||REGIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL COOPERATION|
| The Regional Environment in an Era of Peace
Yossi Sarid, Minister of the Environment
For us, the environmental community, peace is a special occasion for rejoicing because war and protection of the environment are two contradictory, mutually exclusive extremes. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) states that peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible. The unfolding peace process in our region may well be the first implementation of this principle. For the first time ever, environmental talks have served as confidence-building measures to promote normalized relations among nations. For the first time, the environment constitutes a stepping stone toward peace, a meeting ground among nations as they forge new paths toward peaceful coexistence.
New Hope for the Middle East Environment
The era of peace brings with it new hope for our environment. Peace offers an opportunity for the peoples of the region to redirect resources from security concerns to environmental projects and, in addition, to obtain international aid and foreign investment for the construction and improvement of environmental infrastructures which have been sorely neglected in the past. The Middle East peace process has the potential to foster mutual cooperation and coordinated activities, thereby providing a valuable impetus to environmental activities which will benefit us all. The bilateral and multilateral peace talks have already helped forge new paths towards cooperation and collaboration on the sensitive issues facing the Middle East . The fact that the environment has played a significant role in these negotiations, highlights the new opportunities and challenges which the environmental community of the region faces today.
Regional cooperation to protect an environmental asset shared by a number of countries, some with vast political differences, is not an untried concept. The need to preserve a region’s environment, and recognition of this need have already created a successful framework for regional environmental cooperation in the Mediterranean Action Plan. For almost two decades, the Mediterranean Action Plan was well ahead of its time.
Under MAP, the vision of regional cooperation for protection of fragile resources, shared by all Mediterranean countries, became a reality. MAP has demonstrated how professional expertise can be shared and how information systems can be of mutual benefit. MAP has succeeded in doing this despite the political complexity in which it operated. It proves that if there is a will, there is a way. Today, the will to jointly tackle regional problems, including environmental ones, is evident, and the way is being found.
Peace brings the possibility of establishing new frameworks of cooperation and joint management of shared resources. Instead of competing with each other and ignoring our neighbors’ needs, we can work together for our mutual benefit. The Bahrain Environmental Code of Conduct for the Middle East, endorsed as a morally binding document by the Working Group on the Environment within the Middle East multilateral peace talks in October 1994, is only an initial stage for such cooperative efforts. The endorsement of the document is an important milestone for regional cooperation in the Middle East, being the first document agreed upon by countries in the region to guide their conduct towards their shared environment. The Code set common values and norms which shall govern the development policies of the parties in the region in a manner that will not damage the environment of neighboring countries.
Common ground has also been found amongst the Middle East countries participating in the multilateral peace talks on a wide range of subjects of critical environmental concern. These include regional initiatives to combat desertification and establish the Upper Gulf of Aqaba Oil Spill Contingency Program – a joint Jordanian-Egyptian-Israeli project, providing an effective regional framework to prevent marine pollution from oil spills, and which has already been implemented.
Peace presents a unique opportunity for the peoples of the region to concentrate efforts in dealingg with common environmental problems, and to recruit resources for their solutions. Pollution knows no political boundaries, totally ignoring the markings on a map. All the countries in our region suffer the same environmental problems; we need the same solutions and we compete for the same resources. We share water, land, air and coastlines, making each and every country particularly vulnerable to all forms of transboundary pollution. Regional cooperation is thus crucial. Each country has its own commensurate advantage and individual contribution to make, and together the countries of the Middle East can benefit each other and the region.
The passage from enmity to peaceful cooperation should also witness the flow of international assistance and investment to this region to provide vital environmental infrastructures. The new reality in the Middle East has guided the World Bank to submit to the international donor community an assessment of the development needs and prospects of the West Bank and Gaza Strip economies. The document emphasizes the need for regional infrastructure networks – sewage and waste treatment facilities – to protect the environment, and better use scant natural resources.
Development and the Environment
At the same time, peace in the Middle East is expected to usher in an era of rapid economic development, inevitably placing enormous pressure on the limited and fragile resources of our region. A new era awaits us with new challenges concerning the environment of the region. Economic growth is a most welcome offspring of co-existence, and will play a pivotal role in enhancing peace in the region.
But, we must make sure that all development is sustainable development, taking into consideration the needs of the environment. We must ensure the rational use of resources, bearing in mind the necessity of preserving them for future generations. We must ensure that the assessment of environmental impacts of each project will be incorporated into the planning process, and that measures will be taken to prevent environmental degradation. This can only be achieved by strengthening the environmental management structures of all the parties in the region so that they may become elements of influence and authority in the development process.
This document, "Regional Environmental Cooperation and Development Options", outlines specific regional development projects aimed to protect the environment, while at the same time being economically viable. These "environmental options" are an integral part of a larger project of Development Options for Cooperation in the Middle East/East Mediterranean Region for 1996 submitted at the Middle East/North Africa Economic Summit held in Amman, Jordan in late 1995. The emphasis on environmental considerations in development projects, and the joint environmental initiatives under consideration, highlight the recognition in the region that any development must be sustainable and Israel’s firm commitment to this important principle.
The problems posed by planned and future development projects are by no means insurmountable. Israel and her peace partners are investing major efforts to ensure that environmental considerations are incorporated in all development schemes from the early stages of planning. At the dawn of the new era of peace, innovative means are being sought to ensure that development is carried out in an environmentally sound manner.
Israel fervently hopes that the continuation of the peace process will indeed usher in an era of peace, environmental quality and sustainable development, an era in which the environment will reap the benefits of the peace process and the peace process will reap the benefits of environmental cooperation. The signing of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the establishment of contacts and opening of relations with a large number of Arab countries in the region and the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria, give us hope that in the region, and in the world at large, we shall come together to establish a sound, global policy for the future of the environment.