Israel Environment Bulletin Winter 1995-5755, Vol. 18, No. 1

THE MULTILATERAL TRACK

Of the five subjects chosen for deliberation within the framework of the multilateral peace talkswater, economic development, arms control, refugee rehabilitation and environmentthe latter may well have the greatest potential to fulfill the objectives of the talks, namely, the creation of confidence-building measures among the parties. The underlying reasons for this are clear:

  • Pollution knows no political borders. The trend today is to create global or regional frameworks for environmental cooperation. International experience in drafting and implementing conventions for the prevention of transboundary pollution can be applied to the Middle East as well.
  • Sustainable development ranks high on the global agenda and the search for solutions to environmental problems is of major concern both globally and regionally. Public and political awareness of the subject is on a rise. Middle Eastern states now recognize that the receipt of development aid from the West is largely contingent on environmental protection measures.
  • Environmental cooperation can be developed gradually, in stages, without immediate recourse to binding treaties. Cooperation can move from joint research to the setting of guidelines for development to the creation of common organizational frameworks and the signing of environmental conventions that are then reflected in national legislation.
  • Among the issues raised at the multilateral peace talks, the environment is the least controversial. Environmental quality elicits few conflicts and serves common objectives of environmental improvement and pollution prevention. Generally, it does not deal with territorial problems, does not touch upon issues of national sovereignty, and does not involve competition over scarce resources. It does, on the other hand, serve objectives which elicit almost complete consensus of opinion and which are designed to bestow common benefits and prevent mutual damage.
  • A basis for environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors has been in existence for over 15 years within the framework of the Mediterranean Action Plan. In addition, meetings between Israeli and Arab scientists have taken place over the past decade in various research frameworks.

    The Working Group on the Environment

    Under the chairmanship of Japan, co-sponsorship of the USA and Russia, and co-organization of the European Union, the Working Group on the Environment already has several achievements to its credit. Some 40 delegations as well as representatives of the United Nations and the World Bank have convened six times over the past two and a half yearsin Tokyo, the Hague, Cairo and Bahrain to identify common problems and search together for common solutions.

    Potential areas for cooperation have largely been identified according to the following criteria:

  • High priority subjects which are common to all regional parties, such as sewage and solid waste treatment. Special emphasis is accorded to professional capacity building for all parties involved, and particularly the Palestinians.
  • Environmental problems with transboundary impact, such as air or marine pollution.
  • Subjects which are better served by regional cooperation than by individual national action. This is especially important in managing resources shared by several countries, such as the Gulf of Eilat.
  • Realms in which joint action can complement and advance the development plans of individual states.

    During the course of both formal sessions of the Working Group on the Environment and intersessional meetings, several subjects were identified for cooperation, including marine pollution control, desertification, coastal management, waste treatment, sewage treatment, environmental impact assessment, environmental education and environmental monitoring. Of these, several have already been developed into concrete regional projects, specifically emergency treatment of oil pollution in the upper Gulf of Aqaba, regional cooperation in combating desertification and an environmental code of conduct for the Middle East.

    Upper Gulf of Aqaba Oil Spill Contingency Project

    The Gulf of Aqaba boasts unique landscape and ecological assets, both in the marine environment (coral reefs) and on land (desert landscapes). The region’s temperate climate, spectacular coral reefs and breathtaking vistas attract tourists and nature lovers from all over the world. Yet, this ecologically fragile region is endangered by intensive development and industrial activity. Aqaba serves as Jordan’s only outlet into the sea and Eilat as Israel’s gateway to the East. Both ports handle such cargoes as fuel, phosphates and other chemicals. Accidental oil or chemical spills are liable to cause major damage to the unique marine environment and, consequently, to the burgeoning tourism industry as well. The threat is especially severe since the major development plans for the regionin Israel, Jordan and Egyptare largely based on tourist development.

    Recognition of the need to organize regionally to prevent marine pollution as a result of accidents or mishaps and to deal quickly and efficiently with such pollution when it occurs dates back to the early days of the multilateral peace talks on the environment. Since the Tokyo meeting of May 1992, the parties have recognized that the sensitivity of the region, the risk of spills, and the inadequate combat capabilities make the need for oil spill contingency arrangements in the upper Gulf of Aqaba mandatory.

    Today, the protection of the Gulf of Aqaba’s fragile ecosystem is no longer a mere dream. With the aid of the European Union, which has spearheaded the Aqaba project, an expert team from Israel, Jordan and Egypt, aided by a European consultancy company, has formulated a joint action program based on the establishment of three oil-spill combating centers. Each of the centersin Aqaba (Jordan), Eilat (Israel) and Nueiba

    (Egypt)will be adequately equipped to deal with small and medium-size oil spills (less than 200 tons). Together, the centers will cooperate to minimize damages in case of large-scale oil pollution.

