Environment, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Environment Too Encounters a Barrier

Ferry Biedermann

JERUSALEM, Nov 25 2004 (IPS) - The visual impact of Israel’s new separation barrier is all too clear. Even from the historical heart of old Jerusalem, the massive grey concrete wall snaking over nearby hills is a huge eyesore.

At other places in the West Bank the barrier is mostly a fence but not therefore less of an environmental threat. With paths on either side, the cleared area of up to 80 metres is comparable to the width of a modern road. That makes it a major obstacle for plant and animal life to cross, say Israeli environmentalists.

"The damage to biodiversity can be compared to that of any other major infrastructure project," says Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth, Middle East (FoEME). The barrier is especially worrisome, he says, because it is the fourth major north-south division in the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean on top of several roads. It sets up a new divide in hitherto pristine areas.

Israeli ecologist Ron Frumkin says the damage to the environment is "much worse" than that caused by a road. As opposed to a road the barrier can only be crossed by animals "no larger than a mouse". This is bound to damage the ecosystem because the barrier cuts through some important ecological corridors.

Frumkin and his wife Tamar wrote the environmental part of a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court that succeeded earlier this year in halting construction on several parts of the barrier in the northern West Bank.

The Court accepted the findings, as did the Nature Reserve Authority in Israel, Frumkin says. The government was ordered to draw up a revised route as a result of the larger petition, mainly taking the interests of the Palestinian population more into account. But Frumkin hopes that the environmental argument will also carry some weight. The revised route has not been made public yet.

"We thought that the people who take the decisions should at least be aware of the consequences, so they can take responsibility," says Frumkin.

His research revealed that the planners hardly took environmental factors into consideration. Officials from the environment ministry who sat in on the planning fought battles over "details like saving one old tree," says Frumkin. On the large issues they constantly lost out to the "security argument" of the army.

He contends that the army could easily leave openings in the barrier as ecological corridors and patrol it or observe it without compromising security.

Palestinian groups see the barrier as "ecological terrorism". It is aimed at destroying whatever chances remain for a ‘viable’ Palestinian state, says Abdel Rahman Tamimi, director of the Palestine Hydrology Group (PHG) that looks at water and environmental issues in the Palestinian areas. The main danger, the group says, is to future water supply. The barrier cuts off a good deal of irrigated land from its water resources and includes wells on the ‘Israeli side’.

The water issue is the source of some disagreement between Israeli and Palestinian environmental groups. Bromberg says the problem predates the barrier. Many of the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land were set up with an eye to safeguarding water supplies, the barrier simply takes in those settlements, he says.

This amount of water, some six to seven million cubic metres a year, is "insignificant" to Israel, says Bromberg. He said it was unlikely that the barrier was meant as "water grab" as well as a land grab..

Tamimi argues that even so, the barrier "finalises" Israeli control over Palestinian water resources. "This is an attack on ‘national water’," he says. The barrier also makes it much harder for Palestinians to drill for water in the future because they are pushed more into the foothills of the West Bank, where drilling is more difficult.

The PHG says Israel already controls some 80 percent of Palestinian water resources. With the barrier, that rises to more than 90 percent.

This also causes enormous problems for Palestinian agriculture, says Tamimi. He estimates that some 15 percent of irrigated land on the West Bank may be lost because it will be impossible to restore water lines that have been cut by the construction. The PHG is restoring irrigation in many areas around the barrier with the help of foreign donors such as Oxfam. But not all the damage can be undone, says Tamimi.

Some of the villages along the route of the barrier, especially in the area of Qalqilya northwest of Jerusalem have lost or are set to lose several wells to the barrier. But PHG and other overseas-funded projects to counter this loss often mean that modern water distribution networks are introduced in rural areas for the first time, and old wells and pumping stations rehabilitated.

Frumkin points out that agricultural land falling fallow as a result of the barrier will be as much an environmental setback as the disruption to natural life. "Agriculture in many of these areas is a historical part of the environment," he said.

Bromberg warns about the damage to the historic landscape, especially "thousands of years old agricultural terraces" that have created a landscape that is "almost world heritage."

In one area between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, FoE is drawing up suggestions for an alternative route to save the landscape.

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