Auja EcoCenter is a multi-purpose facility operated by EcoPeace Middle East, a tri-lateral organisation that promotes environmental peacemaking in the Jordan Valley. The Center provides free environmental education to students from kindergarten to university age. The programmes aim to raise awareness of the valley’s environmental issues and promote a practical understanding of water conservation, renewable energy, and recycling; with various stations located around the facility that explain the importance of practices such as composting, the application of organic fertilisers and use of grey water. In addition, the Center operates nature walks and guided visits of the surrounding area that generate revenue and sustain itself financially. The Center employs local residents, promoting sustainable tourism as an alternative income for the areas residents who mostly rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
Al-Auja is a small town of approximately 4,000 inhabitants in the Jericho governorate, in eastern West Bank. Agriculture is the main economic activity of the people of the region (25%), aside from those who are absorbed into the Israeli labour market (60%). The decline in water availability has restricted employment prospects in agriculture, exacerbating the transition of the labour market to local Israeli settlements.
The scale of environmental degradation in the wider Jordan Valley is severe. Most alarming is the period in which the flow of the Jordan River and groundwater resources have deteriorated due to unsustainable levels of extraction and pollution. Between 1946 and 1964, several infrastructure projects in the upper Jordan River regulated its flow to a point where 98% if the historical flow is now diverted. Over extraction and deteriorating quality of the region’s groundwater has left the main water supply highly vulnerable.
The nearby Auja Spring is one of two main aquifer systems in the area. The spring has a high temporal variability, and when running is one of the main sources of water for agricultural use in the area. The spring is dependent on rainfall and during periods of low rainfall, the amount of discharge decreases. Whereas once the discharge could be relied upon throughout the year, it now frequently dries out for extended periods of time. It is estimated that 14 GL were available for local use annually; however, this figure has deteriorated to approximately 2 GL in only the past 25 years. According to local residents, flow is now typically only available for 4-5 months per year. When the spring dries out, locals are dependent on sourcing water from the local municipality. When this water is no longer available, the remaining option is to purchase the water from the national water company of Israel, Mekorot, for up to 20 Israeli new shekels (equivalent to A$7.00) for 1,000 L.
The foremost reason for over extraction and degradation of Auja Spring is unsustainable levels of withdrawal. There is some commentary that this is predominately due to Mekorot withdrawing substantial amounts of water and diverting it to the area’s Israeli. However, it has been suggested that due to the complex nature of groundwater’s geological layout, and the prevailing discourse that Israel is the sole cause for the region’s declining water resources, Mekerot’s actions cannot alone explain the level of over extraction. One of the more pertinent issues is Israel’s total control of water resources, with Palestinians forbidden from constructing new wells, restoring existing ones, or having to pass through a number of institutional barriers to develop alternative sources of water, especially in Area C (1).
Mohanad leads nature hikes from the Center. He recalls a time when the valley was covered with thick vegetation, abundant wildlife and a constant water supply. He recalls one day in 2014 when Auja Spring uncharacteristically began to flow in the middle of summer because one of the Israeli-controlled aquifers in the area was shut down for maintenance for ten days. On the eleventh day, the aquifer was back in operation and ten hours later, Auja Spring became dry. In just 15 years he has seen the number of residents employed in the agricultural sector decrease from around 100% to about 20%. Stories of sudden environmental decline and the economic repercussions are often repeated by residents.
There is limited local environmental awareness and a poor attitude towards water conservation, reinforced by lack of regulation and enforcement to deter poor environmental practices. Through my personal observations and discussions with the Center’s staff, it is common for residents to dispose of trash in the streets and use water wastefully. For these residents, the main issue of water availability is that it is being ‘stolen’ by Israel. They feel justified to use their water resources as they wish, whether it be for drinking, or to dampen the walkway outside their shops.
The Center struggles to integrate local citizens into its programmes and initiatives, as many residents view the Center with distrust. This is due to EcoPeace Middle East’s trilateral structure that includes Israeli participation. There is a common belief that supporting the Center reinforces ‘normalisation’ (2) of the occupation.
According to local employees of the Center, there has been a history of cooperation over natural resources in the Auja area. Under Ottoman Palestine, water was considered a communal resource and within this framework the area’s main families would divide water access rights equally based on rotating daily usage. It is difficult to fully understand the existing local tensions over water between residents due to the prevailing discourse that all water related concerns are caused by the Palestinian Authority or Israel. However, there is some indication that minor conflict over water theft has occurred between Auja’s residents and the local Bedouin communities, who reside in the rural areas surrounding the village. These conflicts are understood to have been resolved quickly and amicably. The West Bank’s long history of decentralised political control has made it difficult for towns like Al-Auja to integrate with centralised water management, both with Israel and the Palestinian Water Authority
1. Under the Oslo II Agreement, the West Bank was divided into three different zones Area A, in which the Palestinian Authority has ‘full autonomy’; Area B, in which the Palestinian Authority has responsibility for civil affairs, but Israel retains security control; and Area C (60% of the West Bank), in which Israel has full civil and security control. Israel’s control of water resources is not limited to Area C, with the Center’s staff citing times when Israeli Defence Forces have interfered with wells on private property in Area A.
2. Normalisation refers to the social taboo of maintaining cordial relations with Israelis under the current occupation.
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