    The project is envisioned as a four-phase plan. The preparatory stage, including formulation of the project and the principles of operation, was completed in October 1994. The second phase, dealing with the establishment of oil spill centers in the three areas is to be implemented during the course of 1995. The remaining two phases of the project will see the formulation and establishment of a regional contingency plan

    (based on national contingency plans) and the implementation and operation of the regional plan (through the procurement of additional equipment and related training and exercises).

    A project steering committee has been established which includes representatives of the three parties and the European Commission. In addition to guiding the establishment of the three centers, the steering committee will be used for mutual discussions among the parties on relevant issues, such as: ad hoc support between the centers in a spill situation, joint drills and exercises, notification and communication procedures between the parties, updating of sensitivity mapping, coastal developments which may relate to oil spill risks, research and studies on technical feasibility and environmental impact of the use of chemical dispersants, and preventive measures.

    It is envisaged that the oil spill centers will be operational in the beginning of 1996. Israel has already allocated half a million dollars for additional equipment in its existing pollution control and response center in Eilat while the European Union and Japan have committed themselves to establishing and equipping the oil spill centers in Aqaba and Nueiba.

    The parties are now ready to embark on early implementation of joint regional activities such as training, communication links and alert procedures, with the first training course scheduled for Eilat in April 1995. Indubitably the Upper Gulf of Aqaba Oil Spill Contingency Plan may well serve as a model for the formulation and implementation of other cooperative projects in the region. Israel now looks forward to the initiation of an integrated comprehensive plan for the sustainable development of the entire Gulf region with special emphasis on the prevention of environmental damages, guidelines for regional development, and research and monitoring of the Gulf ecosystem.

    Combating Desertification

    During the past 25 years, increased cultivation of marginal lands and poor management of rangelands have contributed to serious erosion problems and to the degradation of about 130 million hectares in the Middle East. About 35 percent of the region’s cultivated area experiences annual soil erosion of between 5 and 50 tons per hectare. Recognition of the need to address the problems of natural resource degradation and desertification is now emerging throughout the Middle East.

    Regional cooperation on combating desertification was first proposed by the Israeli delegation at the second meeting of the Working Group on the Environment convened in the Hague in October 1992. The proposal was endorsed by a majority of the participating states and, under the leadership of the World Bank, has steadily progressed toward implementation.

    Following a mission to the area, the World Bank submitted a proposal for collaboration to control natural resource degradation and desertification in the Middle East to the Cairo meeting of the Working Group on the Environment in November 1993. The proposal was subsequently approved in the April 1994 session in the Hague. The action plan calls for the establishment of five regional thematic centers in each of the participating sides: a center on germplasm adapted to arid conditions in Egypt; a center on recycled and brackish water use and management of water-degraded soils in Tunisia; a center on rangeland and livestock management in Jordan; a center on afforestation and orchards in Israel; and a Palestinian center for professional training in all these areas. For each theme, the focus will be on the application of existing research results and the adoption of cost effective and environmentally sustainable technologies. The approach will be holistic and will be based on collaborative networking focusing on information, training and technology sharing, identification of investment opportunities, and establishment of pilot projects in each area.

    At its most recent meeting in Bahrain in October 1994, the Working Group on the Environment endorsed the UN’s proposal to launch a subregional desertification project in the Arava Valley. Participants endorsed the idea that the Desertification Initiative could be the key subregional activity to launch the new United Nations Desertification Convention in this region.

    Israel, with its limited resources, has already pledged to support the Desertification Initiative, offering to share its experience with its neighbors, to conduct intersessional seminars and workshops, and to open its advanced desert research studies to students from all the participating countries. Such cooperation, utilizing the technology and experience accumulated in each of the countries, may not only help combat desertification but serve as a catalyst for cooperation on sustainable development in the entire region.

    Environmental Code of Conduct

    Perhaps the best illustration that the time is ripe for the establishment of cooperative frameworks for environmental protection in the Middle East is the Bahrain Environmental Code of Conduct. The code was first proposed by the Japanese delegation in May 1993; it became a reality in October 1994 when all 41 delegations to the Working Group on the Environment in Bahrainincluding Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeriaunanimously approved the code. In order to avoid protracted legal discussion, it was decided that the code of conduct would be binding morally, but not legally.

    The Bahrain Environmental Code of Conduct for the Middle East identifies the major environmental issues for regional cooperation and the means which are to be taken to ensure this cooperation. It sets common guidelines and norms which will govern the development policies of each state in a manner that will not adversely impact the environment of neighboring countries. It thus helps define the future direction of environmental programs and legislation and serves as a basis for research and scientific development.

