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Water and Peace: LBJ School professor advances diplomacy in the Middle East through environmental policy

Before coming to The University of Texas at Austin, Palestinian Ibn Khaldoun* had never met an Israeli who wasn’t wearing a military uniform. Ongoing political tensions between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government have limited contact between Gaza residents and Israeli communities, located only miles away across the border. Despite the divisions, both Khaldoun and his Israeli neighbors rely on the Gaza aquifer for water, and it is clearly in the interests of both sides to protect this vital resource.

As part of an effort to improve the management of this and other resources in the region, Khaldoun was one of 13 Israeli and Palestinian water professionals who traveled to Texas to take part in a month-long citizen exchange hosted by the university and funded by the U.S. Department of State.

Professor David Eaton talks with Dr. Antonio Zavaleta, vice president for external affairs at The University of Texas at Brownsville
Professor David Eaton (left) talks with Dr. Antonio Zavaleta, vice president for external affairs at The University of Texas at Brownsville, on a field trip to the environs of Brownsville, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border. During field trips to South Texas, Israeli and Palestinian water professionals learned about ways the U.S. and Mexico jointly manage shared water resources.

Underscored by scarcity, water is a politically charged issue throughout the Middle East. Like many of the participants in the exchange program, Khaldoun was nervous and skeptical about working with water professionals from the other side. At the onset of the seminar, he kept his distance from the Israelis and avoided being photographed with them.

Over the course of the month-long program, a transformation took place. Conversations between the groups became familiar and personal rather than purely scientific. Relationships grew. Friendships emerged. Khaldoun began referring to the Israelis as his friends and brothers. What started as a seminar on wastewater management evolved into an exercise in diplomacy.

“Water is a tool for improving lives,” said LBJ School Professor David Eaton, who oversaw the exchange. “Resolving disputes to improve cross-boundary water management provides an avenue for dialogue and cooperation on a broader scale.”

With more than 25 years of experience in environmental engineering, policymaking and conflict resolution, Eaton has supported efforts to mediate water policy between some of the world's most contentious neighbors. From Israel and Palestine to India, Nepal and Bangladesh to the United States and Mexico, he has devised a number of strategies to bring stakeholders together, help them reconcile their interests and consider innovative ways they can jointly manage shared water resources.

According to Eaton, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to work constructively on cross-boundary water policy is a tremendous challenge, but nature compels them to do so.

Israel supplies water to both the West Bank and Gaza from its sources, which is an important part of the Palestinian water balance. Palestinians and Israelis rely heavily on shared groundwater in the mountain and coastal aquifers, and both sides face water supply shortages.

“If they want to ensure sufficient supply and quality of water, it is in their interests to cooperate,” said Eaton. “Both sides could very easily pollute the aquifers they share if they fail to work together.”

Map of water resources shared by the Palestinian Territories and Israel

Map of water resources shared by the Palestinian Territories and Israel.

View high-resolution map (opens in a new window).

Courtesy The Jerusalem Fund

The exchange between Israeli and Palestinian water professionals stemmed from an LBJ School policy research project titled “Provision of Water and Wastewater for Poor Communities: Nonprofit Organizations and the Environment.”

According to Tom Johnston of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which has funded this and past projects led by Eaton, initiatives like these enhance regional stability and community reconciliation.

“It is essential, even in the most difficult of circumstances, for people from communities in conflict to meet and to communicate,” said Johnston, “particularly about issues of crucial importance to the survival of their communities.”

The vast majority of Israeli and Palestinian participants agreed the experience had changed their attitudes and increased the likelihood that they would work on water issues with their new colleagues from the other side.

“I learned about the other side’s needs, fears and thoughts,” wrote one participant in his final evaluation of the program. “Being here gave me the opportunity to create a personal connection. I plan to stay in touch with a few group members and look for opportunities to develop these relations.”

Eaton credits the success of the program to graduate students Elizabeth Lien and Miriam Schafer, who are both pursuing dual master’s degrees in public affairs and Middle Eastern studies. 

The two were drawn to the project because of their interest in dispute resolution in the Middle East.

“Neither of them had prior experience with water management issues,” said Eaton. “Now they are practically experts.”

From recruiting participants to arranging logistics to designing the month-long curriculum on wastewater and water management, Lien and Schafer developed the project from start to finish.

“I’ve come to learn that water affects every political, diplomatic and social relationship between states and political parties in the Middle East,” said Lien.

Eaton’s past exchanges brought together high-level Israeli and Palestinian government officials and focused mainly on dispute resolution of cross-boundary water issues. Because of security concerns and political sensitivities, these events required a high level of secrecy and went unpublicized.

