Tuesday, October 27, 2020

As water crisis intensifies, Palestinians find grassroots solutions

By Yehudit Tzfat - October 15, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [environment]

Ninety-seven per cent of Gaza’s groundwater is now undrinkable. A little over 50 per cent of West Bank households have access to water daily. As climate change and the Israeli-imposed water apartheid intensify, Palestinians on the ground are turning to innovative solutions to meet their water needs. 

With the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, student walkouts led by sixteen-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg and soaring global temperatures, the world is waking up to the threat of climate change. 

Natural disasters are becoming normal, fires are increasing and the seasons are shifting. Just like the rest of the planet, Palestine-Israel isn’t immune to global warming’s monstrous effects. The expected outcomes for the region are a rise in sea level, spike in temperature and reduced rainfall. 

Climate change’s main casualty in the region will be water. Decreased rainfall will deplete freshwater sources — making it more difficult to replenish aquifers and increase the cost of extracting water. This, in turn, will only escalate competition for water between the Israelis and Palestinians. 

“The water resources are very limited,” said Dr. Abdelrahman Tamimi, director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group. “When we have a drought in the Jordan Valley, we don’t have the infrastructure — even conceptually — we don’t have an integrated system to reallocate water from one source to another, like from agriculture to drinking.”

But climate change isn’t the only issue exacerbating Palestine’s water availability and quality. The Israeli occupation seeps into the everyday life of Palestinians, and water is no exception. 

Israel executes a complex labyrinth of licenses, permits and rights determined to control and limit Palestine’s access to water. Because of these measures, the Occupied Palestinian Territories “has some of the lowest per capita water availability in the world, at 72 litres per capita per day in the West Bank and 96 litres in Gaza, both less than the 100-litre minimum recommended by the World Health Organisation.” 

Comparatively, the roughly 600,000 Israeli settlers use six times more water than the whole West Bank population. Settlements can use more than 700 litres per capita per day for their household needs, swimming pools and gardening. 

In response to Palestine’s water crisis, the international community is funding around 19 projects to help improve water supply and sanitation. Yet for Muna Dajani, a researcher at Palestinian thinktank Al-Shabaka, donor projects like wastewater treatment and desalination plants are merely “technological solutions to a political problem.”

“We celebrate when a main water harvesting tank is installed by a donor agency,” Dajani said. “This isn’t a cause for celebration, it’s a cause for deep failure in the international community adhering to its role as a mediator of a just solution to the Palestinian issue.” 

But what she notices is Palestinians working on the ground to develop ways “to adapt to the imposed restrictions on [Palestine’s] natural resource use.”

“There is this kind of mobilisation on the ground that rejects these types of victimisation narratives related to climate change and the Israeli occupation,” Dajani said. “People continue to be resilient. They just want to maintain control and a sense of ownership of their livelihoods.” 

Due to the financial limitations of the Palestinian Authority, Palestine’s start-up community is taking the water crisis into their own hands. 

Flowless is the brainchild of Baker Bozeyeh. As an engineer for a Palestinian water service provider, he observed significant leaks in the water networks. 

“One-third of the supplied water is lost even before reaching the customer which is estimated at $45 million of losses every year,” Bozeyeh said.

Bozeyeh attributed the water losses to old and eroded water networks and inefficient management that doesn’t have the tools or resources needed to detect leaks. 

“I was looking for a solution to this problem and through my work, I found out that the best way to do it is to come up with a data-driven management system that is efficient,” Bozeyeh said. 

According to Bozeyeh, Flowless is “developing a smart system, consisting of smart metering, clustering, and fully autonomous analysis and interpretation using artificial intelligence, to automatically detect leakage in water networks and provide monitoring, interpretation, reporting of the network status in addition to the ability to forecast future incidents.”  

Currently, Flowless is in the prototype stage and is connecting with the Water Sector Regulatory Council to better reach water service providers. 

Blue Filter is a Gaza startup using environmentally-friendly materials to purify water. Using seeds, plants and eggshells, founder Salah El Sadi developed a natural method to remove harmful substances like nitrate from water. He was able to remove 90 per cent of nitrate from water by using a mixture of chia seeds, cress seeds, flaxseeds and eggshells.

El Sadi is working with an agricultural association in Gaza to treat water for irrigation. He is also working with Turkey to help water and sanitation efforts in Syrian refugee camps.  

Yet both entrepreneurs face financial hurdles in fully implementing their projects in Palestine. 

Mass production is a challenge for Flowless given the restrictions on importing outside materials. And most local and international investors are less interested in Flowless’ work because the startup focuses on achieving impact — not high profits. The mainly self-funded organisation only earned $2,700 from a water hackathon they participated in. 

While Blue Filter won $7,000 from Turkey’s impact accelerating programme “SDG Impact Accelerator”, El Sadi only received $2,000 from the Palestinian Water Authority, which El Sadi explained, isn’t enough.

“$2,000 is the cost of one device for me,” El Sadi said. 

Flowless and Blue Filter established their ideas in Palestine, but they see their companies as providing water solutions globally. 

“If I got a good fund, I could establish my project here.” El Sadi said. “My project to treat water from nitrate is very important, not just in Gaza but in all the world. The water crisis is a problem all over the world.”

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