On the road map to peace in the Middle East, protecting the health of the environment is key, according to Yale World Fellow Gideon Bromberg.

Bromberg, who hails from Israel and is the director of the Friends of the Earth Middle East, addressed a crowd of approximately 40 students Tuesday night in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. His talk, “Integrating Environmental Development and Conflict Resolution,” focused on the historic cooperation among Israel, Palestine and Jordan over water-management issues as a platform for creating grassroots connections between hostile parties.

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Bromberg said he is “fearful” that current negotiations in the Middle East will continue to fail because they rely on getting leaders to agree and largely ignore the importance of grassroots movements in bringing about compromise and peace.

Bromberg said the United States’ commitment to forging local partnerships was a key factor in resolving the Northern Ireland conflict between Protestants and Catholics. But the U.S. government’s failure to appreciate the importance of these movements jeopardizes even the few diplomatic successes the United States has enjoyed in the Middle East, Bromberg said.

Citing the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords, Bromberg said even after 20 years of peace, there is no interaction between the two peoples and the commitment to peace extends only as far as the leadership.

“You cannot just rely on leaders, however they come to power,” Bromberg said.

Yet there are examples of deeper cooperation in the Middle East, Bromberg said, noting that Israel and Jordan have collaborated for over 50 years in their management of the Jordan River — a critical water source for both countries — despite the fact that a peace treaty between the two nations did not exist until 1994.

The Joint Palestinian-Israeli Water Commission continued to meet even during the Second Intifada, a wave of suicide bombings in 2000, Bromberg said, and the parties agreed not to attempt to destroy the others’ water infrastructure. Even with the refusal by the Israeli government to engage the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, the commission still meets, albeit in secret, Bromberg said.

Serious environmental and water allocation issues, however, remain largely unaddressed, Bromberg said. Large quantities of raw sewage threaten to contaminate the entire mountain aquifer, which lies beneath much of the region and is one of its primary sources of drinking water, he said. In addition, Bromberg said the rivers that feed the Dead Sea are so overtaxed that the sea drops nearly a meter every year, shrinking the surface area by a third of its original size.

Despite the importance of these environmental problems, they have received little attention from the national governments, Bromberg said.

“In the midst of conflict, you only deal with short-term issues,” Bromberg said. “You don’t deal with long-term issues.”

But these environmental threats presented an opportunity to build local cooperation among Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities, which inspired the 2001 creation of The Cross Border Community Cooperation Program, which Bromberg co-directs, he said.

The program identified nine pairs of communities that share water resources and started to develop mutual conservation plans. In each community, the program chose a school to turn into a model water-saving building and organized “water trustees” among the students to work on further developing the goal of regional cooperation on water issues.

Bromberg said the program had found some Jordanian schools where the water ran on only four out of six school days, shutting down the toilets, forcing students to relieve themselves in the wilderness and leading girls to stay at home to avoid humiliation.

Even minor successes make a difference, Bromberg said, noting that in the midst of conflict, helplessness is one of the great obstacles to peace.

“Collecting rain water doesn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinain problem, but it gives young people a sense that they can make a difference even with a small investment,” he said.

Some Yale students in attendance were skeptical about whether Bromberg’s program really makes a difference.

“I thought he was very optimistic,” Josh Krug ’08 said. “I wish I could say I thought it merited that optimism.”

Krug said he thinks Bromberg overestimated the impact that his and similar programs have on the peace process.

For others, however, the idea of environmental problems as a road to peace represented a fresh perspective.

“The environment is a crucial optic for peace, and I think people should focus on it as an important area for long-term peace,” Harry Etra ’09 said.