Arava Institute boosts hopes of environmentalists in Middle East


Ilana Meallem and Mazen Zoabi left a morning meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II last spring smiling. The king had just proposed the formation of a regional science fund, and they were certain they would have access to that fund.

The two Israelis, project managers at the ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ alt=”students of the Arava institute”>

“Will the funding from Jordan follow?” Zoabi wondered. “I don’t know, honestly, but I think it is in everyone’s interest that they fund us.”

Programs at the institute include examining pollution levels in transborder rivers touching Israel, the West Bank and Jordan; probing air pollution in Jordan, and a special two-year project with Morocco to cultivate argan almond trees that until now have grown wild only in southern Morocco.

Meallem, originally from London, and Zoabi, a Technion graduate from an Arab town near Nazareth in the Galilee region, were to go to China for three months after the conference. The purpose of the trip was to bring back technology to turn small-scale organic waste into energy for use in Bedouin villages in Israel and later in Jordan and possibly the West Bank. The technology, known as biogas energy, is not uncommon but reportedly has been best developed for small-scale use in China.

We don’t yet have a partner for this with the Palestinian Authority,” Zoabi said.

“Perhaps we could do projects with you and get more Palestinians involved in your institute,” Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Arab moderate and the president of Al Quds University outside Jerusalem, told Zoabi and Meallem. “Maybe your generation can go beyond the politics that have dragged us all down.”

In the air-conditioned, temporary conference hall not far from the path leading to the spectacular Nabatean ruins that have put Petra on the map, Nusseibeh was busy chatting with Yigal Carmon, the head of the widely read MEMRI: The Middle East Media Research Institute and a counterterrorism adviser in the administration of the late Yitzhak Rabin.

“These environment projects are great for everyone because it is a win-win situation for all sides,” Carmon said. “You see here that Jordanian politicians and various prize laureates and funders are very quick to speak with Ilana and the others because it gives them a sense of doing something good for people in a concrete way. I think we have seen enough sessions on conflict resolution; the answer is more real projects.”

Wiesel, the conference moderator and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, said his foundation was ready to put up or raise $10 million for the regional science fund that was proposed by Abdullah. The fund would sponsor projects proposed by groups all over the region.

“I think the Arab countries are taking scientific cooperation with Israel very seriously,” Wiesel said. “His majesty the king is a true associate in this endeavor with the young people. He knows, and I know that some of them will be the leaders of tomorrow.”

Kholouel Al Dorghan, who is in her 20s and works in the Bank for Trade and Finance in Amman, said she was excited by the possibility of working in Israel.

“I met Israelis for the first time in my life here at this conference, and I felt a real buzz in the air here from the young people and the delegates,” she said. “I would be happy to do research in the Arava Institute or anywhere in Israel.”

Still, several young people who had been invited as individuals from other countries in the region preferred to remain anonymous.

“I would love to work with Israelis,” one said, “but my government would not like that at all and would harass me and my family. There must be a way for us to participate, as well. I am angry about this, but what can I do?”

A Drink from the Same Cup


If the pursuit of peace in the Middle East will not unite the parties concerned, then one life-sustaining element may. Israeli, Arab and American researchers and engineers have come together to find ways to produce more potable water for agricultural use, as demands for supplies of Middle Eastern and Californian freshwater continue to increase.

“Urban demands [for water] are increasing with the increase in population and standard of living,” said Uri Shamir, head of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Water Research Institute, a multidisciplinary research center that focuses on the science, technology, engineering and management of water. Fresh water that has been used for agriculture, said Shamir, must be shifted to the cities.

“If we want to maintain agriculture the way we have at the moment, we need water and more water,” said Raphael Semiat, head of the Rabin Desalination Laboratory at the Technion, a laboratory funded by Los Angeles businessman Rob Davidow, who’s a world leader in waste-water and sea-water desalination R & D.

With water resources limited throughout the Middle East, the Palestinian-Jordanian-Israeli Water Project has been launched to research new, safe, cost-efficient methods to irrigate crops. One of the more popular methods researched and employed by the project’s committee, which is composed of scientists from the Technion, Ben-Gurion University, Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and the Palestinian A-Najjah University, is waste-water recycling, a method that purifies waste-water with minimal harm to the environment.

Soon, even this process will not suffice, and the more expensive sea-water desalination process will supplant it — especially in California and Israel, where sea water is abundant.

“It’s a solution that is not free of difficulties, but it is basically on your own territory, using an infinite source — the ocean,” said Shamir, who is currently conducting research in management of disputed international waters at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sea-water desalination works in one of two ways: a thermal process, which evaporates and then condenses clean water vapor, and water membranes, which filter water through tiny pores about 0.1 micrometers small.

Researchers from the Rabin Desalination Laboratory have worked with I.D.E. Technologies (formerly Israel Desalination Engineering) of Ra’ananna, Israel and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California who have joined with Parsons Corporation of Pasadena and Reynolds Metals Co., to design a state-of-the-art, generic desalination facility that could purify up to 80 million gallons a day using the thermal process. After two years of R & D, the design of the 540-foot tower is now complete, and the partners are looking for investors to implement the design and construct a plant. The most viable locations for the plant are along California’s coast, since Israel’s coast is more populated.

The Jordanians and Palestinians are less likely to employ sea-water desalination because they have little or no access to the sea. Nevertheless, efforts are still underway to conduct joint research on desalination with Palestinian and Jordanian scientists. The Joint Palestinian-Jordanian Water Project, however, needs more funds as well as a more peaceful political environment to resume this research with full force.

“We are trying to continue unhampered,” said Shamir, who believes that cooperation for knowledge for society’s benefit will eventually override any disharmony caused by nationalistic strife.