“There Is No Bad Water:” Scholars Learn About Food, Energy, and Water Systems in Israel and the West Bank
In January 2019, a group of 9 interdisciplinary scholars from the University of Maryland College Park and Baltimore campuses and the University of Arizona embarked on a journey of learning and cross-cultural exchange. Co-led by Dr. Sarah Allard, Assistant Program Manager for CONSERVE; Bill Piermattei, Managing Director for UMB’s Environmental Law program; and Dr. Clive Lipchin, a CONSERVE Collaborator; the group traveled throughout Israel and the West Bank, where they studied the region’s diverse approaches to water reuse for agriculture. The tour took them from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Palestinian villages in the West Bank to a Kibbutz and a Bedouin community in the Negev desert. Along the way, the scholars encountered the many challenges agricultural communities face as well as successful projects managing a limited and precious resource: water.
The first stop was Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, where the group toured the campus grounds and labs, engaging with students and postdocs to learn about ongoing agricultural research projects. Back in Tel Aviv, they met with U.S. Embassy Chief Science Officer Christopher Green to discuss the U.S. Embassy’s work in the region as well as the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Recent funding challenges have stalled the progress of peace-building projects related to health, water, and the environment in the region, complicating the advancement of transboundary water management and directly affecting several of the projects the group would learn about later in the trip.
After traveling to Jerusalem and spending a day touring the Old City and the local market, the group met with Dr. Clive Lipchin, Director of Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Throughout the remainder of the trip, Dr. Lipchin navigated them through the complexities of the food-water-energy nexus in the West Bank and introduced them to people living and working amongst those complexities. First, the group traveled to the Palmachim Desalination Plant, where they were given an excellent history lesson in Israel’s challenges and strategies for water management by Abraham Tanner, former head of Israel’s desalination program. Following a tour of the desalination plant, the group visited the Ra’anana Wastewater Reclamation Facility, where they learned about how wastewater effluent is treated, regulated, and transported for crop irrigation throughout Israel. These centralized systems expand Israel’s water supply and are the backbone of a nationwide, government-controlled water system that minimizes reliance on dwindling surface waters and underground aquifers.
By contrast, there is no comparable centralized water system in the West Bank. In visiting local farmers in the West Bank as well as the sustainable agriculture program at the East Jerusalem YMCA Vocational Training Center - Jericho, the group saw firsthand that the availability of both water and energy are limited and intermittent in many areas of the West Bank. Furthermore, often the only option for wastewater disposal is through unlined cesspits, which threaten groundwater quality and can require hiring expensive pumping specialists when full. In the face of limited water availability, greywater (household wastewater that does not contain waste from toilets) presents an underutilized and consistent water resource, one that if utilized properly could increase the agricultural productivity and self-sufficiency of off-grid communities.
In the West Bank towns of Al Auja and Marj Al Ghazal, the group was joined by Dr. Lipchin’s Palestinian partner Monther Hind, Director of the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group. The group met with farmers who have worked closely with Director Hind and Dr. Lipchin to establish onsite greywater treatment systems. These upflow gravel filtration systems take greywater and treat it so that it can be safely used for drip irrigation of food crops, primarily fruit trees.
In addition, Dr. Lipchin and Director Hind showed the group a solar array designed to power a groundwater pump installed through a USAID development grant. These solar projects have enabled energy independence in the face of unreliable energy supplies, providing farmers with consistent access to groundwater for irrigation.
The group was deeply impressed by the impact that these projects can have on improving the livelihood of Palestinian farmers, many of whom are severely limited in what crops they can grow and how much they can produce due to limited and intermittent availability of freshwater and energy. When asked if they were committed to maintaining their onsite greywater reuse systems, one farmer responded “Yes, because the water has saved us.” Previously only able to grow dates, the only crop that could withstand the high salt levels of local groundwater, the greywater system enabled expansion into citrus farming. During farm visits, the group had the incredibly special opportunity to sit down with farmers and their families to openly discuss their experiences and concerns with water, energy, and food.Together with the sharing of delicious Arabic coffee and flavorful locally-grown dates, this cultural exchange was something the participants will never forget.
