Israeli, Palestinian Ecologists Partner to Solve Land and Water Problems

By Cat Lazaroff

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, January 26, 2000 (ENS) - Peace in the Middle East may well be founded on successful agreements governing the use of the regionís scarce water resources. At Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, Israeli and Palestinian environmental researchers are working together to solve the regionís water and land use problems.

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Scarce water and sustainable agriculture pose problems for all the peoples of the Mideast region, seen here in a satellite photo centered on the Sinai penisula (All photos courtesy Sandia National Laboratories)
The year-old project was initiated by the Cooperative Monitoring Center (CMC) at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories. The cross border collaboration brings together scientists to study ways to help maintain shared sustainable grazing and agricultural systems important to the future of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"In the environmental sciences, the ecosystem does not function according to political boundaries," says Ben-Gurion University professor Moshe Shachak, a preeminent desert ecologist who serves as Israeli coordinator for the project. "Therefore, especially in the Middle East, we must have cooperation if we are to have a sound environmental program. The goal of the program is to understand the structure and function of water limited systems and preserve the services they provide for humans."

CMC program manager Arian Pregenzer initiated the project on Sustainable Land Use Monitoring in the Middle East while visiting Israel in the spring of 1998. During this visit she met Shachak, who was finalizing plans to establish three International Long Term Research (ILTER) sites in Israel. Pregenzer suggested that joint ecological research could be a productive area for collaboration between Israeli and Arab scientists, furthering the Middle East peace process and regional security.

About a year ago, the U.S. Department of Energy approved a small amount of funding for a collaborative experimental project linking Palestinian, Israeli and American researchers at the CMC and the University of New Mexico.

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The project is the brainchild of CMC program manager Arian Pregenzer
CMC environmental projects manager David Betsill met with potential research partners in Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank last spring to discuss goals, assess suitability of organizations and individual partners, and view potential field research sites.

Selected as Palestinian project partners are the Agriculture Department of Hebron University and the Palestinian Ministry of Environmental Affairs (MEnA). The Israeli partners are Ben-Gurion University Mitrani Center for Desert Ecology and the Ministry of Agriculture's Volcani Center.

Meteorological data are fundamental to environmental research but are not readily available to regional scientists. The team members decided to install meteorological stations at four ecological research sites located along a 100 kilometer long ecological gradient in the northern Negev desert. Precipitation levels at the sites range from 150 to 300 millimeters a year. Two of the stations are in Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank and two are in Israel.

Last summer, monitoring and communication equipment supplied by Sandia was installed at the research sites for data collection and sharing. The stations take hourly measurements of air temperature, rainfall, soil temperature, soil moisture, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and relative humidity - all variables that help define ecological conditions. The Palestinian and Israeli partners collect and share the data from all the stations weekly by cellular modems. The CMC maintains a website (http://www.cmc.sandia.gov/) so that any researcher in the world can see and use the data.

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Sandia's Susan Caskey shows communication and data display systems to participants of the Ben Gurian University conference on Biodiversity in Dry Lands at the Lehavim, Israel ecological research station
"The researchers can use the environmental data in a variety of ways, for example, studying long-term climate changes, determining optimum irrigation amounts for specific plants, and monitoring air quality," says Michael Vannoni, CMC Middle East Program manager. "As a result of this collaboration several joint research proposals to international funding organizations have already been submitted by the partners."

The CMC has several goals in Palestinian-Israeli confidence building. "We want to establish a precedent for collaborative projects between Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S. scientists," Vannoni says. "There has been little in the way of interactions between the scientists in the past, and we hope this project will open doors to future communication and collaboration. Scientific cooperation may lead to cooperation in other topics important to the peace process such as water management and economic development."

"In one year the project has gone from no one knowing each other to being partners where they are working collaboratively," Betsill says. "The personal motivation and involvement of the partners was ultimately the key to the success of the project."

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Sandia's Mideast Project leader David Betsill installs monitoring equipment with his Israeli counterpart at the Lehavim, Israel ecological research station
Palestinian environmental engineer Hazem Qawasmeh, formerly with MEnA, says he's participated in joint research with Israeli scientists in the past, but this is the first successful one.

"Politics got in the way of the many previous attempts of communications in the scientific field and rendered successful project implementation useless," he says. "And that's what makes this project so special because it provided the success recipe for dealing with potential partners in similar situations. It's kept at a scientist to scientist level and politics is kept out at any cost."

Last fall, Israeli and Palestinian partners joined several American scientists at a meeting at the CMC to talk about the future of the program. One near future scenario considered was for the Palestinian sites to associate with the ILTER for collection and international sharing of environmental data, including Israel.

Other future possibilities include increasing the capacity of the existing four research stations; expanding the system to include Gaza, Jordan, or the southern Negev desert; and developing joint systems for data management and sharing.

"Where we go from here is largely up to the Israeli and Palestinian partners," Betsill says. We've come a long way in a few short months, but it's only just a beginning."