Mission – Israel, Jordan and Palestine
From November 12-20, 2018 I was invited to travel to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. The trip was divided into two parts. During the first part of the trip, I joined EcoPeace, an organization dedicated to bringing together representatives from Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to find peace through shared protection of fresh water. The second part of the trip was focused on economic development, particularly learning about the Israeli innovation ecosystem and their approach to fostering new companies and an environment that encourages and supports innovative businesses to grow and thrive.
EcoPeace Conference and Tour
The City of Mississauga is a member of the Great Lakes and St.Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLCI), a cross-border organization of municipalities and local elected representatives dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watersheds. Over 50 million people draw their water from these bodies of water, so it is important that we work together across borders and boundaries to protect them. As a member, Mississauga has been quite active: from passing motions to ban the use of microbeads (plastics), to pursuing a designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to creating the Mayor’s Council on Nature and Communities, we have worked hard to protect our fresh water.
Based on this work, I was invited to join other Mayors from the GLSLCI to attend the EcoPeace Conference in Amman Jordan. This conference featured delegates from around the world, including Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Since 1994, this organization has been working to find peace through local cooperation on water. Their approach is to work with local representatives to find cooperation in an effort to push national leaders to find solutions, and ultimately peace. While politicians at the national level are entrenched, those on the ground have to find practical solutions every day to survive. This involved cooperating and being innovative.
At the EcoPeace Conference, I was asked to join a panel of Mayors to discuss these issues and international cooperation. I discussed the importance of long-term planning in the form of official plans and capital management plans; conservation authorities that work across borders to protect the entire watershed; and the need for mayors and elected officials to work together.
Each of the Mayors on the panel came to the EcoPeace conference with to goal of achieving cooperation with their neighbours to clean up the water sources, preserve and maintain the limited fresh water, and ultimately reduce conflict. In my experience, it is at the local level is where results are achieved and cooperation and collaboration undertaken. As one member of our delegation termed it, we were undertaking “sub-national hydro diplomacy.”
The Jordan Valley is the 3rd most water scarce area on the planet. Jordan, Israel, Palestine and to a certain extent Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt all rely on the same sources of fresh water. The issue is that there just is not enough of it to go around. Combine this with an inadequate management of waste water that in many places along the Jordan River sees raw sewage being pumped directly into the water, and you have a recipe for conflict.
It is my hope that we can continue this conversation and cooperation. I have offered to host these mayors if they want to visit Mississauga and Peel Region to learn about how we manage fresh water and waste water. Peel Region is home to some of the most advanced waste water treatment plants, including the Lakeview plant, as well as our Credit Valley and Toronto Region Conservation Authorities. We have a lot of expertise to offer.
While this is an issue affecting people halfway across the globe, it has an impact here. There is a limited amount of fresh water on Earth and it is essential to our survival as human beings. Canada is home to much of the world’s supply of fresh water. This is a long-term security issue for us, just as it is a humanitarian issue. I believe it is incumbent upon Canadians to work with all parties involved to solve this problem and ensure everyone in the region has access to clean, safe, and abundant drinking water.
Following the conference, we departed on a tour led by EcoPeace through the Jordan Valley, visiting a number of sites, particularly along important bodies of water, to better understand the water scarcity and security issues, but also where cooperation and collaboration between countries and communities is being found.
Over the course of 4 days, we travelled throughout the Jordan River Valley from the shores of the Dead Sea to the south shore of the Sea of Galilea, also known as Lake Tiberias. The common theme throughout the journey was the scarcity of water, but more specifically, the pressing need for people to work across borders to protect and preserve waters. An example of this can be found in the proposal for the peace park at the confluence of the Yarmouk River from Jordan and the Jordan River in Israel. Once the site of a British hydro-electric power plant and damn, it is now a historical relic that straddles the border of Jordan and Israel. The water levels are significantly lower than they were 50 years ago when the plant was in operation.
There is a proposal on the books to make this area a safe zone for Israeli and Jordanian tourists to visit to learn about the history of the area and work toward reclamation. If it is approved at the national level, the peace park would be an opportunity to find compromise and work toward longer lasting peace and understanding.
During our travels, we made our way through Palestinian communities in the West Bank. We met with Mayor Mohamad Abu Ghanem of the village of Al Jiftlik a small agricultural village whose farmers are experiencing acutely the impacts of the drought and water shortage. They are trying to grow their crops to support their families, but are having a difficult time doing so. Remarkably, despite their hardship and the challenges they face, Mayor Abu Ghanem and his community remain committed to finding peace.
