Clive Lipchin, Director of the Arava Institute's Center for Transboundary Water Management, works on a greywater system.

Decentralized Environmental Solutions to Off-Grid Communities

The Arava Institute’s Cross-Border Work

By Alyssa Grinberg

In the Middle East, many rural communities suffer from a lack of municipal services such as safe waste disposal, wastewater management, and clean water and energy provision. Without access to such services, off-grid communities struggle to obtain affordable safe drinking water and clean energy, properly dispose of their waste, and reuse treated wastewater for irrigation in a region fraught with water scarcity.

Arava Institute intern, Dominik Wendschlag, shows local children how to test the water quality of one of the greywater systems.
Arava Institute intern, Dominik Wendschlag, shows local children how to test the water quality of one of the greywater systems.

At the Arava Institute, researchers are producing decentralized, low-cost, sustainable solutions to these challenges that simultaneously encourage peace-building through cross-border cooperation. Named one of the top 100 environmental think tanks in the world, the Arava Institute is a leading environmental and academic institution in the Middle East dedicated to preparing future leaders from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and around the world to cooperatively solve the regional and global challenges of our time. Based in southern Israel, in the Arava Desert Valley, the Institute houses academic programs, internships, research, and international initiatives on a range of environmental concerns and challenges.

“The research we conduct at the Arava Institute,” says Dr. Clive Lipchin, Director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, “is at the intersection of science and politics. We develop practical and pragmatic solutions to transboundary environmental problems.”

Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a partner of the Arava Institute and the generous support of JNF donors, individual donors, and grants allows the Institute to progress with their innovative work to solve environmental and social challenges. Among four other research centers at the Arava Institute, the Center for Transboundary Water Management (CTWM) is tackling some of the most pressing water and wastewater management issues in the region and proposing tangible decentralized solutions.

This semester, Dominik Wendschlag – an intern with CTWM from Germany – is researching the potential for an integrated system combining greywater filtration methods with biogas technology. How does it work? First, greywater from household sinks and showers is diverted to a simple filtration system and then made available for plant irrigation, which is especially important in regions fraught with draught. “It’s a constructed wetland so you are mimicking nature,” states Mr. Wendschlag. “The idea is that it’s a simple solution with low-cost, easy implementation, effective in improving living quality.” The greywater is also used in the biogas digesters, which require water in its anaerobic process. Dr. Shmuel Brenner, Director of the Arava Institute’s Arava Center Sustainable Development, explains, “You take domestic waste or animal waste and you mix it together with water and you get an anaerobic process by which after a few days you get several products. One of the products is gas – mostly methane gas – which can be used for heating, electricity, cooking, and so on. The system also produces compost which is used as a fertilizer.”

Arava Institute intern, Dominik Wendschlag, tests the water quality of one of the greywater systems.
Arava Institute intern, Dominik Wendschlag, tests the water quality of one of the greywater systems.

These off-grid decentralized systems are created in close partnership with local communities to best meet their needs. As Jaclyn Best – an intern at CTWM originally from Boulder, Colorado – explains, “As we were building these systems we weren’t just plopping them down and walking away. We had a number of meetings involving stakeholders: Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals. The goal was to meet the ‘other’ and realize that both sides want to see a solution to cross-border water issues.”
According to Ms. Best, approximately 70% of people in the West Bank are not connected to the wastewater management grid, which leads to improper disposal of sewage and wastewater. No border or physical barrier can prevent untreated sewage from polluting shared aquifers or air pollution from spreading from one country to another. “In the West Bank,” Ms. Best explains, “a lot of the streams flow into Israel and a lot of the sewage is being dumped in there, so it’s also beneficial to Israel to have wastewater treatment across the border.”

For the past 20 years, the Arava Institute has pioneered cross-border environmental research and cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians because protecting the environment cannot wait for the conflict to be resolved. “In order to protect nature, which is very precious to all of us, we need to cooperate and coordinate with each other,” explains Fareed Mahameed, a current student at the Institute who identifies as a Palestinian Israeli from Um-Elfahem. “We should try and overcome our political disputes in order solve the environmental problems. I think in the end that is what is really what connects us all as human beings – we are part of nature and nature is part of us so that is why we should cooperate relentlessly trying to solve environmental problems.” Mahmood AlRahami, a Jordanian Arava Institute alumnus from 2013-2014 also echoes this sentiment: “I think cooperation is important for environmental work because we do all live in this land and we do all live in this environment; what’s better for me is better for everyone and what is better for everyone is better for me.”

The Institute remains dedicated to the vision of a peaceful and sustainable Middle East, and its ongoing role and credibility in the region, position the Institute to make a vital contribution to environmental protection and sustainability despite the lack of progress towards peace.

Embodying the concept that nature knows no borders, the Arava Institute illustrates that cross-border cooperation is possible despite political conflict. “It’s a philosophy I’ve grown to believe and it gives me hope,” concludes Jaclyn Best.

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