The Bedouins in the southern Negev desert of Israel are an indigenous and nomadic community. While Bedouin tribes claim historic rights to the land, an estimated 40% of the population resides in villages considered illegal under Israeli law (Ilana Meallem, 2010). The rest of the Bedouin population live in a number of towns and villages planned for and set up by the government. This complex political reality, exacerbated by low socioeconomic standards, has left many of these communities unconnected to Israel’s water or wastewater treatment networks (Sharmila L. Murthy, 2012).
As such, tens of thousands of Bedouins are without sufficient access to water supply and sanitation services, presenting a public health and humanitarian disaster. Communities rely on hazardous cesspits, septic tanks, and informal and/or illegal waste disposal, causing pollution and harm to public and environmental health.
The Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, in partnership with engineers, technicians, and NGOs throughout Israel and Palestine, has developed a greywater treatment and reuse system to address this challenge. As illustrated in Figure 1, these systems are designed to collect greywater (reclaimed water from sinks, showers, kitchens, or laundry) and, through a series of gravel-filled treatment tanks, treat water to a quality suitable for reuse in irrigation for agriculture.
Figure 1: Arava Institute for Environmental Studies’ Greywater Treatment System Design
This technology provides solutions for wastewater management in communities that are not connected to sewage systems, such as the Bedouin, which reduces on site pollution and thus lessens the runoff into surface water and groundwater. It additionally provides a secondary supply of water for irrigation and food production.
The Arava Institute is working with a Bedouin village called Wadi Aricha, where we maintain a strong relationship with village leaders. Wadi Aricha sees itself as a model environmental community, and their community leader, Salman Sadan, dreams of his village being an eco-living and eco-tourism training center for other Bedouin communities in the region.
While we similarly sought to make his vision a reality through installing a greywater system, the donor agency funding our project was hesitant as the village is unrecognized by the Israeli government and hence illegal under Israeli law. These villages are susceptible to demolition by the Israeli “Green Patrol,” a unit of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture tasked to protect Israel’s green spaces. Working in Wadi Aricha, and every other unrecognized village, was the first roadblock in our efforts, as we knew that the sustainability of this project was dependent on long-term operation and management. So we refocused our efforts.
Um Batin, although a legally-recognized village, has yet to be connected to Israel’s water and sanitation networks. Untreated sewage pollutes the Hebron stream, which flows through the village, fostering a public health and humanitarian crisis for its residents. Despite being recognized for over ten years, the buildings and infrastructure in Um Batin are still considered illegal, due to the complex city planning requirements for transitioning Bedouin villages. The only recognized buildings in Um Batin are schools; additionally, the Green Patrol is forbidden to demolish schools. Building a greywater system at a school in Um Batin was not only an opportunity to reduce wastewater pollution and provide an additional water supply to the community, but it would also serve as a platform for educating students on sustainable living.
We built the system using local materials from Bedouin markets, trained local Bedouin contractors and educators on system construction, operation, and maintenance, and connected the system to drip irrigation for the school’s community garden. With much enthusiasm, Israel’s Minister of Environment even attended an inauguration event, applauding the school for its environmental efforts.
Just six months in, this enthusiasm crumbled. Small-scale greywater treatment and reuse systems are not regulated by Israel’s Ministry of Health, and the Ministry ordered us to remove the system. We were devastated, but certainly not more than the school was. After battling an application process for a permit from the Ministry of Health for months with slow progress, we had to shut down the project. We relocated the system to a privately owned community center in Rahat, a recognized Bedouin city. While the system still serves as an educational resource for community members, our hopes for this project left us far from our original goal.
But this is the norm when working within such a complex political reality. And it only takes a challenging experience such as this one to realize the nature of such work. Concurrently, the prospects of improved centralized water and wastewater infrastructure are similarly bound to such complexity. Decentralized, small-scale solutions, such as greywater treatment and reuse, are thus an ideal mechanism for improving water and sanitation needs for the Bedouin population. It could minimize the need for the inevitably arduous bureaucratic processes involved in expanding water and sewerage networks and provide direct benefit in the increased availability of water for the local population.
Most importantly, a decentralized approach to treat wastewater reduces the pollution impact on shared water resources, thus mitigating tensions between Arab and Jewish Israelis in the region. Legalizing these grey water systems and enabling their implementation throughout Bedouin communities could be a win-win for Israelis, Bedouins and the environment.