This too was a recurring theme. No matter whether they were Jordanian, Israeli or Palestinian, all the people we met with at the local level were committed to finding peace. This cannot be said of leaders at the national level and speaks to the impact mayors and local residents can have in changing attitudes and ultimately, improving lives.
At the Sea of Galilea, the water level has dropped to a point where it can no longer feed the Jordan River. The Israeli government is pumping water from the Sea of Galilea to the Jordan River to keep it flowing, or else it would dry up completely and would be unable to flow further south to provide water for agriculture and survival. The low water levels are a result of too many people drawing too much water from the sea, but also the 5 year drought in the region. It is a harbinger of future conflict and challenges if new approaches are not taken to preserve, conserve and better manage water on all sides. The technology exists; it just needs to be utilized.
What was most striking to from the panel of mayors was the lack of strategic and long term planning in the local communities, especially around development and water management. I spoke at length about the critical role our conservation authorities like Credit Valley Conservation Authority and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority play in managing our precious fresh water across borders from the headwaters to the lakes. I spoke about our Official Plans, our Growth Plans, our approach to sustainable development, and the need for communities to develop long-term capital asset management plans. Finally, I spoke about the work that Peel Region is doing to build world-class wastewater treatment plants to ensure that sewage is treated before it is reintroduced into the watershed. It is my hope that in the coming months and years through the GLSLCI we can continue to assist these communities in developing mechanisms like these to better manage water and development.
On the last day of our tour, we travelled to the Israeli border with Gaza. Along the way we met with Mayor Yair Farjun of the Regional Council of Ashkelon. His community borders Gaza and his residents have borne the brunt of the rocket attacks, including the 430 rockets that were launched on November 12. Just like Mississauga, Mayor Farjun is doing his best to provide municipal services to his residents, create jobs, protect his residents and maintain a good quality of life. All the while, he has to deal with the threat of rocket attacks. It is unfathomable.
While in the area, we travelled to the Black Arrow site, which is 1km from the Gaza border and provides a direct sightline into Gaza. Over 2 million people live in roughly 400 square kilometres. The aquafirs are depleted or too salinated or polluted by sewage. It took 10 years for the sewage treatment plant to finally be built, but there is not enough consistent electricity to operate it. Therefore, much of the sewage and wastewater from Gaza flows out into the Medeteranian Sea, and travels northward with the currents towards Israel. Standing on the beach in Ashkelon, 1 km from Gaza, we saw first-hand the effects of this.
Canada and the international community are working to improve conditions in Gaza, but there is a real security threat from the water crisis in the community. Without potable water, there is a risk of disease spreading, which has the potential to cause escalating tensions and greater conflict. Action must be taken by the global community to address this situation.
The 5 days we spent touring the Jordan River Valley and the outskirts of Gaza were jam-packed. It was both eye-opening and educational. It is my hope to continue to work with the GLSLCI to find ways to provide assistance to people in these communites, transfer technology, impart best practices, and hopefully, find peace. As a result of our delegation and the EcoPeace Conference, there was a breakthrough. You can read more about it, here:
This project is a testament to what can be achieved when practical, peace-seeking locals get together to find solutions.
What I learned:
- No party is blame-free. There is blame to go around, but to blame is not the answer. Everyone needs to put aside past grievances and work together to find a way forward. The water is disappearing at a rapid rate and practical solutions are needed now.
- Local communities have the power to effect change. If we wait for the leaders of nations to find peace, we will be waiting a long time. But, if we can continue to find small wins and build a critical mass of cooperation, local actors can force national actors to change.
- While the challenges faced in the Jordan River Valley are thousands of miles away from Mississauga, there is the potential for a future security threat if we do not intervene to provide assistance. It behooves Canada and the US, and by extension local community leaders, to work with our counterparts in this region on solutions to ensure long-term water sustainabilit
Part 2 – Israel
Following the EcoPeace portion of the trip, I decided to add three days in Israel to learn about their success in innovation and better understand how they have become the so-called “Start-Up Nation.” In recent years, Israel has gone through a dramatic change to become home to some of the most innovative companies in the world.As part of our mission we met with representatives of Cyberspark, a collaboration between the municipality of Be’er Sheva, Ben Gurion University and the private sector. This new, state-of-the-art business park is directly connected to the university. This provides these companies with researchers and it provides the university with funding to expand programming and undertake research. What was instructive for me was the pivotal role the municipality played in making Cyberspark a reality. To compete with Haifa and Tel Aviv in the North, they became actively involved in the project through land and incentives to make the park happen. In return, the university is expanding, new jobs are being created, and Be’er Sheva is becoming known as a hub of innovation, and in particular, a destination for cybersecurity.
