Perhaps Israel should change its national anthem from “Hatikvah” to “Dayenu.” For the Jewish State, so dependent on the support of powerful allies, a song that expresses thanks and delight for every new blessing seems more appropriate than a patriotic, historical, sentimental national anthem.
But the Middle East is fast becoming an environmental disaster area, and they’re all running out of water and arable land.
Israel’s list includes forest fire residues, a polluted Haifa harbor, air pollution from automotive, maritime and air traffic, and a 92 percent reliance on fossil fuels for energy. Israel is a net food importer for its growing population, and it burns oil to desalinate the Mediterranean, pump out the Jordan River and Lake Kineret, and suck the last drops of non-renewable water from its natural aquifers.
But wait! There’s more. Surrounding Middle East countries feature autocratic governments, unhealthy economies, high unemployment, and:
• Industrial, agricultural, and urban environmental toxins pollute Lebanon’s air, water and land. Overgrazing and overcultivation are eroding topsoil fast, and it’s still cleaning up from the 2006 war — cluster bombs on farmland, water and sewage system damage, toxic waste from bomb damage and industrial facility fires. And bored Hezbollah soldiers use migrating bird flocks for target practice;
• In Jordan, environmental problems became serious in the 1970s, as it modernized and urbanized, absorbed influxes of refugees, and its population burgeoned. Now, it’s dealing with deforestation and agricultural erosion, air, land and water pollution;
• Syria’s agriculturally disastrous drought is driving refugees from farms to cities. Deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, and desertification are also problems, and dumping of raw sewage and petroleum-refining waste are polluting their water;
• Palestinian Authority and Israeli administrators contend over managing sewage and solid waste, scarce water and land. Israelis continue clearing away Palestinian orchards and farms for settlements, where houses often feature water-devouring lawns and, sometimes, swimming pools. Palestinian houses are designed more for the environment, with flat roofs for harvesting rainwater, and backyard garden plots. Israelis are also trucking out West Bank rock for Israel construction projects;
• Gaza is challenged with sewage and solid waste management, war debris cleanup, desertification, brackish fresh water, depletion and contamination of underground water resources, water-borne diseases, and soil degradation;
• Egypt, with low literacy and high birthrates, has created terrible air pollution over Cairo and Alexandria. It’s losing arable land to development, desert wind erosion, overcultivation and heavy uses of agricultural chemicals. Expanded desert area irrigation has increased soil salinity, and helped spread waterborne diseases. And oil pollution, raw sewage, and industrial effluent dumping threaten beaches, coral reefs, wildlife habitats and potable water supplies.
Given these deadly, common challenges, and if only because misery loves company, one might expect Middle Eastern parties to find ways they could work together, to stabilize the worst situations, mitigate damage and start restoring their environments. Yes, small, promising, individual and cooperative efforts are underway in every country, but historical, political, tribal and ideological animosities trump them. Externally, Israel’s top priorities are survival and secure borders. Internally, secular vs. religious factions vie for Israel’s soul. Outside Israel, secular vs. religious Arab factions fight over the same things — who will set each government’s agenda, philosophy and laws. All parties seem to agree on two things:
1. Annoyance with environmental problems, and
2. Disdain for peace negotiators.
The two main factors on which they should agree, however, are those which historians have found to torpedo every empire since ancient Egypt: Failure to manage water, topsoil and food supply, and creation of severe disparities in wealth and society.
In environmental business terms, these are failures to manage the “triple bottom line” — economics, environment and social equity. It’s ironic to see 21st-century people in Judaism’s birthplace repeat 4,500-year-old mistakes — and know they see us making the same ones in the New World.
At least (“Dayenu!”) they’re apprised of this situation, can assess its elements, and start taking corrective action. We can also be thankful for the progress locals are making: The Jordan-Israel Water Agreement, international environmental conferences, work by international organizations from the Heinrich Boell Foundation to Greenpeace, and Israeli initiatives from its Environment Ministry and myriad environmental organizations, from SPNI to the Ben Gurion Solar Center (http://jew.sh/rqPr).
Would restoring the environment bring peace to the Middle East? Who knows? At the least, it could enable all parties to survive long enough to work things out. Dayenu!