. And for me, it is always very exhilarating to see how good of an impact it makes to meet people and to have eye contact and to get something that neither the politicians nor the pictures in the media can give them. I want them to really understand that it’s good for everyone to live in peace and to not see each other as the media tries to portray each of them to one another. Once they meet and come into contact they can learn things that they wouldn’t have known without meeting face to face. And the environment gives that opportunity to do just that.
How do you feel about having alumni of your Good Water Neighbors program come to these community events to now talk to the public themselves as ambassadors?
It’s wonderful. It’s a great opportunity to get them to talk to the community. When you hear the youth speak you tend to believe them. They speak from their hearts and experience. And it’s very vivid. If they had a good experience then they’ll be enthusiastic and appreciative about it. So I prefer that they speak. Today they did great. They weren’t shy. They were very friendly to the public, to both the adults and children. They had no inhibitions. Some of them are very self-confident and can really do a great job being Ecopeace ambassadors. I think they can express themselves very well.
However, usually the youth who join with the activity are the best youth; the elite of the youth. But I want to reach not only them (the cream of the crop). I personally would like to get to the youth who don’t have the opportunities because of education and socioeconomic status who usually come from homes who – as a major generalization – tend towards the right win and wouldn’t want to live near them [Arabs]. This is a great challenge. Not to come to people who are already peace oriented. But to come to people who believe less in [working or coexistence with] Arabs and Palestinians and in their ability to talk to them, not to mention peace with them. I’d like to have them meet Palestinians and Jordanian youth.
The type of energy that Alona exudes in her work with the community is the type that is going to push along the frequently daunting but integral process of grassroots advocacy of environmental awareness. The implications of pollution are immediate and mounting. However, the acknowledgment of mutual interest in prevention of such pollution of our shared water resource and removal of threats to public health can and has served as an opportunity for cross border pollution control and grounds for further cooperation.
Brooke Penney is an intern at EcoPeace Tel Aviv office and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University.