The lesson I took from this meeting was projects like this will not happen organically, they require governments of all levels to identify opportunities and pursue them with vigour. As we develop our innovation ecosystem and strategy in Mississauga, there are lessons we can learn from Cyberspark.
One of the highlights of my time in Israel was my meeting with SodaStream. In recent years the company has seen tremendous growth. Their product has hit a sweet spot with consumers. However, aside from making soda water, SodaStream is actively changing the world by making it their mission to eliminate single use plastics and the resulting waste. Each machine saves 10,000 water bottles per year, which in turn eliminates the amount of plastic in our environment and our water courses.
SodaStream is based in Mississauga and it is my hope we can partner on plastic reduction and environmental initiatives, not to mention work to expand their North American footprint right here in our city.
What amazed me about SodaStream was their commitment to fostering peace and inclusion. Their workforce is over 800 strong, but their secret to success lies in creating an environment where Israelis and Palestinians work together as equals. SodaStream isunique in this sense and their factory just outside of Be’er Sheva has been named the “Island of Peace.”
I was skeptical of the concept of an Island of Peace before I visited SodaStream, but then I saw first hand workers from Israel and Palestine working side by side. It was incredible to see and hopefully it is a recipe other businesses in the region use because it works! Diversity and inclusion work.
During our brief time in Israel, I also met with Orcam, the sister company to MobilEye, a company that developed sensor technology for automobiles and was recently sold for over $15 billion (USD). This company began as a start-up and grew to be one of the most successful Israeli tech companies ever. It was fostered by academia and government along the way. ORCAM has created a visual assistance device that will help the visually-impaired to better navigate the world. Employing AI, the technology is able to learn the world and provide audio cues to the wearer to help them navigate. This company began as a start-up and grew to be one of the most successful Israeli tech companies ever. It was fostered by academia and government along the way. I will continue to work with Orcam on potential partnerships in Mississauga, including with our Mississauga Library to assist the visually impaired with reading.
While on the theme of innovation, I also had the opportunity to meet with the Les Abelson is the North American Program Director at the Israeli Innovation Authority. We spoke at length about how Israel became the “Start-Up Nation” and the tools they use to foster innovation and create new start-up enterprises. Through funds provided by the Israeli government, the Innovation Authority invests in promising new companies, as well as in projects of existing companies. The aim is to support the transfer of knowledge between academia and commercial R&D. The Innovation Authority also operates 22 incubators across the country. Israel understands that to foster a culture of innovation and to breed new start-ups, there is a significant role for the government and academia to play.
As is the case every time I travel to a foreign market, I like to visit our local trade commissioners and ambassadors. While in Tel Aviv, I met with our Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons. We spoke at length about the relationship between Israel and Canada and the importance of continuing to foster strong cultural and economic ties. I took the opportunity to provide Ambassador Lyons with an overview of Mississauga and our strong business sector. Ambassador Lyons encouraged us to continue to work in the Israeli market to promote trade and foreign direct investment into Mississauga.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to tour the Shimon Peres Centre for Peace and Innovation. The late former President of Israel founded the centre in 1996. It’s focus is to develop meaningful and impactful programs with a focus on promoting a prosperous Israel, nurturing and highlighting Israeli Innovation and paving the way for shared-living between all of Israel’s citizens and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours. During the tour, we met in President Peres’s office and toured the new innovation space they will be opening in 2019.
One of my favourite moments of my time in Israel, but also one of the most heart-wrenching and sobering was our tour of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem. Winding through the museum, visitors are reminded of the unparalleled tragedy of the Holocaust – the lives lost, the families destroyed, the tremendous humanity and lack-thereof displayed – but also how it began. It did begin in the gas chambers; it started with hate and a vilification of the minority as a scapegoat. As reports of hate crimes continue to rise across Canada and North America, and as certain politicians actively vilify minorities to hang onto power, we must remain vigilant in our commitment to peace, equality, and to calling out hate whenever we see it.
This mission was eye-opening and instructive. I am thankful to live in Canada and to be surrounded by the world’s largest source of fresh water, the Great Lakes. I have a much greater appreciation for the importance of these waters and even more so the need to protect them and ensure their longevity. As a Canadian, having witnessed the struggles people in the Region face with respect to water security, I believe there is more we can and should be doing to assist these people to have access to fresh water.
With respect to my time in Israel, there are many lessons we can draw from the success of the so-called, “Start-Up Nation.” Their commitment to innovation, both financially and throughout their marketplace, has set Israel apart from other nations. If we want to become a hub of innovation in Canada, we need to put in place the programs and funding necessary to allow innovative ideas and people to thrive.I look forward to continuing to build relationships with the people I met during this mission.