Sustainability without borders

Boulder-based nonprofit works on environmental projects with Palestinians and Israelis

A monastery famed for its holy water faces contamination issues in the Kidron Valley stretching from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

Around the year 483, in the middle of the desert in the Kidron Valley halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, St. Sabbas is said to have prayed for water and out of the rock a spring began to flow. Ever since, Eastern Orthodox monks have lived in a cluster of caves at the Monastery of Mar Saba following the religious traditions of St. Sabbas and drinking the holy water.

But in recent years, the water in the monastery’s cisterns has become contaminated, prompting local authorities and environmentalists to seek solutions as an estimated 420 million cubic feet of sewage runs down the valley each year.

“If you went to any of the holy sites in East Jerusalem and went to the bathroom, that waste ends up untreated going down the Kidron Basin,” says Peter Ornstein, president of Sustainable Israeli-Palestinian Projects (SIPP). Founded in 2015, SIPP is a Boulder-based nonprofit made up of a variety of academics and experts lending their know-how to sustainability efforts in the region.

On a recent trip to the area, Ornstein, a retired EPA lawyer, along with Bernard Amadei, civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and founder of Engineers without Borders USA, consulted with the monks at the monastery and hiked around the facility in an attempt to determine the source of the contamination.

CU Professor Bernard Amadei next to a cistern at Monastery Mar Saba. Peter Ornstein

While they found nearby residences, agricultural practices and trash may be the largest cause, sewage remains a challenge in the contested region, crossing back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian controlled-territory as it runs down the valley. There are plans to pipe the sewage to a treatment facility in the West Bank, supported by authorities from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but the project has yet to get off the ground. At the same time SIPP is partnering with local environmental NGOs to address the issue directly.

The organization also supports a wetlands project at two local schools in the growing city of Ubeidiya to demonstrate how to treat sanitary waste and then repurpose it for agricultural uses. Designed by an Israeli engineer and run by Palestinians, the project is still under construction, but city officials are already talking about a larger project to intercept waste coming out of Ubeidiya in an effort to protect the monastery.

“The ultimate goal is to empower people at the local level to work with each other,” Ornstein says. “The sustainability aspect is two-fold: One is the environmental sustainability, which is mostly changing attitudes, and also to have people who have common goals for their community to work with each other and to provide those nexuses and connections.”

The nonprofit began as “a loosely confederated group of people in Boulder who decided we really wanted to do something positive in the region as opposed to dwelling on divisive issues,” Ornstein says. As a neutral partner, SIPP is “not pro- Israel or pro-Palestine,” says Amadei, who has worked in the region for more than a decade and joined SIPP’s board last year. “It’s pro-solution and so we can find common ground around projects.”

A few years ago, the group connected with a local professor working in the Kidron Valley to address waste management issues with both Israeli and Palestinian communities. In the process, they had the idea to fly out Eric Lombardi from Eco-Cycle to give presentations about best practices and how to organize the community around changing the status quo, which currently translates to open dumping, burning or burying waste.

“Boulder is one of the best zero-waste communities in the country not because it economically pays us to be zero-waste but because the people of Boulder were organized by Eco-Cycle and we’ve spent 40 years pressuring the government to do the right thing,” Lombardi says. “That’s what they’re going to have to do in Israel and Palestine. They’re going to have to get organized, and they’re going got have to pressure their elected officials.”

Eric Lombardi (left), of Eco-Cycle, discusses waste management at a new landfill in the Kidron Valley in 2015. Courtesy of Eric Lombardi

While in the region, Lombardi shared his expertise at a conference, toured a local landfill and encouraged the community to forge partnerships with schools and other nonprofits to start an aggressive recycling campaign.

“All I can say is that on both sides, Israeli and Palestinians, everybody was rolling up their sleeves, working together, there was no politics,” Lombardi says. “It was just how do we work together to improve the situation.”

Since that first trip in 2015, SIPP has continued to grow, connecting with other projects and bringing in more expertise, as it partners with an ever-expanding group of environmental and human rights lawyers, dispute resolution professionals, entrepreneurs, and other community members and leaders based in Boulder.

Anne Peters is an electronic waste consultant, who volunteers her time working with SIPP to help mitigate the open burning of scrap electronics in the West Bank. As part of an underground economy, an estimated 62 trucks of used goods travel between Israel and villages known for refurbishing and repurposing workshops. While most of these household goods, from couches to refrigerators to TVs and computers, are repaired and resold, leftover cables and other electronic scrap is openly burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water sources.

SIPP supports several local NGOs working to educate the community about the health risks associated with the practice, as a recent study found elevated levels of toxins in the groundwater and an increased risk of cancer, respiratory problems and miscarriages in the region. 

“What you can’t argue with is that you breathe the same air, and basically drink a lot of the same water,” Peters says. “And if we can do stuff that helps make those things cleaner — the air, the water, food, the soil — it can build pathways. … It’s a unique approach to consensus building.”

Despite some progress in the last few years, finding momentum can be difficult in a hotly contested region, where peace has proved elusive for centuries. The environmental and sustainability issues are not all that difficult to address from a technical standpoint, Amadei says, but the social and political climate can easily derail projects.

“It’s often 10 steps forward and nine steps, if you’re lucky, backwards on the projects,” he says. “But at the grassroots level, I think people are willing to collaborate and work together.”

By using Boulder’s expertise when it comes to sustainability practices, the nascent organization is seeking to bridge ideological, political and religious divides in the hopes of aiding the peace process.

“I think SIPP has a lot of potential. It also has demonstrated that it can walk the talk, which is unlike other organizations that talk about peace in the Middle East,” Amadei says. “At SIPP, it’s not an academic exercise. We really have boots on the ground. We have a great group of colleagues, of partners in the region, who do some really exciting work.”

As the organization continues to expand and support projects with mutual interests on both sides, the hope is peaceful coexistence in a region that often succumbs to political stalemates and violence.

“It’s one of those good news stories in the world,” Lombardi says. “The more successful they are, it will feed the peace process over there as much as anything anyone is doing. Plus it’s just some really good rewarding work.” 

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