Addressing the Middle East Water Crisis — One Rain Drop at a Time
By: Brendan McGinnis, President, Water Resources Action Project
Global Understanding Convention | Monmouth University | April 9, 2013
My name is Brendan McGinnis, in addition to helping found The Horinko Group, an environmental consulting firm based in Washington, DC, I’m President of the Water Resources Action Project, or WRAP as we have come to know it, which I will be discussing today. Before I get started, I would like to personally extend my warm thanks to Dr. Saliba Sarsar, who continues to graciously share his time and insights to WRAP, serving on the group’s Board. I would also like to express my gratitude to him for the invitation to present today — it is truly an honor and an opportunity that I don’t overlook.
Middle East — Water Conflict
Before I provide a brief history of the group and it’s efforts, let’s start with a snapshot of what the water conflict looks like in the Middle East. More specifically, I’m going to focus on the bordering regions of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan — the initial focus of WRAP’s efforts. This region is one of growing population that is already dealing with dire water shortage problems. All three of these bordering countries rely on a shrinking and polluted Jordan River, and adding to this problem, the number of rainy days continues to decrease each year. So, as you can imagine, freshwater is a precious resource for this region and its people.
Some are looking to desalination to provide the additional water that these people will need, removing salt from the waters of the Mediterranean and Dead Sea, so it can be used for drinking, agriculture, toilet flushing, washing, showering — all things we often take for granted. Desal will certainly play a role, but it’s an expensive, energy intensive process that has a host of near-term challenges and limitations.
Lack of Water — The Impact
Where does this leave us? Well, the issues I just touched on continue to intensify and the resulting impacts worsen —
Drinking water is scarce, whatever remains, if anything, is used for toilet flushing and hand washing. Whether an office building, home, or school — each is permitted only so much water each day for drinking and other uses. If they run out, they run out — the tap doesn’t continue to flow.
These people are left with two options, wait until the next delivery of water or simply use less. Best case scenario — a tanker trunk actually shows up in a reasonable timeframe. And, even if it does, you are left purchasing drinking water at an exorbitant rate.
This kind of scenario regularly plays out in the remote, rural areas of East Jerusalem bordering the Palestinian territories, as well as much of the West Bank.
During my last visit to the region in November of last year, this was certainly the case at a number of schools we visited. We have seen that school populations are impacted the most. Why? Because you have a large population of young students, centralized on a small site. And, even though some will have an appreciation of how scarce this resource really is, conservation will always be an issue when dealing with children.
As you can imagine, it can be difficult to focus on learning when you’re thirsty, when the restrooms are temporarily closed, when they are dirty because there is only enough water to clean them twice a year. Yes, twice a year, at the beginning and end of the school year. Factor in that you will likely not have enough water to wash your hands, and you have a serious hygiene problem.
This all leads to a greater dependency on municipal water that in this area is quite limited, often unreliable, and can constitute a very significant portion of a school, or household’s, overall budget.
All of these pressures, and the countless ones that I haven’t touched on – no water for agriculture, gardening, washing dishes, washing clothes, the list goes on and on – all result in growing tension between these bordering countries, with a people from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, all competing for the same, dwindling resource.
Where Do We Go From Here — WRAP
Where do we go from here? A question without a definitive answer that initially brought our group together in early 2009, a handful of concerned environmental and legal professionals from diverse political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, all wanting to make a difference in this region of the world, not later — now.
That same year, we form a 501(c)(3), volunteer,non-profit called the Water Resources Action Project. I stress the word, volunteer. No one is paid, no one. Not knowing early on exactly where and how our group would be able to make the greatest difference, we kept our mission and vision flexible enough to let us figure it out along the way.
Our mission – to improve the quality of life for underserved communities in the Middle East through greater water stewardship, and, I will stress – while operating with strict political and religious neutrality.
Our hope – that by easing the growing water conflict and educating individuals and institutions at the grassroots level on the value and interconnectedness of water, we can foster a greater awareness and appreciation for human health and the environment.