Shifting the focus to the future generation of leaders, this most recent exchange targeted young water professionals from Gaza, the West Bank and Israel who planned to spend their careers in the water sector.

“The point of having young professionals is that they don’t control anything, they have no power, they are not high up on the ladder,” said Schafer, who traveled to the Middle East to interview the exchange program candidates last summer.

Graduate students Elizabeth Lien and Miriam Schafer
Exchange program coordinators Elizabeth Lien (left) and Miriam Schafer will continue their focus on Middle East diplomacy and water policy. For her thesis on conflict resolution, Schafer will work with the same group of Israelis and Palestinians who participated in the exchange. Lien’s thesis deals with cooperation in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin between Syria and Iraq.

“They also tend to be more open to cooperating with their counterparts on the other side,” she said, “because they don't have as much institutional pressure not to. But in the future, when they do hold positions of power, they’ll look back on this experience and it will affect their decisions.”

Over the course of their month in Texas, the 13 Palestinians and Israelis engaged in a rigorous technical course on wastewater and water management, including design and construction, maintenance and the financial aspects of running a water utility. The program included several field trips to water facilities in Central Texas and along the border with Mexico.

A critical feature was the emphasis on cross-boundary water issues between the United States and Mexico. Looking at these issues from a different perspective allowed the participants to detach themselves from their conflict at home and talk constructively about solutions. The program culminated in late January with a public conference at the LBJ School, which brought together leading government officials and water policy experts to take a comparative look at cross-boundary water issues between Israel and the Palestinian territories and the United States and Mexico.

“The U.S.-Mexico element of the exchange was important because the dynamic is similar to their own,” said Schafer. “They can examine it and look for solutions to the water management problems without getting emotional.”

According to LBJ School diplomat-in-residence and Foreign Service Officer Florita Sheppard, helping Israelis and Palestinians move past ideology and engage in constructive dialogue is an important step forward.

“When you think about it as a taxpayer and as a Department of State employee,” she said, “the benefits of investing in a project like this represent enormous savings in the long run. It’s a way to make a fundamental difference in people’s lives.”

Working together constructively on cross-border water policy promises tangible benefits for both Palestinians and Israelis. For Eaton, the key is efficiency.

“The real villain is ineffective use of water by people who are not thinking in the long term about sustainable use,” said Eaton. “If Palestinians and Israelis just divide the water and fail to manage it efficiently there will not be enough water for people’s homes, farms and businesses, and the environment will suffer.”

According to Eaton, some headway has been made in the region along the West Bank border, where both parties have agreed to build a wastewater treatment plant. The plant will serve the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Tulkarem, but both sides of the border will reap the rewards.

Alexander River

Alexander River

Courtesy Israeli Ministry of Environment

Palestinian farmers will reuse the treated water to irrigate nearby olive plantations that stretch along the Alexander River. The use of clean water for irrigation will improve the river’s habitat, which suffers from pollution. Ecologically, this will benefit the Israeli city of Netanya, along the river downstream. Once the Alexander River restores its habitat and can be used for recreation, Netanya will be able to increase its draw as a tourist attraction. Overall, the region will benefit from an increase in water supply and an improvement in water quality.

Water is not just a security issue and a land issue, as Schafer said she came to realize after working on this project. It is also a humanitarian issue.

“If a child does not have access to clean, plentiful water, there can be serious consequences,” she said. “Children die because they don’t have clean water. If you can see children growing up healthier because they have clean water, that is a very tangible benefit. As long as children are suffering, it will be impossible for people to negotiate on other issues.”

The practical nature of the public affairs master’s program at the LBJ School has been a driving force behind Eaton’s work on cross-border water policy. Over the years, Eaton has led projects that have created unique hands-on opportunities for students to engage in dispute resolution and international diplomacy around the globe.

“By putting students in charge of design and management, they get the experience of operating as if they are professionals,” said Eaton. “When they get into the workforce, they can handle professional challenges because they have already done it.”

The work is demanding, but the payoff is high. Over the past three years alone, the U.S. Department of State has tapped four of Eaton’s LBJ School students as a result of their work on projects dealing with trans-boundary water issues. A number of others have gone on to work with agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations.

“The LBJ School is a training ground where young people who want to change the world are transformed into leaders,” said Eaton. “There is nothing theoretical about this work. It’s about solving problems.”

*Name has been changed for this story.

Megan Scarborough
LBJ School of Public Affairs

Photos: LBJ School

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  Updated 2007 October 8
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