Water and Hope in the Holy Land

A report from the International Water Symposium, Jericho

by Jeff Anderson

 The idea and the vision of Water Retention Landscapes as a solution for desertification in the Middle East was presented to around 120 people, mostly from Israel-Palestine, at the International Water Symposium that took place at St Gerassimos Monastery, near Jericho, last Sunday 25th March. Hosted by the Peace Research Village Middle East (PRV-ME) and organised in cooperation with the Tamera Peace Research Centre in Portugal, the event was charged with the eager curiosity of the participants who wanted to learn more about this bold vision for water abundance in the region's desert landscapes.


 The symposium opened with a speech by Benjamin von Mendelssohn (director of Tamera's Middle East project and Global Campus), in which he spoke of the necessity for the development of peace models and called us to recognise the global nature of the Middle East's political conflict. New values based on sharing, caretaking and love, he explained, will form the basis for peace models as a political answer to the troubles now faced by humanity. 

 Officials from the Jericho Municipality were also called to imagine that the "small model for Palestine" represented by their city's rich and diverse culture could be extended to a model for all humanity, based on what is the same in all of us – our need for food, water, freedom of movement, community and love.
 The next speaker was Bernd Mueller, director of Tamera's ecology team and the principle vision holder for Tamera's exemplary Water Retention Landscape. After an overview of the critical situation of topsoil loss, desertification and falling groundwater levels in the “drylands” of the world, he introduced the original image of a full water cycle in which rain is received by a healthy topsoil into the earth body, emerging later as springs. Now, human-made, decentralised water retention areas can act in place of the forests and topsoil that used to receive the rain, once again giving the rainwater time to filter into the earth. 

 He drew attention to the potential of the land here in deserts around the Dead Sea, where one can only try to imagine what wonders could be achieved if all the abundant rainfall of this winter was held on the land. He encouraged, however, us to seek contact with the land first and to ask which action really serves its healing. While retention landscapes offer an ecological answer, what really needs to change is human thinking – when we learn to shift our position towards becoming servants of nature, then the earth can easily provide all we need and more.

 The next speaker was Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem and a leading figure in Palestinian nonviolent resistance. If water is life, then whoever controls, manipulates or abuses water also does the same with life itself, he explained. Yet despite the shocking statistics, the critical issue of water in the Holy Land is not simply about Israeli control and Palestinian lack, as even within Palestinian society there is unequal access to water. Rather than being about political identity, the real question is about who has the ability to control and who not. "If I had the power, I would deny my neighbour," he said, making clear the uncomfortable truth of our world shaped by greed and fear. 

 His call was for the Palestinian community to cooperate in creating a new reality where water is available for all. Despite the challenges involved, there are examples from around the world showing how it can be done. He concluded by invoking the sacredness of water as a God-given source of life, foreseeing a joint movement for water rights when we learn again to honour life.

 The final speech was given by Sabine Lichtenfels, co-founder of Tamera and a researcher of ancient peace cultures and feminine wisdom. She described how for thousands of years our civilisation has been based on the drive towards conquering others and the idea that there is not enough water, food and energy for all, and even in the relatively peaceful and rich countries, people live under the occupation of fear. 

 A core message for a new politics is thinking that there is enough. There is enough if we cooperate with the universal resources. There is enough and there is another way of richness."

 She spoke of her discovery of water as a teacher for peace, and how if we listen to its message then we can learn what it means to cooperate with each other and with nature, and when she visited the Sultan's spring in Jericho she could envision a place of study in the ways of cooperation. This, she explained, is what the Global Campus is all about – creating sustainable models of nonviolence based on cooperation with all beings. 

 After the speeches and some question sessions where members of the audience expressed their voices of hope, urgency and sometimes also scepticism, there was a delicious lunch provided by women from the Jericho YWCA. Then the participants were taken by two buses into Jericho town to visit the Sultan’s spring (a first for most of the Israeli participants who usually are not permitted by Israeli military law to enter Palestinian urban areas). 

 In the gardens by the spring, with the water flowing copiously through stone channels, Jalal Bsharat from Jericho’s municipal water department introduced the group with some facts and figures about the spring that has been honoured and protected as a sacred source of life since ancient times. Then the group was invited to enter the womb-like stone building that protects the spring and to connect with the spirit of the water source in silence.

 The next stop on the tour was Wadi Qelt on the outskirts of Jericho, where there is a real possibility to create a retention landscape in cooperation with the municipality. The group gathered upon the flat area near the edge of the canyon looking down on the creek, still flowing with water from the spring some kilometers upstream after the exceptionally heavy rainfalls of this winter. 

 Bernd Mueller explained that now the water in the deep canyon is too far down for any plants up on the plain to reach with their roots, so the aim of a retention landscape would be to allow the canyon to naturally fill up with material eroded from the hills, raising the water level and creating a huge retention space as the water filtered into the earth body on either side. The sense of excitement at the potential of the land was palpable, especially as Tamir Yaari of the PRV-ME spoke out his visions of rich polycultures with banana and papaya trees, watered from below just as in a true oasis.

 Back at the conference hall, there was a final question and answer session, newly charged with the energy from the contact to the land and the experiments in envisioning a healed landscape. It was clear that many had been inspired, and many were eager to support the next material steps towards creating a first Water Retention Landscape in the Holy Land. The PRV-ME is looking forward to reporting on these next steps soon.

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