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Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians Meet in Attempt to Solve Water Crisis

Since Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to violence at a summit in Egypt one month ago: a relative calm has prevailed; there have been signs of renewed cooperation; and some organizations have had the opportunity to renew contacts and cooperation across national and political boundaries.

It would not have been impossible, but certainly unlikely that during the past four and a half years of violence Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials and experts would have met so publicly.

True, the subject is of concern to all - the dwindling water resources of the once mighty Jordan River. Decades of overuse and abuse have reduced the lower portion of the Jordan to a trickle of mainly raw sewage and saltwater runoff.

While contacts about water resources have continued throughout the years of violence, they have been low key and far from the limelight.

The non-governmental group organizing this particular meeting - Friends of the Earth, Middle East - figures now is the time to rally public support around the cause and put pressure on governments in the region to take action.

Munqeth Mehyar heads Friends of the Earth in Jordan. He says everyone is to blame for the river's demise.

"For the last 50 years we have witnessed the rapid deterioration of the Jordan River," he explaiined. "The competition who can damage the river more than the other - this can be understood in a state of war, not now. We have peace in the region."

The waters of the lower Jordan River and its tributaries are shared by Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Syria. While loose cooperation has led to peaceful use of the waters, there has been neither cooperation nor consensus on replenishing the river's flow in an environmentally sound way.

Jordan's Prince Hassan Bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein, addressed this meeting on Peace Island and later told several journalists he had heard nothing here to indicate that any side would agree to do the obvious - not siphon off so much water from the Jordan. So, he said other solutions have to be found.

"Between governments and civil society, there is a huge wealth of experience. There are new ideas every day in terms of new sources of desalination, imported water, whatever," the prince said. "So, I do think that a regional energy and water commission - supra national, supra state - is the only way to take this all important common resource out of the hands of the politicians."

Prince Hassan says current international efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and return to regional peace negotiations are welcome, but not enough.

"With a great deal of respect for the good intentions behind all of this unilateral diplomacy and the visits of American administration officials, EU administration officials to the region, heads of state from the region to both Washington and Brussels, nobody is developing a concept of the future of the region," he said.

That concept as outlined by Prince Hassan is one of not just a region at peace, but a region sharing resources and cooperating to solve common problems from farming and energy use to unemployment and poverty.

Prince Hassan has long been a proponent of greater regional cooperation, much in the way western European countries came together after World War II. But, there are no indications the countries of the Middle East are near ready for such drastic steps.

Organizations such as Friends of the Earth Middle East, say that the current outside pressure for peace negotiations, democracy and change does give them a new opportunity - to make their voices heard and to hopefully make governments more prone to listen.