Mobilizing The Middle East Around Environmental Issues

May 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

While most people are heading off to the beach for vacation, Lizabeth Zack is packing for a two-week trip to the Middle East where she will visit the Dead Sea and Jordan River. Zack, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Upstate who has been researching environmental activism in Jordan since 2006 when she spent a year in the area as a Fulbright Scholar, will conduct research from June 1-14.

In addition to doing research, Zack will visit sites near the Dead Sea and Jordan River where restoration projects are underway and participate in a two-day environmental conference hosted by German-Jordanian University.

As a sociologist, Zack has done projects on different kinds of political activism. But it was during her first trip to Jordan that she learned about a few environmental protests, which indicated a certain level of interest and organization around the issues of pollution and forest protection.

Zack spent a year at the University of Jordan in Amman where she did a combination of teaching and research around the theme of political protest and social movements. The courses Zack taught were part of the American Studies program and exposed Jordanian students to important social movements in American history, such as the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Her research project examined contemporary patterns of protest in Jordan.

“There’s a common misunderstanding that people in developing regions of the world, including the Middle East, don’t have the luxury of caring about the environment in the face of political unrest and economic difficulties,” said Zack. “But there’s plenty of evidence that people are concerned about how natural resources are managed and that they want to have a say in how their communities are developed.”

During her stay in Jordan during 2006-2007, Zack saw evidence of this in a couple of protest campaigns, in the media, and in government policy-making circles. So, she decided to document some of the ways that Jordanians were mobilizing around environmental issues.

“Over the last few years, I’ve been tracking individuals and groups mobilized around various environmental issues, such as industrial pollution, recycling, water, and species and habitat protection,” said Zack. “This latest project focuses on efforts to address the decline of the Dead Sea, an important world heritage site that sits on the border of Jordan, Israel and the West Bank and is known for its healing properties and biblical significance.”

The water level has been falling for decades as Israel and Jordan have diverted the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s main feeder. Environmentalists, government officials, international organizations, and tourism advocates have all voiced concern that the Dead Sea is in a state of environmental emergency and that urgent action is needed to prevent its disappearance. Debate and controversy have swirled around competing proposals to solve the problem, one of which is to build a canal and pump water about 200 km from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, hence the project name ‘Red-Dead.’

“My research examines the framing of environmental issues, or how and why we come to define certain changes as environmental emergencies,” said Zack, who will conduct interviews with local environmental activists and government officials working to solve the water problems of the Dead Sea. “Certainly, environmentalists, the media and scientists have played a role in raising awareness but, in the case of the Dead Sea, we also see powerful political and economic elites pushing to declare the site a major environmental problem as a way to justify their support for the Red-Dead development project.”

The project should aid in a better understanding of the conditions driving environmental concerns in the Middle East and the impact that citizens may, or may not, have on sustainable development and environmental policy-making in the region. It may also offer insights into the shifting patterns of political activism in the context of regional changes associated with the Arab Spring.

“One of the questions I hope to address during my trip is how environmentalists in Jordan have been affected by the regional developments of the Arab Spring,” said Zack. “I would imagine that the opening of the political systems in Tunisia and Egypt might provide new opportunities for activism but not necessarily in Jordan where protest has resulted in minor reforms and the persistence of authoritarian rule.”

During the period of her research, Zack has noted emerging trends in environmental activism, one such trend being a shift in emphasis from traditional conservation issues, such as preservation of forests and protection of species and habitat, to a framework of urban sustainability. This approach focuses on promoting growth and development of urban communities that is more environmentally sensitive, which means incorporating such elements as more green space, alternative transportation, and recycling systems.

“Another trend is the shift in the tools environmentalists use to organize and raise awareness,” said Zack. “As with other forms of activism in the Middle East, there has been an explosion of Internet-based sites, from alternative media to blogs that cover different environmental issues.”

Even as environmental activism gains popularity in the Middle East, some question why it took so long to come to the region when western, developed countries embraced the movement much earlier.

Zack explained, “In the decades after independence in the mid-20th century, governments in the Middle East were focused primarily on development – of infrastructure, industry, housing, schools, etc. – without much regard for the cost to the natural environment. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was becoming clear that the Middle East was facing serious water shortages, land degradation, and a host of problems associated with increasing urbanization. The United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 helped bring international attention to these problems and to channel resources to address them.”

It is also the case that autocratic regimes in the region have been preoccupied with suppressing any political opposition and have monopolized control of key resources such as oil and water as a way to secure power. It has been during moments of political liberalization, such as in the early 1990s in Jordan, when environmental groups did form and take on certain issues.

Political conflict in the region, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has also been an obstacle to addressing environmental problems, especially the regional, trans-boundary  challenges such as how to develop and protect the Jordan River Basin.

For additional information, contact Dr. Lizabeth Zack, associate professor of sociology, at (864) 503-5739 or