Transboundary Environmental Peacebuilding and Sustainable Development in the MENA

Recent years have made painfully clear some of the negative effects of climate change, which, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on August 9th 2021, is widespread, rapid, and intensifying.  The reality of the COVID-19 global pandemic has highlighted – and exacerbated – the environmental degradation we humans have caused the planet, and the extreme disparities across and within countries. This is clearly notable throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The severe water shortage in many parts of the region is both a source and a result of ongoing conflicts. The lack of sustainable farming opportunities and sources of livelihood is yet another challenge. Along with global warming, these create an existential threat to many.

Tackling environmental challenges requires cross-boundary cooperation. While different countries or parts of the MENA may face particular challenges, there are issues that concern multiple communities throughout the region (and, in some cases, the world). Moreover, the only way to successfully tackle environmental challenges is for communities to join forces.

This project comes at an opportune political moment, where meaningful cooperation between Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Morocco, and the UAE is not only possible – but is highly desirable by and beneficial to all parties. The Abrahamic Accords between Israel and the UAE, and the Normalization Agreement between Israel and Morocco provide great incentives for cooperation on environmental and sustainability issues between Israelis, Palestinians, Moroccans, and Emiratis. More specifically, while Palestinians often feel/are sidelined by agreements between Israel and others in the region, this is an excellent opportunity for them to experience tangible dividends from such agreements, and to strengthen Israeli-Palestinian cooperation within a broader context of peacebuilding.

True peace – whether between or within countries – requires more than formal agreements or top-level policies. It entails the safety, security, and wellbeing of the societies involved. Sustainability is at the core of peace. Sustainable environmental peacebuilding rests on the premise that the environment knows no political boundaries, and that cooperation between societies and nations in conflict zones offers a platform for ongoing intercultural dialogue, enabling trust-building and fostering the establishment of cross-border societal linkages, thereby advancing peace.

Several organizations and projects in the MENA are already engaged in intercommunal cooperation and relationship building, and the recently signed agreements offer the opportunity for these organizations to further share experiences and knowledge, to build additional cross-country and intercommunal relations, and to enhance the work already being done. Importantly, these organizations’ endeavors exemplify the inextricable link between sustainable development and sustainable peace, and the achievable, tangible results of such work. In addition to principles such as inclusiveness, representation, empowerment, capacity building, and environmental preservation, at its core sustainable peacebuilding values life and aims to enhance the quality of life. Adopting these principles and replicating them in a broader context will ensure both prosperity and peace for present and future generations.

             

Meeting the Needs of the Present and Securing the Future

Sustainable Development, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It has four intertwined and mutually dependent dimensions, including society, environment, culture, and economy. Sustainability is a paradigm for thinking about the future in which environmental, societal, and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of an improved quality of life. Sustainability can be thought of as a long-term goal, while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable consumption and production are all issues at the heart of sustainability.

Environmental peacebuilding, an emerging field in both academic and practitioner circles, is “the process through which environmental challenges shared by the (former) parties to a violent conflict are turned into opportunities to build lasting cooperation and peace.” The field blends observations regarding communal use of and access to natural resources, with insights about how this resource use relates to communal conflict as well as communities’ standards of living. The field draws on various academic disciplines, and incorporates principles of conflict resolution and sustainable peacebuilding.

In the MENA region, as in the world at large, there is a growing awareness of the critical importance of environmental considerations and sustainable development. Numerous initiatives exist throughout the region tackling issues such as water scarcity, renewable energy, and sustainable farming. In some instances, these are government sponsored; in many other cases, they originate from civil society non-governmental organizations. The latter, while working from “below”, usually work simultaneously on achieving cooperation from “above” (governmental and international organizations). Many of these initiatives include cultural and communal/intercommunal dimensions, and some include intercommunal and cross-boundary cooperation. 

The project engages Israeli, Palestinian, Emirati, and Moroccan societies (hopefully to be joined by others later on), with a country director in each. Several organizations in Israel (including Palestinian and often Jordanian partners), the UAE, and Morocco are actively engaged in groundbreaking environmental peacebuilding and sustainable development work, defying what often seem to be insurmountable challenges. These organizations and individuals have been working tirelessly for years towards sustainable development goals and the improvement of lives of individuals and communities in the region, and their work has not waned even during these trying times. Israeli, Palestinian, Moroccan, and Emirati societies have a great deal to teach and learn from one another, and the fruitful partnership between them that this project will engender will set an important precedent and offer great opportunities to the broader region.

Each of the societies faces environmental challenges, and at the same time suffers from various internal schisms and conflicts. These include issues of marginalization of certain groups, gender relations, and interfaith and intercommunal relations.

In both Morocco and Israel/Palestine, Jews and Muslims have lived alongside one another for centuries with varying degrees of conflict and peaceful coexistence. In Morocco, Jews have lived uninterruptedly for more than 2000 years. The largest Jewish community in the Arab/Muslim world is in Morocco, and the second largest Moroccan diaspora in the world (after France) lives in Israel. Millenia-old Jewish-Muslim relations in Morocco, while not perfect, offer many important positive precedents from which Israelis, Palestinians, and Emiratis can learn. Likewise, Moroccans and Emiratis will discover that despite the often-grim headlines and realities, there are illuminating examples of interfaith and intercommunal relations in Israel/Palestine. The UAE, even before the signing of the Abrahamic Accords, had been making strides in the area of interfaith relations.

Importantly, another field in which all four countries/entities share common ground is that of sustainable development: in all countries there exist innovative endeavors which tackle the issue of sustainable development holistically, working to empower marginalized communities (and particularly women and youth), preserve cultural heritage, build cross-boundary/intercommunal relations, and take care of the environment. In all countries there is an emphasis on renewable energy and increasing the availability and quality of drinking water, particularly in marginalized communities. All have projects to desalinate sea water and/or to reuse wastewater. 

Renewable energy creates about 35% of the Morocco’s electricity needs; Morocco aims to be at 50% renewable energy (for electricity needs) by 2030, and to reach 100% renewables by 2050. Morocco is among 47 countries to carry out a 2020 Voluntary National Review regarding the country’s progress toward the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals website, Morocco has made significant investments and efforts toward the country’s successful development. It has mobilized a third of its GDP to fight poverty, social inequality, and climate change while enhancing its natural resources. 

The UAE’s Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure unveiled, back in 2017, its Water Security Strategy 2036, which aims to ensure sustainable access to water. The UAE has also been working for years to develop renewable energy sources. Israel’s Ministry for the Protection of the Environment defines environmental issues as a matter of national security, and emphasizes the importance of youth as environmental agents of change. Palestinians, whose situation is worsened by prolonged conflict with Israel, have long been engaged in environmental protection. Organizations such as EcoPeace and Arava Institute work on Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian cross boundary environmental peaebuilding and sustainable development.

Morocco, the UAE, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories are all mutually accessible, especially given the current political atmosphere and recent agreements. Considering the kinds of challenges all countries face, and their mutual interests regarding sustainable development – and sustainable peacebuilding – it is only logical that members of civil societies share knowledge and experience, learn from one another and, where possible, collaborate on issues of concern to all societies and the broader region. 

 

The program offers a unique opportunity for members of environmental peacebuilding and sustainable development organizations/communities in Israel, Palestine, the UAE, and Morocco to engage in joint learning, mutual experience- and knowledge-sharing, and collaboration on matters of common interest.