Paragliders in the Gulf of Aqaba with Jordan in the background. Photo by NatiShohat/FLASH90
Paragliders in the Gulf of Aqaba with Jordan in the background. Photo by NatiShohat/FLASH90

A meeting between Jordanian and Israeli environmentalists in Aqaba recently has the green sector in both countries cautiously optimistic. It was the first time in 10 years that Israeli and Jordanian groups working to improve and conserve the coastal and marine environment in the Gulf of Aqaba came to the table.


“Participants were excited and enthusiastic about the meeting and about the possibility to further meet in the future,” says Mare Nostrum Project initiator and coordinator Prof. Rachelle Alterman of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.


The Mare Nostrum Project is an EU-funded cross-border initiative that explores ways of protecting the Mediterranean coastline. Raanan Boral, academic program manager of the Mare Nostrum Project and a veteran environmentalist, tells ISRAEL21c that the Gulf of Aqaba is included in Mare Nostrum because “our project deals with the coast even though the shared coastline between Jordan and Israel is not on the Mediterranean.”


Partners in the global initiative include universities, research institutes,municipalities, environmental NGOs and port operators from Malta, Greece, Israel, Jordan and Spain.


The project’s main goal is to bridge the policy-implementation gap between the ideals of the Barcelona Convention’s Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) and its effects on the ground in conservation and management in the Mediterranean Basin.


Boral says what needs to be done by each of the participating local authorities is outlined and known.


“In the local stages of participation we know what the issues are. In Haifa, for example, we’re talking about general public accessibility to the coast. There are roads, train tracks, etc. I know what they’re doing, where they’re going,” he says.


But while the global initiative also promotes cross-border cooperation on issues of common concern, these programs are not cut and dry.


“Cross-border issues are very difficult; the most important thing is having people meet, [and] eventually something will come out,” says Boral.


“Environmental issues on one side of the border immediately affect the other,” says Eilat-Eilot region environmental department head Asaf Admon, referring to the Evrona oil spill in December 2014. Admon says the latest meeting signals a renewal in joint work on issues of importance to both sides.


Borderless borders


The Jordanian and Israeli participants brought a gamut of potential projects on which to collaborate to their latest meeting. Topics on the table included sharing information from monitoring programs, beach cleanup, ornithology, environmental crisis contingency plans, and support for existing initiatives.


Rina Kedem of the Arava& Dead Sea Science Center presented a community-level cooperation process, and discussed the Southern Israel-Jordan Environmental Forum’s mission to create a networking platform for cross-border environmental initiatives.


Jordanian participants from government bodies and non-government organizations in Aqaba, together with the Amman Center for Peace and Development, highlighted environmental aspects of the city’s master plan. They also referred to monitoring programs and challenges related to the coast and sea – including conflicts between private ownership and maintenance of beach areas, versus desires for wider and freer public access to the beach.


“Coastal activities are concentrated in a small area, which puts stress on corals, environment and biodiversity,” the Jordanians said in a statement.


Participants also suggested a joint meeting of organizations from Eilat and Aqaba with Turkish and Greek representatives, to learn from similar efforts elsewhere.


But the project brought up during the meeting with the highest chance of immediate cooperation had to do with birds.


Israeli representatives of the Eilat Bird Center and the Eilat region environmental monitoring program discussed the need for cross-border cooperation.


Bird-watching is big business for Israel and Jordan, as both countries welcome millions of birds during migration season to the delight of ornithologists and birdwatchers.


“A lot of tourists come from Europe to see the birds. The two sides will cooperate on bird sanctions,” Boral tells ISRAEL21c. “Migrating birds go through the Jordan Valley and they land on two sides of the border. For the birds, it doesn’t matter to them if they’re in Jordan or Israel. The idea is to erase the line. The birds are the main attraction, and the border should not create a hurdle for people to move from one side to the other.”


Enhancing tourism for birdwatchers may seem totally disconnected from the Mare Nostrum initiative that calls to protect the coastline. But Boral says starting someplace is hopeful.


“Birdwatching has nothing to do with the Gulf of Aqaba/Gulf of Eilat or with the Mediterranean coast, but we hope if the Jordanians and Israelis work together on something they will start working on even more difficult issues like the Gulf of Aqaba/Gulf of Eilat, which has a very short coastline,” says Boral.


“I can’t tell you what will come out of this. The fundamental issue was having the locals meet. The question now is what’s next. We want more of these meetings.”


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