Leading the Way With Sustainable Development

When I was in Palestine during the fall of 2011, working with the EAPPI South Hebron Hills team, our work took us to a number of very poor villages.  Living in tents without access to electricity or water (they are denied access to both the electrical and water systems by the Israeli authorities), and dependent upon the herding of their sheep and goats for a livelihood in an environment where grazing land continues to be under threat of diminished production due to drought and is increasingly being confiscated by the Israelis, the daily life of these villagers was a constant struggle.  The problems with drought, land confiscation and settler attacks on shepherds as they graze their sheep continue today.  Water issues are being gradually addressed through a variety of means. An exciting new development is the dramatic improvement in the quality of life that has come through the installation of solar panels and wind turbines to generate electricity.

This has resulted from the hard work and vision of a group called Comet-ME.
Comet-ME is an Israeli-Palestinian non-.profit organization providing sustainable energy and clean water services to off-grid communities. They work to facilitate social and economic empowerment of some of the most marginalized communities in the West Bank through the construction of wind and solar systems,water solutions, capacity building and maintenance.

Their 2013 annual report (found at http://www.comet-me.org) describes their work.  “We work in an area of the South Hebron Hills called Massafer Yatta, home to several thousand Palestinian farmers and shepherds living in caves and tents. Often referred to as the ‘cave-dwellers’, they subsist on non-mechanized agriculture and herding. The region is arid (an average annual rainfall of less than 250mm) which makes survival a difficult task. Israeli military occupation makes matters even worse. Most of the region is defined as “Area C” in the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, meaning that Israeli authorities possess full military and civil control. Area C constitutes 62% of West Bank territory and includes the only available land and agricultural reservoirs which are essential for the viability of Palestinian economy and statehood. The planning regime imposed by Israel in Area C severely discriminates against the Palestinian population. While Jewish settlements, some of which are considered illegal by the Israeli government, enjoy modern water, sewage access, roads and electricity,  the Palestinian communities adjacent to them lack these basic services because of a bureaucratic mechanism designed to prevent them from building infrastructure and to halt their socio-economic development. This planning regime is not simply a technical matter, but a product of Israeli political agenda. Israeli authorities are impeding infrastructure development as part of a larger policy aimed at pressuring rural Palestinian communities to leave Area C and move into Palestinian urban centers, thus securing Israeli demographic dominance in the only remaining open areas of the West Bank. The poverty and marginalization of these communities is therefore a product of the political situation more than geography or the economy. Our work is motivated by the desire to alleviate the unnecessary suffering imposed on these communities by conflict and political violence.”

Their work is based on three core principles:

1.  Working with communities. Viewing the communities as both the beneficiary and the partner, they invest in both direct and long term contact with the communities that involves meaningful community participation and ownership at all stages of the process.

2.  Utilize open source technology. All technological details  of their projects are available on the public domain.  Partnerships are shared with a global network of practitioners, including Engineers Without Borders and the UN Sustainable Energy For All practitioner network, allowing for the sharing of information and developments that will be of benefit both locally and internationally.

3.  Local sourcing of equipment and supplies wherever possible. Most of the installation equipment is sourced from local Palestinian suppliers.  Wind turbines are built in the Comet -ME Center located in a renovated house in the South Hebron Hills. They train local Palestinian electricians from nearby Hebron, who then train local community members in basic maintenance and diagnostics. This local knowledge base is then available for future development.

After following Comet-ME’s activities from afar, I was fortunate last week to be part of Comet-ME’s fifth anniversary celebrations, held at their Center in the South Hebron Hills.

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Opened in December, 2012, the Comet-ME  Center is totally environmentally friendly and energy independent, using green energy sources, consuming only self collected rainwater, and using non polluting olive refuse as a heating fuel.

People gathered outside the main building of the Center.

People gathered outside the main building of the Center.

Another view of the Center.

Another view of the Center. Notice the solar panels on the roof.

The center serves  as the organization’s base of operations, as a training and volunteer facility, workshop, warehouse, and development center for appropriate rural development technologies.  In short, it is a place where people can come together to work out concrete solutions that can then be implemented on the ground.

Elad Oran, one of the co-founders of the organization, led us on a tour of the facilities and explained their work.

Comet-ME co founder Elad Oran (far right) leading a tour of the facility. This picture was taken inside one of the two caves on the property.

Comet-ME co founder Elad Oran (far right) leading a tour of the facility. This picture was taken inside one of the two caves on the property.

He began by explaining that the building, cistern and 2 caves are a rented facility, an indication of the deep trust shared between the land owner and themselves as Jewish Israelis.  It is the only building in the region without a demolition order on it, although there is a demolition order on the outside porch and the wind turbine.

To date, Comet-ME has built 20 wind and solar energy systems in separate villages in the area, providing electricity for approximately 2000 people.  Unfortunately, the Israelis have placed demolition or stop work orders on 16 of these systems, leading the primary German funders to refuse to fund further installations. They are now dealing with the legal work involved in fighting these orders.

The wind turbines are built in the center’s workshop.  The blades are hand carved wood.

Wind turbine at Comet-ME Center.

Wind turbine at Comet-ME Center.

The solar panels are purchased, carrying a 30 year guarantee.  They need to be cleaned and have their angle adjusted manually four  times per year in order to maximize sun reception.

Elad explained that the average Israeli family uses 10-15 kwatt hours per day of electricity.  The South Hebron Hills installations provide 2.5-3.0 kwatt hours per day per family, meaning that families have to priorize their energy consumption.  High use energy appliances such as electric kettles and space heaters would use too much energy and need to be avoided.  In terms of priorities, families first choose illumination, followed by the charging of cell phones (the only means of communication), and then TV and radio use.

The electrification of the villages has produced significant improvements in the quality of life.  Cave homes that previously were dark in the winter by 3pm can now be lit, allowing students to more easily complete their homework and family members to do other tasks.  Much of the family income is generated from the sale of products from the goats and sheep.  Women used to spend 5-6 hours per day churning butter.  Now, with an electric butter churner, the task is complete in 45 minutes.  Comet-ME has been able to subsidize the purchase of energy efficient refrigerators, allowing for the safe keeping of the various farm products, safer storage of foodstuffs for the family, and the safe keeping of medications for family members and livestock.  As well, families are now able to have a washing machine, making family laundry an easier task.

All of this, using 100% sustainable energy.  In an area of ongoing conflict, it is an encouraging example of Israelis and Palestinians working together at the community level to bring positive change.  Together, they are living out one of Comet-ME’s foundational principles, that joint concrete work can reestablish hope and solidarity even in the harshest moments.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom

Jan

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