For millennia the Holy Land has attracted pilgrims from all corners of the Earth, devoutly following in the footsteps of Abraham and the patriarchs of all three major religions. We too were on a pilgrimage, not a spiritual one but no less sacred. We were to trace the flow of polluted waters down from the Hebron Stream, through the Negev desert, and into the ancient port of Gaza, an environmental mission.
It was a punishingly hot day in July, not the ideal time of year to be peering into an open valley festering with the untreated sewage of 300,000 people. The stench was overwhelming, toxic, the sort of smell you never forget. We were just south of Hebron, in the West Bank, where the stream begins its descent. I use the term 'stream' loosely; this is no babbling brook, an oozing trickle of brown liquid slick with raw sewage and industrial toxins. It splutters past smaller Palestinian towns and villages, metres away from drinking wells and agricultural smallholdings. In summer it completely absorbs into the earth, infecting the water table, a primary drinking water source for Palestinians and Israelis. In winter it floods onwards to join Wadi Gaza where it meets the already fetid Gazan groundwater and arrives, an unceremonious underwater mushroom cloud, at the Mediterranean Sea.
We visit the site of a planned sewage treatment plant funded by foreign investors, progress is slow, 'the war', our guide from the water authority explains. Huge storks circle overhead like vultures, they're looking for water, just like us. The storks are a dwindling reminder of a once teeming ecosystem. The basin of the mighty River Jordan and it's little sister the Hebron stream, has always been a crucial stopover for entire species' of birds, 500million of them a year. Historically an oasis of insects, desert shade and freshwater this narrow corridor offered the only respite from a gruelling annual odyssey between Northern and Southern hemisphere.
We head south following the stream, accompanied by the unrelenting stench. I've gone from cauliflower green to a sallow shade of Shrek and I'm beginning to wonder if I might actually throw up. Along the way we make several stops. We meet with Palestinian and Israeli officials, Jewish and Arab residents and youth from local schools. They all understand that as long as water issues are held hostage to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict they will continue to pay a heavy price in health, environment and economy.
The Mayor of Eshkol, an Israeli community close to the border with Gaza, greets us warmly as we arrive at his kibbutz. He struggles with his crutches, still adapting to the loss of both his legs to a rocket in the war ten months ago. The same rocket killed his two best friends. He can't stay long; he's on his way to Jerusalem to petition the prime minister for better living conditions in Gaza, starting with water. The older residents of Eshkol remain in touch with their friends in Gaza, their neighbours; they remember when they would visit Gaza as a bustling market town. The mayor tells us that their destinies are bound together; there can be no peace, no security and no future for his community as long as Gaza is left to rot.
Gaza's water crisis is well documented, although most people are fuzzy on the details. 1.8million people rely almost exclusively on water deemed unfit for human consumption by the WHO. A diseased fresh water table, crippled with upstream and local sewage and infiltrated by seawater presents an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Blue baby syndrome, cholera and typhoid, all plagues of biblical proportion, wait silently in the wings.
And yet here, in this most intractable region, on this mother of all issues, there is hope. Just last month Israel completed a new pipeline and agreed to double the amount of water they would sell to Gaza, it took 20 years of diplomacy; it could have taken a month. As a world leader in water technology, Israel now boasts a surplus of desalinated water; they could quadruple the flow to Gaza in a matter of hours using existing pipelines, taking it from 5mcm to 20, the immediate need is 50. With basic new pipelines they could effortlessly provide all the water Gaza needs, the World Bank has even pledged to pay for it. Within Gaza desalination plants sit idle, unable to operate due to intermittent electricity, the same applies to sewage treatment. World Bank plans to build a new desalination plant, big enough for the whole Gaza strip, are on hold over questions of whether there's sufficient electricity to operate it. Israel could solve much of this tomorrow with existing infrastructure, while simultaneously alleviating the nightmare of planning days around power cuts. Water is one of the five central points in the peace process, along with Jerusalem, settlements/borders, security and refugees and yet it could be solved immediately, painlessly, and must be, urgently.
Gaza is our final destination, we bid farewell to our Israeli companions and file through the huge steel bunker that squats on Israel's side of the Erez crossing. We must go alone, Israelis cannot enter here and Palestinians cannot exit. I naively ask the young girl at the checkpoint what we do on the other side, she looks at me blankly, 'I don't know, I've never been.' I could write page after page on my 24 hours in Gaza, an embattled yet magical place, noble and proud in the face of extreme, unacceptable suffering. I wept at the devastation but also laughed with the brilliant, funny, brave people I met. The humour is a lot like Israelis', dark, matter of fact, my favourite sort. It's not surprising really; both nations were born into war, frontline living, shoulder to shoulder with death; humour helps them cope. Coping is what they do in Gaza.
I leave the region with all the usual feelings, heavy feelings, the same ones people much brighter and more eloquent than me have described through the years. I just have one small, unfurling seed of optimism; knowing that if water could be disentangled from the war, it presents a genuine opportunity for co-operation and relationship building between neighbours. In all the gloom there is a glimmer of hope and it's right there, in the water.
Kate Rothschild, 32 from London, serves on the International Advisory Committee of EcoPeace Middle East. A regional environmental organization focused on solving the Middle East's water crises and advancing Middle East peace
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