The whirlwind tour of Israel and the West Bank ended with a visit to the Negev desert and a stay at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The Institute not only seeks to educate students about environmental issues, but also to build peace in the region, taking the approach that the environment can be a bridge to bring people together through common concerns. During a hike through the seemingly inhospitable desert mountains surrounding the Kibbutz, the group marveled at the evidence of animals and the intermittent hardy plants, able to survive despite the harsh conditions.
Moving to another part of the vast Negev desert, the group visited a Bedouin village, where they shared a delicious meal with a Bedouin community leader and learned about the specific challenges Bedouin communities face in having their traditional land rights, wastewater challenges, and freshwater needs recognized. Dr. Lipchin explained how, in these communities, movable treatment systems would best serve the community, which may need to relocate in the future.
All of these experiences were designed to illustrate agricultural community water needs in arid regions where economic resources are fairly abundant (Israel) and where they are not (West Bank and Bedouin communities). Throughout the trip, the interdisciplinary crew assembled for evening team meetings to reflect and brainstorm. Building upon work completed on previous trips by UMB/UMD groups, the goal of this team was to develop a regulatory framework that could be used to guide off-grid communities in their efforts to reach self-sufficiency with regard to water and energy, with greywater reuse systems in Palestinian communities in the West Bank used as a model. Microbiology and chemistry experts lent a food safety perspective, delving into potential contamination concerns and what types of testing could be feasible given financial and logistical restrictions. Social work students and the agricultural extension specialist asserted the importance of involving stakeholders from the beginning and planning for the long-term sustainability of community engagement. Law students are incorporating these perspectives as they develop guidelines for a regulatory framework structured for optimal public health impact and community support. The interdisciplinary mix of perspectives enabled lively and productive conversations that enriched participants experience and contributed to thoughtful outputs.
The group will continue to work with the Environmental Law Program, CONSERVE, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Lipchin and the Arava Institute and their Palestinian partners such as Monther Hind and the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group. Not only are participants developing ideas to solve real world problems, such as providing economically viable and environmentally beneficial solutions to the water and resource scarce West Bank, but they also got to see first-hand how larger geopolitical disputes between governments impact the disparate lives of Israelis, Palestinians and Bedouins. The participants gained invaluable experience working as an interdisciplinary team, honing their problem-solving skills, working on real world problems, and engaging across cultures. The group will keep with them the message that “there is no such thing as bad water”; with creative and thoughtful management, all water has value, and it has the power to change lives.
This trip and the learning opportunities it has provided were made possible by a grant from the University of Maryland Baltimore Center for Global Education Initiatives, funding from the University of Maryland Division of Research, and administrative support from CONSERVE: A Center of Excellence at the Nexus of Sustainable Water Reuse, Food and Health (awarded to the University of Maryland School of Public Health by the United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Grant number 20166800725064).
Sarah Allard, Assistant Program Manager for CONSERVE, University of Maryland (UMD)
Bill Piermattei, Managing Director of Environmental Law Program (UMB)
Clive Lipchin, Director of Transboundary Water Management (Arava Institute for Environmental Studies)
Natalie Brassill, Assistant in Extension - Water Quality, University of Arizona (UA)
Mary Theresa Callahan, Research Faculty in Plant Science (UMD)
Angela Ferelli, PhD Candidate in Plant Science (UMD)
Robin Harris, Graduate Student in Social Work (UMB)
Kyla Kaplan, Student of Law (UMB)
Jared Mackenzie, Student of Law (UMB)
Richard Remigio, PhD student in Public Health (UMD)
Julia Roche, Graduate Student in Social Work, MPH (UMB, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)
Linyan Zhu, Postdoctoral fellow, Public Health (UMD)