Despite its relatively centralized location, adjacent to a main thoroughfare near Jericho, the Palestinian village of Auja is largely cut off from utilities such as water and electricity. To remedy this situation, an unusual group of Palestinian, Israeli and American activists and professionals have joined forces in the past few years.
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For several years, staff from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel and a group of Palestinian water engineers have been working to bring basic utilities to Auja, along with members of Build Israel Palestine – “a group of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the United States supporting the development of cross-border water projects in Israel and Palestine,” as the organization’s website explains.
Auja has neither a sewer system nor a water-purification plant. Its sewage is channeled into pits and poses a danger to the groundwater that provides the main source of drinking water in the area. Occasionally sewage backs up, requiring expensive repairs that residents must pay for. The village is connected to the area’s electricity grid, but outages are frequent.
According to Clive Lipchin, director of the Arava Institute’s Center of Transboundary Water Management, a large number of Palestinian villages lack proper sewage infrastructure and purification systems, and are unlikely to get them anytime soon due to the high expenses involved. This has prompted the institute and its partners to look for alternatives that can serve individual homes or a small group of homes.
Five years ago, for example, a system of this kind was installed in the Auja home of Salah Najum. Waste from the toilets in his house flows into a large septic tank in his yard and is broken down by anaerobic bacteria. Over time, some of the pit’s contents will percolate into the surrounding soil, but they will not endanger the groundwater.
In addition, so-called gray water – from the kitchen and bathroom faucets – flows into a separate, gravel-lined pit, where it is purified by bacteria that grows on the rocks before being sucked into a holding tank. Najum says he uses this partially purified water to irrigate his fruit trees. Before the system was installed, the gray water was not exploited in such a fashion. It was kept separate from the sewage, in order not to overtax the old cesspit. The new system “works as it should,” Najum says now, adding, “otherwise I wouldn’t still be using it.”
The new waste and water installations in Najum's home were built as part of a pilot project, says Lipchin, who immigrated to Israel over 20 years from South Africa and has a Ph.D. in resource ecology management from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. Similar systems have been built in West Bank Palestinian communities, including Halhul, a city near Hebron, with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and private donors.
The long-term goal – which will take time, as well as significant infrastructure investment, to realize ־ is to create systems that can serve a larger number of homes and provide more extensive water and sewage treatment solutions for rural areas.
Last year, Build Israel Palestinian helped erect an array of solar panels in Auja, to strengthen and stabilize the village's electricity supply while reducing costs to residents. In particular the goal was to benefit farmers who need to pump groundwater to irrigate their date-palm groves, which in recent years have become an important source of their income. They now share in the cost of maintaining the solar-energy generating facility, which also encourages their commitment to its success.
Hebron Hills project
In the argot of environmental organizations, the activity in Auja is called “aid to off-grid communities.” Similar assistance, benefiting Palestinian communities in the southern Hebron Hills, is being provided by the Israeli-Palestinian organization Comet-ME (Community, Energy, Technology), . The off-grid efforts of Comet-ME, which must navigate a politically charged environment, were discussed earlier this month by the organization's co-founder, Elad Orian, at the Israel Climate Change Conference held at Tel Aviv University.
Orian noted that Comet-ME-installed wind turbines and solar panels are providing electricity to off-grid buildings in various villages. Residents pay into a maintenance fund set up by the organization, which has also provided pumps and water-purification systems in the cisterns that supply water to these areas.
Orian added that Comet-ME sees itself as a small water and electricity company that provides vital services together with routine maintenance. Its job is a difficult one, he said, but at least the Hebron Hills doesn’t lack for the wind and sunshine necessary to allow such alternative infrastructure initiatives to flourish.