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Students Connect Water with Peace

Professor Abitbol and students

In the Middle East, water too often equals conflict. This past summer, when a team of MA students from SIS arrived in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank for a capstone research practicum on water issues, they found ample evidence of this reality.

Israel withdraws about eighty percent of the water from the shared aquifer that supplies both communities and has much greater access to the financing and technology needed for improved water security. For many Palestinians, these water inequalities have become a symbol of injustice and a daily reminder of their lack of autonomy.

For many Israelis, the Palestinians’ inability to manage wastewater effectively—about seventy percent of sewage in the West Bank goes untreated—has consequences for both Israelis’ and Palestinians’ health, as well as for regional water quality.

But the students also found water being used as a tool to bridge the conflict divide. Their research focused on a partnership between the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), an Israel-based education and research center, and the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group (PWEG), a non-governmental organization that works on water infrastructure and conservation.

The SIS student team, led by Professor Eric Abitbol, spent twelve days in the field assessing whether and how the Arava-PWEG partnership was producing wider peacebuilding benefits through its water projects. Too often, the region’s official, governmental channels of water cooperation have failed to yield such benefits.

The students examined pilot projects to promote household-scale recycling of “gray water” (non-toilet wastewater). The hope is that joint efforts to build such projects can also help Israelis and Palestinians develop mutual understanding, find benefits in cooperation, and perhaps even forge a shared identity as stewards of the same ecosystem.

The student research team was organized by the Global Environmental Politics Program (GEP), and drew students from graduate degree programs in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD), International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR), International Development (ID), and Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs (EPGA). Support came from SIS and from AU’s Center for Israel Studies (CIS).

While the students’ research uncovered significant household benefits from water recycling and positive effects of cooperation, they also identified several barriers to peacebuilding effectiveness.

One challenge is that the parties’ motivations to cooperate on water are very different. As student Valerie Puleo put it, these differences “highlight the major differences between the Israeli and Palestinian experience of occupation. Palestinians invoked notions of human dignity, while Israelis raised issues of environmental sustainability. The situation is highly asymmetrical on all fronts.”

A second challenge is that the partners themselves, according to EPGA student Erin Rosner, “don't see their work as peacebuilding.” They understand the water benefits, but the tense political environment makes them cautious about highlighting the ability of such work to enhance the prospects for peace.

The research also found that benefits from these projects tend not to reach the poorest Palestinians, and that the “networking” benefits of increased mutual understanding were limited to the projects’ technical teams, as opposed to the wider society. The team’s report also flagged the partners’ lack of attention to gender issues, even though women are important beneficiaries at the household level.

Nevertheless, the team saw several reasons for optimism, and their final report urged expansion of the efforts along with reforms. As student Joanna Fisher put it, “We found that peace, economic security, and ecological integrity were intertwined and could work together in a development context. Initiatives such as this one have the potential to change the conversation about water and make it an avenue for cooperation instead of conflict.”

The students also gained important educational benefits from the experience. For student Valerie Puleo, “Talking to both sides of such a highly contested conflict and learning about the challenges associated with peacebuilding was extremely valuable.”