Naim Ghazawi stands outside Birzeit University on the West Bank looking skywards. He is hoping for clouds. It has not rained here for eight months. The 54-year-old engineer with a friendly countenance and cropped grey hair is in charge of the municipal sanitation department in Jenin, a Palestinian city of 65,000 inhabitants in the northern West Bank. It gets roughly the same amount of rainfall as Berlin, but only in autumn and winter – the summer months here are hot and dry. Fields and gardens have to be watered if anything is to grow here. Without irrigation, only olive trees survive on the barren hillsides of the West Bank.
Ghazawi has joined twelve other Palestinian engineers and technicians for a weeklong training course at Birzeit University. Here they will learn how to improve wastewater management in their municipalities. The issues they will deal with are practical in nature: how to maintain pipes and pumps, how best to connect a house to water and sewage networks, how to clean blocked drains. These are pressing problems. ‘Although Jenin has a wastewater treatment facility, it doesn’t work properly,’ says Ghazawi. His municipality is better off than most. ‘But the sewage plant only takes wastewater from two thirds of the city. The rest goes back untreated into a valley. The sewage pipes themselves are old and many of them leak. They are also too small in diameter, which means that dirty water regularly spills out of the culverts into the streets. That happens mostly in winter when it rains,’ the engineer explains.
Fruit and veg thanks to recycled wastewater
In the seminar he learns what his municipality can do to counter these problems. GIZ organises up to 40 of these training courses per year. The Water Programme was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The training courses are implemented in collaboration with the Palestinian water suppliers’ parent organisation. This organisation determines course content and also invites participants. This is Ghazawi’s first course.
In truth, however, his dream goes much further: for Jenin is surrounded by areas of flat land that are suitable for agriculture. Planting more vegetables here would be good not only for local people, but also for the economy of the Palestinian territories. Most fruit and vegetables are currently imported from Israel. Ghazawi wants farmers to use treated wastewater to irrigate the fields: ‘Our aim is to recycle all wastewater,’ he says. ‘We must not allow a single drop to go to waste.’
Birzeit University already has a model for this approach, as Professor Rashed Al Saed of the Institute of Environmental and Water Studies is keen to demonstrate. He takes participants to the university’s sewage treatment plant. On the slopes below the institute building are several concrete reservoirs. A noisy electric motor pumps water from one to the next. Oxygen is injected in the form of large bubbles. Once waste and paper have been removed mechanically, friendly bacteria are used to start the biological cleaning process. The water is then passed through sand filters, before finally being pumped to reservoirs higher up the hill. Next to the sewage treatment plant is a greenhouse full of saplings – young mandarin and apricot trees, yucca plants and oleanders. ‘We’re researching the impact of recycled water on the plants,’ the professor explains. ‘All results so far have been positive.’ The university’s gardens and trees are already being watered with treated wastewater. And that is what Ghazawi plans for Jenin – even if there is work to be done to build confidence in the quality of recycled water.
New water meters for fairer billing
In Anabta, a West Bank town with a population of 10,000, the local government has prioritised a different problem. They receive no revenues for 52 per cent of the water either pumped from its own wells or bought in. ‘Water is a precious resource in our country and we do our best to reduce water losses,’ says Najwan Imseih-Rukab, a young Palestinian environmental engineer who works for GIZ. A study for the Water Programme revealed that 17 per cent of Anabta’s water seeps into the ground through leaking pipes. But most of the municipality’s losses are attributed to the fact that water meters at residential properties no longer record usage accurately. As a consequence, domestic meters are now being replaced. Local government staff have been busy piling boxes with the new blue meters into storerooms at the back of the council building.
‘Many people in Anabta are now afraid their water bills will go up’, says mayor Thabet Omar. He sits behind a huge desk, with photographs of two former Palestinian presidents, Yassir Arafat and Mahmud Abbas, hanging on the wall behind him. The mayor has organised meetings with the population to quell their concerns. In particular, he hopes that water costs will now be distributed more equitably and that the municipality will be able to use revenues generated to replace old pipes. But therein lies the problem. Ten years ago, the municipality issued electricity customers with prepaid cards. That move was a success, the mayor explains: ‘At last people were able to pay their electricity bills. We had money to expand the grid.’ But the price of water is a sensitive issue, as the mayor knows only too well. His counterpart from a neighbouring municipality was recently voted out of office because the price of water went up too sharply.
The municipality’s technicians are already busy in the streets of Anabta’s old quarter, where the new blue meters have been mounted on the walls of people’s houses. This afternoon they are installing a meter at a house with a narrow kitchen border full of young plants: ‘That’s broccoli, these are cauliflower and that’s kohlrabi,’ the owner explains. The soil evidently gets watered on a regular basis. The woman was not concerned about having her meter replaced. On the contrary: ‘I’m just happy we have a reliable daily water supply,’ she says. That is not always the case in the Palestinian territories. The people of Bethlehem, for example, often take two months to fill their rooftop tanks in summer.
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