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A Climate-Change Focused Canadian Foreign Policy in the Middle East?


What would it look like? That was the question addressed by Glendon sociology professor Stuart Schoenfeld (right) at his recent public lecture on February 26th. The latest in a series of fascinating research talks hosted by the Glendon Research Group in Public and International Affairs (GRGPIA), this lecture examined the core issues that need to be resolved in the Middle East, not on the much-discussed topics of borders and refugees, but in the increasingly urgent areas of water supply and changing life conditions as a result of climate change.

Schoenfeld has been researching on environmental issues for a decade, but he has considered them only recently from a Canadian foreign policy perspective. “With the noticeable increase in climate change, these issues are rapidly acquiring an urgency which cannot be ignored”, said Schoenfeld. The data for his research project is drawn from the 4th Report of IPCC – the International Panel on Climate Change – compiled for its 2007 conference in Bali. In that report it was confirmed that the Mediterranean is already one of the driest areas of the world. The increasingly higher temperatures and lack of precipitation are expected to get worse and worse over the next few years.

Schoenfeld is conducting his research examining four questions: the climate change projections for the region; the plans in place to deal with this problem; defining why these plans are inadequate; and formulating recommendations to Canadian foreign-policy makers with this situation in mind. He affirmed that the governments most closely impacted: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories are well aware of the projections of significant decrease in precipitation and increase in summer droughts.

These countries are making serious attempts to respond to the challenges they are facing as a result of these changes. Israel is working on plans of desalination plants, tree-planting projects, proposals for introducing electric cars (to reduce harmful emissions) and developing solar energy. Jordan is engaging in a variety of projects to use its available water sources and is planning with Israel a multibillion dollar project to pump water from the Red Sea into the depleted Dead Sea. Much of the sea water would go through a desalination plant to provide water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority has detailed water plans of its own, but most projects are at the planning stage, rather than in action. But many of these projects are at the planning stage, rather than in action and these countries need help and resources in order to move faster.

The problems confronting the region are complex at both the ecological and political levels. Jordan’s water sources are not within its own territories, which makes it a water-stressed country. Jordan counts heavily on rain water for its water supply, which is expected to be greatly reduced as a result of global warming. Yet there are also some hopeful signs of cooperation. The peace plans between Israel and Jordan affirm that Israel will transfer water to Jordan in times of drought. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a joint water committee, but it is limited to work on water distribution.

So why is Schoenfeld convinced that these plans are inadequate? He points to the very rapid population growth in the region - Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel - which will likely result in stronger land and water claims. At the same time, a larger population will need more land for housing and infrastructure, which will use up a greater amount of the scarce resources. Israel’s middle-income population demands European standards of living, which result in greater consumption of resources (including water) than its neighbours. More consumption leads to higher levels of pollution, which also affects water quality. Areas such as Gaza don’t have adequate sewage plants, resulting in serious environmental issues. In addition, the many wars in the region have degraded the environment. Rocket fire has destroyed forests in the region and ongoing fighting makes it difficult to implement any plans for resource management or restoration.

Schoenfeld remarked that water issues don’t seem to be high on international political agendas. The international community is much more focused on borders, refugees, and the city of Jerusalem. Schoenfeld has been participating in an international working group on water for several years and has a number of recommendations for Canadian involvement in related environmental issues. These include an increased presence in the diplomatic area with Israel and the Palestinians concerning the improvement of infrastructures and living conditions, through CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and IDRC (International Development Research Corporation).

“One of the major hurdles in dealing with issues of climate change is that there is no unified regional approach and national projects don’t integrate”, said Schoenfeld. “Canada’s international policies should recognize the importance of these issues and promote a regional approach: the sharing of plans, resources, technology and expertise.”

Several existing organizations are already cooperating in trans-border activities on water issues. One of these is IPCRI – the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, whose environmental unit organized two large conferences on water, bringing together experts, NGO representatives and civil servants from throughout the region. The Friends of the Earth Middle East has a “Good Water Neighbors” project, established in 2001 to raise awareness of the shared water problems of Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), a regional center situated on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel's Southern Arava Valley, works towards sustainable development on a regional and global scale, through academic programs, research and public involvement. A ray of hope: Jews, Arabs, Canadians and participants from all over the world come together at Arava to study, do research, and to learn about each other. Through its international policies, Canada could take a leading role by promoting and supporting these organizations and their activities.

“Water shortage is dangerous to public security”, said Schoenfeld. “State-based management of resources is a risk. A region-based approach is more manageable and more equitable.” Canada has an important role to play on these issues, according to Schoenfeld, because it garners more trust on the international scene than most other countries, including the U.S. “Our country’s policies must reflect the changing international agenda from the cold war and other political concerns to the new environmental risks facing the world, with water shortage one of the most important among them.”

More about Stuart Schoenfeld:

Stuart Schoenfeld is an associate professor in Glendon’s Sociology and Canadian Studies Departments. He holds an MA and PhD from Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio), and a BA from Loyola University (Chicago, Illinois). His areas of specialization include the environment, religion, globalization, sociology of religion, socio-cultural change and socio-cultural projections, Canadian diversity, and social theory. For details of Professor Schoenfeld’s research involvements and publications, please visit his website,

For more about the Glendon Research Group in Public and International Affairs (GRGPIA) and its activities visit the group’s website,

Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on March 6, 2008