The Environment, at a Crossroads

In the Middle East, environmental issues pose the greatest long-term threat to the health and well-being of humans and the natural world.

News from the Middle East usually describes conflicts and their root causes in politics, religious fundamentalism and the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians for a homeland. Threats to peace and security are indeed a backdrop for daily existence, but that is only part of the story.

In April the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) invited me to experience the area's environmental problems - the first step of a collaboration coordinated by the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, an NGO based in Ipswich, Mass. The program brings together conservationists from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, who will use traditional folk stories to teach about the environment.

After I met with the Palestine Wildlife Society in the West Bank, INNPPA staff led a tour of Israeli sites that embody key environmental issues. I discovered a magnificent landscape rich in biological diversity, because it lies at the convergence of Europe, Asia and Africa. From snow-capped mountains and vast deserts to expansive lakes and marine ecosystems, few places on Earth possess this startling array of habitats and species in such a small geographic area.

Nature's grandeur is juxtaposed with vivid reminders of human impacts. En route to the Gamla Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights, we drove through grassy swells denuded of forests centuries ago. Pastoral hills were fenced and marked with signs warning of mine fields never cleared, a vestige of past wars.

Along the dizzying cliffs in Gamla, griffon vultures rose on thermals so close we could almost touch these ancient birds, whose wingspan can exceed 2.5 meters. This, the largest breeding colony of vultures in Israel, is in rapid decline. Many eggs are infertile and numerous hatchlings die due to a calcium-poor diet and lack of food (dead animal carcasses) in the wild. Adult vultures can't obtain enough calcium from small pieces of dead animal bones, so they feed instead on the metal fragments of old ammunition and shrapnel that litter the countryside. Vultures die by electrocution when they perch on power lines, by purposeful shootings and by inadvertent killings when birds feed on the remains of cattle poisoned by farmers locked in a territorial dispute. Later, at the Hai-Bar Carmel Nature Reserve, a lanky, bearded naturalist named Yigal Miller proudly told of how he had established the first successful captive breeding and release program for griffon vultures.

We drove south past Bedouin riding donkeys while grazing sheep and camels at the edge of the Judean Desert. Well below sea level, we stood in the abandoned dining room of the old Jordan Hotel, framed by mortar-riddled walls, and looked across a vast plain that dipped toward the distant shoreline of the Dead Sea. Before the hotel was abandoned during the 1967 war, waves still lapped at the feet of guests who stood on this veranda. Dead Sea water is now being drastically drawn down and desalinated to quench the thirst of this densely populated region.

As peace efforts continue, the viability of ecosystems and resources also stands at a crossroads that will determine environmental health and the survival of many species. The demise of the Dead Sea would devastate Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Invasive plants out-compete native species that provide nest sites for birds plus food and shelter for animals. Many plants and animals are collected, hunted and poached toward extinction. On most days in the hills of the Carmel coast, polluted air hangs so thick it is impossible to see the Mediterranean Sea a few kilometers away. Water pollution, depletion of precious water supplies and degradation of habitat for migratory birds are serious problems.

In the Middle East, environmental issues pose the greatest long-term threat to the health and well-being of humans and the natural world. Private organizations and governmental agencies are conducting environmental research and conservation programs. They teach of the necessity for changes in policy and practice to preserve habitats and natural resources that meet the survival needs of all. The environment is the one tie that irrevocably binds the peoples of the Middle East, regardless of differences in politics, faith or culture.

The writer presents programs on the environment (www.p-e-a-c-e.net) and is author of "Everyday Herbs in Spiritual Life: A Guide to Many Practices" and "Abraham's Bind and other Bible Tales of Trickery, Folly, Mercy and Love."