What Difference Can We Make — Now
After a few visits to the region, ongoing dialogue with these struggling people, and canvassing the organizations currently working in this area, we identified a number of immediate opportunities –
The most precious resource of this arid region will forever be water — not oil, but water. And, during an ever-shrinking timeframe of the year, typically November through April, freshwater falls from the sky, much of it soaks into the dry land, where it eventually finds its way into the Mediterranean and Dead Sea.
A rather simple technology, at a relatively low cost, that we have found is effective in capturing, storing, and using this rainwater, are two primary types of collection systems — rain barrels and cisterns.
With respect to the rain barrel system, it’s pretty straight-forward — there is a collection unit that is placed on the roof of a house or building, the unit collects the rainwater as it falls, the rainwater runs through a gutter system, by way of gravity, to the ground level, where it is then stored in a number of large, plastic barrels. This water does not meet drinking water standards, but it can be used for a range of other needs, typically toilet flushing and hand washing. A small pump transfers the water from the storage barrels through a set of plastic tubing to selected toilets and faucets.
A cistern system is a bit more complicated and costly, due to the excavation and concrete required. This system is placed in the ground and a concrete storage tank is poured that can hold a great deal more water than a rain barrel system. A similar type of pump is then used to pump the water from the cistern to its intended use. A cistern is typically used in the West Bank. Due to the very infrequent rainfall in this particular area, you want to capture and store as much as possible, which the cistern permits.
Following a number of visits to schools in the area, we found that 85% of a school’s total water usage is from flushing toilets. We also determined that these rain collection systems could supply 70% of a school’s total water needs during its nine months of operation.
Taking these scattered pieces of information collected from our visits, discussions, research, and relationships, the path forward became clearer. Emphasizing a “results–only” approach, we would begin actively sponsoring and constructing rainwater collection systems within underprivileged schools of neglected areas that lack reliable, safe water.
In order to do so, we would need local, trusted partners, working on the ground with a proven track record of “getting things done.” And, thankfully, we found the right fit. In January 2011, WRAP entered into a memorandum of understanding with Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). FoEME continues to be an invaluable resource for WRAP, assisting to identify candidate schools, licensed engineers for constructing the systems, and in-school partners.
With all the necessary pieces now in place, we were able to complete the installation stage of our pilot project in a matter of weeks.
WRAP’s Progress — Pilot Project
The Sur Baher Girls School in East Jerusalem was selected as WRAP’s pilot school based on a number of criteria, the most critical being — it’s located in an underprivileged area, in an outlying region of Israel bordering Palestine; serves 800 Arab girls (grades 1–12); the school’s municipal source of water is costly and unreliable; the principal, teachers, maintenance workers were all enthusiastic to have this rain barrel collection system installed, and each were committed to working with the children to understand the purpose of the system, the value of water, and the impact that each student’s individual actions have on the surrounding environment and their neighbors.
The rain barrel collection system was completed in February 2011, servicing one of the school’s two restrooms. Contributions that each WRAP member pledged to donate on an annual basis funded it. We made certain that any project we implemented budgeted for no less than three years of routine maintenance and a part-time Project Educator, working in-school with the children five hours per week.
I was fortunate to attend the dedication of the system on May 19, 2011 with the school’s leadership and students. Also participating was Naomi Sur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.
Monthly reporting following the 2011 and 2012 rainy seasons shows that WRAP’s havesting system at Sur Baher has collected over 130,000 Liters, accounting for nearly half of the water used by the school during this timeframe.
As a result, we have reduced the school’s dependence on the municipal system, the amount of limited resources allocated to its water bills, and improved the children’s understanding of water’s importance and conserving it — knowledge the we found was carried home with the students and transferred to parents, siblings, and neighbors.
Before describing our second project, it’s worth noting (actually, it’s a key differentiating factor) that we don’t simply move onto the next school. We are committed to staying connected to each school that we establish a relationship with. We stay fully committed to each school, its leadership, and its children. We visit these schools during our annual trips to the region, and remain closely connected to each.
WRAP’s Progress — Second Project
Our second project was also completed in February of this year — a rain barrel collection system at the Afaq School for the Learning Disabled, also located in East Jerusalem.
The system services 300 Arab boys with special needs. The project, which includes three years of maintenance and education, was funded by WRAP’s annual membership dues, as well as a $4,000 commitment by Only Green Environmental Center.
