Six blind men gathered around an elephant. Unsure of what it was, they individually went about investigating its shape with their hands. One touched its tusks and called out, “it's a spear!” Another felt its legs and exclaimed, “no, it’s a tree!” Another man felt its stomach and cried, “it’s a wall!” “No, it’s a carpet!” “But it’s a rope!” “None of you are right, it’s clearly a mountain!” The men bickered like this until the sun set and still nobody knew that the shape in front of them was an elephant.
Amy, the EcoPeace Education Coordinator from the from the Tel Aviv office, shared this story with participants during the Regional Teacher Seminar to illustrate how a lack of cooperation over water management hurts all parties involved. She explained that when communities on either side of the border claim that the problem with the Jordan River is just about the pollution on their side of the bank, or just about restricted access to their villages, or only about species loss in their area, they miss a crucial opportunity to see the bigger picture and inspire collective action.
Simply blaming one’s neighbors while turning a blind eye to one’s own mismanagement creates animosity, not solutions. It is only when communities from both sides of the border share and listen to each other's’ stories, that everyone can accurately grasp the issue at hand. They can then stand together to make lasting solutions that address the most pertinent problems in their communities.
Over 60 teachers from Jordan, Israel and Palestine gathered at the EcoPark in Jordan for three days of collaboration and learning in order to strengthen environmental education in the three countries. On the first day, teachers were assigned to work in groups by water basin area. They selected pictures that illustrated the significance of water in their lives and shared their personal stories. Participants held up photos of snow, children playing in water, and trash in the Jordan River. The translators listened intently so that they could translate every detail into Hebrew or Arabic. The importance of water transcends cultural, linguistic, and national borders.
In order to bring the discussion from a micro to a macro level, experts lectured on the current water realities in the three countries. In Palestine, polluted water and shortages are a persistent problem. Currently, 20,000 Palestinians are without access to clean water. In Jordan, the strain of an additional 4 million Syrian refugees on the water infrastructure increases the country’s already significant water deficit. Although Israel has avoided its water economy crises with the introduction of relatively inexpensive and efficient desalination plants, it is under the constant threat of climate change. The Dead Sea is shrinking at the rate of a meter per year and the once-great Jordan River has been reduced to a mere trickle.
After learning about the water realities in the three countries, the participants joined EcoPeace staff for a night of eating, singing, and dancing. A local musician played oud, a kind of Middle Eastern lute, while teachers and staff danced the dabke.
The next morning, EcoPeace experts led study sessions on hot button issues such as the Red Sea Dead Sea canal and the water situation in Gaza. EcoPeace uses a technical approach to address regional environmental challenges. By avoiding a political narrative, the technical approach creates space for collaboration and dialogue. Water issues can then also serve as “low hanging fruit” in order to begin cooperation and advance the peace process. However, this session was developed in order to give teachers a better understanding of the often highly politicized aspects of water issues. This will enable them to expose their students to all sides of the debate.
The third day called for collective problem-solving. Teachers from the three countries sat down side by side and drafted plans for how they would strengthen environmental education in their communities. Armed only with colored markers and butcher paper, the teachers created concrete strategies for sharing the information they had learned with their students.
I had the pleasure of speaking on a Good Water Neighbors Alumni panel with my fellow young colleagues from Jordan, Israel and Palestine. On my left, a student from Jordan, Saja Nashat, shared her experience working with EcoPeace as well as her message for teachers. She ended with with this poem, which she wrote when she was 9 years old:
Oh the lovely world you are the sea
I’ve always loved to swim and see
I’ve always loved to be one of your creatures
A fish, a whale or a ray flies through water
The most beautiful world the sea
Teachers have the ability to instill a sense of environmental stewardship and enthusiasm for nature in their students. In this way, this regional seminar has created dividends for environmental education. Teachers take back what they learned to their students, who will, in turn, share it with their parents and grandparents, who will share the information with their neighbors. In this way, a discussion that began at the EcoPark spreads within and between communities to transform how people think about the environment and their relationship to it.