Can British activists solve Middle Eastern water conflicts using permaculture?

| 25th January 2011
Israel is accused of diverting water that should be supplying Palestinian communities living in the highly arid conditions. Photo: William Parry
An unreported war over natural resources in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories has led students from Bangor University to set up a radical eco-movement, Bustan al Qaraaqa, to address the issue. William Parry reports from Bethlehem

There’s an asymmetrical conflict that’s been unfolding for decades in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories that never makes the headlines and yet is having devastating consequences: it’s a war over natural resources in the mythical land of milk and honey.

Palestinians and Israelis alike face increasing environmental challenges as global warming affects the region – particularly desertification and an increasingly hotter, drier climate. Under Israel’s illegal occupation, however, which began in 1967, the environmental challenges are being exacerbated by Israeli measures to limit the adverse environmental affects on its population by increasingly restricting Palestinian access to Palestinian land and water resources. It’s a calculated process that Palestinians say is tantamount to ethnic cleansing and which breaches international law.

Spend any time travelling throughout the region and you will see scores of aid agencies involved in hundreds of humanitarian projects. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are among the top recipients of foreign aid in the world. Rather than tackle the root causes of the conflict, the West prefers to pour billions of dollars into the occupied territories in top-down development projects – and much of that flows into consultants’ pockets.

Which is partly the reason why, out of frustration, four former students from Bangor University in Wales came together in 2008 to create Bustan al Qaraaqa, or the Tortoise Garden, in the Bethlehem neighbourhood of Beit Sahour. Their mission: ‘to propagate a grassroots environmental movement in the Palestinian Territories to help combat ongoing humanitarian and environmental crises’ – and to steer clear of top-down aid approaches.

Empowering communities

Bustan al Qaraaqa is situated in a handsome old, rustic, three-floor Palestinian home, made largely out of stone. One of its co-founders, Alice Grey, an ecologist who lectures part-time at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, previously spent several years working as a development consultant.

'Really, it was my job to dampen the hopes of anyone who thought that throwing money at the problem would make it go away. You can say: “I’ve got $20m, I will save Palestinians from water shortages.” But you won’t because amongst other things there are environmental constraints. But there are also the constraints of the occupation, so you can expect to spend seven years acquiring [an Israeli issued] permit for a project and you’ll probably have spent your $20m by then on consultants’ fees. This is what happens,’ she told The Ecologist. 'For the amount of money that’s being [pumped into Palestine], the achievements are very slim,’ she says.

Hence Bustan al Qaraaqa’s permaculture project. ‘We feel that where governments and development agencies are failing, perhaps individuals and communities can succeed if only they recognise their own power to deal with the problems that are facing them,’ reads their website. ‘Working closely with our neighbours, we are creating a model permaculture farm, to serve as a centre for experimentation with and demonstration of cheap and easy techniques for sustainable living and food production.’

All of this is abundantly evident. On the rooftop is a solar oven for slow cooking meals. In the kitchen, Grey demonstrates to The Ecologist their system for washing up. Dishes and cutlery soak in water populated with a dozen or so lemon halves in one plastic basin; another plastic basin of water is used to rinse dishes, which will then become the water used for soaking the dishes – and the old washing up water will be used to water plants. Showers are often opportunities to also wash laundry. They also use a waterless toilet system that provides fertiliser for their plants. In an region affected by experiences chronic water shortages, Grey is proud of how efficiently the organisation and its volunteers use and recycle water.

Opposite the West Bank’s only tree nursery, which was struggling somewhat with the prolonged drought and heat, there is a cave that’s been converted into a hostel room for volunteers and visitors when guest numbers are high. Each bed foundation is constructed out of tyres and rubbish, around which a combination of straw, mud and manure has been added to provide a solid base, with a mattress thrown on top. They don’t throw away any waste but try to recycle everything, and there are hidden stacks of rubbish stored for future use. It’s hippy living and everyone, including three volunteers from Australia and the US, seemed dedicated yet relaxed.

It is Bustan al Qaraaqa’s community ecological projects and advocacy work that are most likely to have the biggest local impact however. ‘One of the main issues here is population growth,’ says Grey. ‘Here, populations have become politicised, seen [by both Palestinians and Jews] as a political advantage. You also have the ambient problem of climate change, which in the Middle East is manifesting itself as increased droughts. So you have increasing numbers of people, a decreasing resources base, particularly in terms of water, which affects the costs of producing food, and in an arid zone this manifests itself as desertification. The West Bank is between the Judean desert to the east and the Naqab [Negev] desert to the south. If you consider the two deserts expanding, with Israel expanding from the west [through its colonisation], you can see Palestinians being pushed to increasingly marginal land, especially with Israel’s strategy to take the most fertile land.’