Monthly reporting following the 2012 rainy season shows that WRAP’s havesting system at Al Afaq has collected nearly 50,000 Liters, used for the school’s toilet flushing and community garden.
WRAP’s Progress — Next Project
WRAP is close to breaking ground on its third project, a cistern system at the Battir Girls High School, located near Bethlehem in Battir, a Palestinian village. Visited and vetted through WRAP, this school has 120 female students in three grades. We intend to work closely with the school’s leadership to provide the environmental education program and routine maintenance for no less than three years.
Water delivery is unreliable and costly. The bathrooms are cleaned twice during the school year. The principal that we met with is a very dedicated individual that is fostering a positive environment for his students.
This project consists of a cistern collection system, a $25,000 budget that includes three years education and maintenance. Immediate benefits include continued usage of cleanrestrooms throughout the entire school year, with water available for hand washing, ability to have summer camp, and a community garden.
Once this project is fully funded and complete, a number of additional schools with similar needs have already been identified. Considering WRAP’s next trip to the region is in the coming weeks, I can ensure you that this list will continue to grow.
Lessons Learned — Carrying It Forward
What have we learned thus far? For a young organization, a number of lessons have been learned along our brief journey —
- Fully committed leaders from the school, community, and local partners are critical. If there is not a shared vision of what is trying to be accomplished, real progress will not take hold.
- Strong, parallel educational component is a must. The installation of a rain harvesting system will result in its own direct benefits to the school and its students, but a full understanding of the interconnected, and often unperceived, impacts of collecting and conserving water to the surrounding community and environment cannotbe overlooked.
- Detailed, transparent criteria and process for screening and selecting projects is important to continue the validity and neutrality of our efforts, particularly in a region with sensitivities between bordering nations.
- Proven contractors, routine system maintenance, and protective measures from vandalism are all critical elements to ensure the ongoing performance and longevity of any project.
- Continued follow-up on projects, data collection, and reporting can never be underestimated — each validates the importance and impact of the project, not only to the school and its surrounding community, but also to our membership, donors, and ability to raise funds.
- It’s important to identify the end game and create a roadmap to get there — absent this, it’s very easy to lose focus and succumb to distractions.
Most non–profits have paid staff with benefits, expenses, and travel costs covered.
Most non-profits have marketing programs that spend donor funds on coffee mugs, pretty calendars, mass mailings, member services, etc. Many start small, but over time become their own bureaucracies.
What’s makes WRAP different?
WRAP directs all contributions towards its projects — every penny of every dollar.
No overheard, no pass through, no bureaucracy, no executive salaries, no nonsense.
All WRAP leadership, members and staff are volunteers, devoting their time and resources toward putting real results on the ground. When we show up at a project site overseas, it’s on our dime, not the donor, and not some grant.
We have trusted, grassroots partners in place prepared to leverage their knowledge and resources towards these efforts.
We have licensed engineers standing by to install these systems.
We have a parallel curriculum established and a project educator lined up to administer the educational program.
If You’re Wondering — How Can I Help?
Let me first say, my primary objective of today’s presentation was simply to make you aware of how little it takes to make a very big difference. This effort has been one of the most rewarding, worthwhile, and satisfying experiences that I’ve had working with a non-profit organization.
You can spread the good word. Become more aware of these issues, educate others, seek out your own solutions, and of course, let others know about WRAP.
We welcome your feedback, and I’m not just saying this. I want to hear from you. Let me know how I can improve this message, further leverage resources, and connect with others making a difference in this region.
And finally, our volunteers make a difference by being the difference. If you believe this is the right time for you to get involved, then join us in our effort to bring clean water to people routinely deprived of it — not later, now.
We are in the midst of organizing student-led groups responsible for “owning a project.” This means that you are in charge of working with WRAP to select the rain harvesting project in the Middle East, communicating with the contractor to design the construction plans and budget, help fundraise towards the effort, manage all aspects along the way from breaking ground to finished completion, coordinating the environmental curriculum, reporting, and maintenance, and most important, organizing a trip to the region to visit the completed project and witness first-hand the impact you have made on these children and the surrounding community.
Thank you and stay in touch!
Download a PDF copy of the presentation.