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Ecological Healing in the ‘Holyland’

In this guest-article, Dr. Christopher S. Clarke of the Osprey Foundation describes their work in Palestine and Israel to address the most pressing environmental needs of communities impacted by growing inequality and access to resources, and how such an ecological approach might be a means of overcoming despair.

The Middle East is a region where environmental, developmental, and political struggles intersect, nowhere more vividly than in the West Bank. Palestinians face an array of daunting environmental challenges as inequality grows between them and Israelis, and no resolution to the conflict appears likely in the short-term with growth of Israeli settlements in regions occupied by Israel after 1967.

The environmental situation in the West Bank — especially with regard to water supply and water quality — is precarious, and threatens to become more acute as population growth and climate change exacerbate the formidable water challenges that arise from the area’s natural aridity, its patchwork water infrastructure, its hamstrung economy, and from Israel’s control over West Bank water sources and supplies. The protracted Israeli/Palestinian conflict frames even the most mundane issues of water allocation and infrastructure creation.

The West Bank hardly seems at present like a place that would offer opportunities for smaller private funders to engage directly with water or environmental issues, or to build a network of local NGO partners.

Yet the successes experienced over the past few years by the Osprey Foundation, located in Baltimore, MD, suggest that it is possible to identify and form partnerships with highly capable NGO partners in the region. Indeed, the individuals who are working in the water and environment arena there possess deep technical expertise and have established an excellent track record for successful project completion.  Moreover, many of those who are working to confront the region’s water and environment challenges exhibit a laudable propensity for cooperation, partnership, and coordinated effort across political boundaries.

Osprey Foundation partner, The Arava Institute's staff member Tareq Abu Hamed (r.) discusses a solar desalination prototype during a workshop in Israel's Negev desert. Photograph from Arava Institute (used with permission)

Osprey began its efforts to fund water and environment projects in the West Bank in 2009, using the internet, published sources, and personal contacts to identify potential project partners that could further the foundation’s mission goal to promote social justice by improving access to water and sanitation.  It was not difficult to discover an array of NGO’s, both Palestinian and Israeli, that were pursuing this goal either locally on behalf of Palestinians or regionally on behalf of both Arabs and Jews who share the immediate environment and its resources.

The currently fragmented nature of political authority and environmental activity in the West Bank makes it very difficult to execute large-scale, nationally coordinated projects. Ironically, this means that there exist opportunities for donors of relatively modest size to engage in partnerships that can make a real difference to people on the ground. Osprey has been able to fund four or five such projects annually, with visible and highly satisfactory results.

Among the array of project partners that Osprey has supported are two Palestinian NGOs–the Palestinian Hydrology Group, and the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers’ Group–as well as the Arava Institute for Environmental Study (located in the Israeli Negev), and Friends of the Earth Middle East, whose tri-partite governing structure links offices and co-directors in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and Amman.

Osprey-funded projects are taking on real environmental challenges and making a difference for people on the ground, even as they pilot new forms of appropriate technology.  The Palestinian Hydrology Group has undertaken well rehabilitation, water service improvements, and the installation of household grey water recycling units (which reclaim wastewater for use in garden and greenhouse irrigation) with Osprey funding.  The Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group has been working with comprehensive household wastewater solutions that address both grey water recycling and improved handling of the black water septic waste stream. PWEG’s cooperative work with colleagues from the Arava Institute will shortly expand to include experiments with the use of solar power to operate household grey water units. Arava is working on new, lower cost technology options for household grey water installations, as well as small-scale solar desalination devices for groundwater in Gaza.

The modest size of Osprey’s individual project grants has not prevented the foundation from engaging with broader policy issues in the region. Through its partnership with Friends of the Earth Middle East, Osprey is contributing to discrete components of FoEME’s ongoing effort to reverse the devastation that decades of neglect have brought to the Lower Jordan River ecosystem.

Osprey’s contributions to water, sanitation, and ecosystem remediation are only a drop in the proverbial bucket of the funding needed to address the region’s formidable and complex environmental challenges. Yet smaller private funders like Osprey have a great deal of freedom to seek out and assist in the development of promising new solutions and technologies, potentially laying the groundwork for larger funders and government to scale up the most promising among them.

The real successes that Osprey has seen in the West Bank over the last three years are testimony to the capacity for individual philanthropic agencies to identify outstanding partner NGOs, attack real problems, and support environmental cooperation in a region where the challenges are many and the political climate is, to put it mildly, discouraging. Positive opportunities await other environmentally-oriented private US donors of modest size, who could be making a difference in the West Bank and the surrounding region right now.