Water conflicts

And water resources: since 1967 Israel has controlled all water resources in the West Bank, and a number of respected organisations, including the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and now Human Rights Watch, have catalogued Israel’s allegedly illegal allocation and disproportionate use of West Bank water resources. The latter’s latest report on Israeli settlements notes: ‘Average Israeli per capita consumption of water—including water consumption by settlers—is 4.3 times that of Palestinians in the occupied territories (including Gaza), according to the World Health Organization. In the Jordan Valley, an estimated 9,000 settlers in Israeli agricultural settlements use one-quarter the total amount of water consumed by the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank, some 2.5 million people.’

Grey and her colleagues are thus attempting to introduce new techniques – and to reintroduce traditional methods – that empower the local population, making them more self-reliant through sustainably increasing food and water security. With already-acute water shortages and Israel’s refusal to allow the construction of adequate sewage infrastructure – there is just one sewage treatment plant for the entire West Bank population, processing just 10 per cent of all sewage, with the rest entering the ecosystem untreated – Grey advocates more widespread use of waterless toilets.

‘Environmentally, if you know the situation, you can’t justify having a flush toilet unless you don’t have the space to build a composting toilet. It’s also [myopic] with respect to wasting 30 litres of drinking water a day – that’s about 40 per cent of each household’s daily drinking water, flushed down the loo.’

Palestinians and local desert communities have depended on rain harvesting and catchment techniques for millennia – using rain water harvesting through cisterns, and earth work structures like gabions and terraces to reduce run-off of water and top soil nutrients. Modernisation, says Grey, has meant that many local urban communities have come to regard these traditional techniques as outdated and unnecessary.

‘Of course there are plenty of examples of permaculture being practised by Palestinians, as they’ve traditionally done, especially in refugee camps, where there are acute water shortages. It hasn’t been lost, it’s still there, and it’s been a necessity for generations. But I think there’s an element of... sometimes I call it “obsession with shiny things”,’ she says. ‘It’s trying to modernise, aspirations to Western affluence or culture or elements of it. People have got into their heads that [piped] water is the only decent quality water.’

Tree planting and aquaponics

Bustan al Qaraaqa’s on-going flagship projects are tree planting and fish farming. Grey notes that trees are instrumental in ameliorating soil erosion particularly in the West Bank's climate, and as a foraging crop in a system where over-grazing exacerbates climate issues. Several species are nitrogen fixers, which help nourish the soil, providing nutrients for other plant life. However, many local Bedouin communities see value in planting only fruit trees, given the devastating economic impact of Israel’s occupation. The organisation’s small but expanding tree nursery offers free trees and includes local species such as caroub, native oak, pistachio, Acasias tortalis, as well as a few exotics like Leucaena leucocephala and mesquite. All of these are suited for different terrains and help ameliorate soil erosion.

The centre’s fish farm project was still being developed when The Ecologist visited, and they are working on building a breeding population of fish. They aim to go to farming communities that have a reliable source of water, whether a spring or a well, and holding tanks, and to set up fish farms in these existing systems.

‘It’s very low input,’ says Grey. ‘Farmers fertilise the water a bit with goat shit, which they already have, which encourages the growth of aquatic plants, and the fish eat them. In turn, the fish shit in the water and you have more fertilised water for irrigating crops, which cuts expenses on fertiliser.’

Grey says they hope to expand this idea to aquaponics  – ‘a really compact system of fish farming and growing a plant crop’ – in communities like refugee camps with limited space and water resources, and are currently looking for funding for pilot projects.

Bustan al Qaraaqa and its volunteers are also working with Palestinians on land defence projects – planting trees, digging wells and creating irrigation systems. Israel’s separation wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, is the latest tool that Israel is using to separate Palestinian communities from their land. It is unilaterally annexing ten per cent of the West Bank, including prime farming land and aquifer resources.

The farming community – one of the largest sectors of the Palestinian economy – is being displaced by the wall and its permit regime. In many farming communities, up to 80 per cent of farmers have been refused ‘visitor permits’ to access their land and water resources, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), perversely making communities that were formerly the bread basket of the West Bank reliant on food aid and making farming largely uneconomical. In contrast, Israel’s subsidised agricultural sector – part of which pillages West Bank resources – floods Palestinian communities with cheap produce.

Barring Palestinians from accessing their land, either via the wall or by declaring areas closed military areas, Israel exploits an old Ottoman law which states that land unworked for three years can be transferred to the state. Involving international volunteers is part of al Qaraaqa’s advocacy work. Clare Gillis, a historian from Connecticut, USA, said that her month at the organisation has given her a great deal ‘of insight into [ecology, as well as] the illegal, preferential, apartheid system of water distribution in the territories.’

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