    The code is meant to help all parties work together against the common threats to their quality of life and the environment dwindling resources, pollution, desertification, and rapid urban developmentwhile protecting the ecological uniqueness and ensuring the balanced and sustainable utilization of regional ground, water and air resources. It reflects the new spirit of determination to work together for a better environment at the dawn of what promises to be a new era of peace. (See p. .)

    On the Road to Further Cooperation

    The Upper Gulf of Aqaba Oil Spill Contingency Project, the Desertification Initiative and the recently-adopted Bahrain Environmental Code of Conduct for the Middle East clearly demonstrate that where there is shared interest and commitment by the regional parties, and where there is a devoted sponsor, concrete progress is achievable. Based on this positive experience, the parties to the Working Group on the Environment have fervently committed themselves to the advancement of additional priority subjects for cooperation within the context of intersessional meetings. Such joint seminars and workshops have proved vital for capacity building, know-how, training, and mutual understanding. They have made it possible for professionals from the region to meet and to discuss state-of-the-art technologies and methods for the protection and monitoring of the environment. They have served as effective forums for the exchange of information and experience and have created a common ground for future cooperation.

    A case in point is the Canadian initiative on environmental impact assessment (EIA). At the May 1993 meeting of the Multilateral Working Group on the Environment in Tokyo, Canada proposed the dispatch of a mission to review EIA needs and capabilities in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel and Egypt. The Canadian report, prepared following the visit of the Canadian delegation to the region, included several recommendations to the Working Group on the Environment, inter alia: creation of a Middle East Environmental Impact Assessment Forum; development of means to deal with transboundary issues in EIA; EIA training courses for senior administrators and practitioners focusing initially on water resource development, infrastructure and waste disposal projects; and development of EIA training expertise in the region.

    Within less than a year, some of the recommendations are already reaching the implementation stage. An EIA workshop was convened in Canada in June 1994, immediately following the International Association for Impact Assessment Conference. In November 1994, within the framework of the Multilateral Working Groups on Water Resources and on the Environment, an Environmental Impact Assessment Training Course was convened in Cairo with the participation of delegations from Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel and representatives from Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Its aim: to provide the necessary methodological and practical tools to those working on EIA systems.

    Environmental impact assessment has been in operation in Israel for more than twelve years and has proven itself as an essential tool for sound environmental management. As the Middle East enters an era of peace and rapid development, environmental impact assessment will become doubly important. In line with the Canadian initiative, Israel has proposed that the EIA recommendations be further strengthened to include the establishment of mechanisms for consultation, review and decision making on transboundary impacts; the incorporation of EIA into activities sponsored jointly by the parties in the region; the provision of guidance and assistance to the parties in establishing and operating EIA systems by means of an international network of expertise; and the development of adequate information technology to support EIA data needs including the use of satellite imagery and geographical information systems. Adequate institutional frameworks and professional capacity building are mandatory in order to ensure that development is carried out in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all people in the region.

    Lack of space precludes a detailed examination of the many subjects currently on the agenda for future cooperation in such areas as sewage treatment, solid waste management, environmental education, pesticide control, and environmental monitoring and measurement. Intersessional workshops and seminars have been sponsored by Japan, the USA, the European Union, the World Bank, Egypt, Canada, Italy and China in these and other subjects. For example, a June 1994 meeting of the Working Groups on Water Resources and the Environment witnessed a joint statement of the core parties of the Middle East multilateral peace process on sewage treatment for small communities. The operative sections of the statement relate to the establishment of guidelines for the Middle East in the field of sewage purification and reuse and the establishment of demonstration plants in specific sites to further study and examine the proper methods to be used for sewage purification and reuse. Another example relates to one of the newest initiatives in the field of environmental health and pesticide control. A USA- sponsored workshop, convened in Cairo in December 1994, brought together technical experts from the Middle East and the USA to discuss a proposal for a collaborative program of technical communications, health sciences research and training, and health evaluation of agricultural chemicals in the Middle East. The proposal aims to better define the extent of adverse effects on health in the Middle East region, promote the safe use of agricultural chemicals and assure effective pesticide management practices.

    Intersessional meetings have been instrumental in increasing the spirit of cooperation and advancing professional training and capability in various subjects which are of high priority to the Middle East. Hopefully, they will serve as stepping stones toward the implementation of concrete projects designed to bring about common solutions to shared environmental problems in the region. Hopefully, they will help ensure that the fragile natural resources of the Middle East are preserved for the benefit of both present and future generations.