Biogas: Bringing Small-Scale Renewable Energy to Rural Palestine

As our 12 American friends boarded a flight from Amman back to Boston, Ezra and I turned toward the West Bank, ready to implement the planned final stage of our journey. We had spent the last 11 weeks on a whirlwind travel study tour that brought us through Israel, Palestine, and Jordan studying peace and sustainability at the community level. Now, with about two weeks at our disposal, a long list of contacts and ambitious goals, we returned to Bethlehem, prepared to give back to the communities that had taught us about their homeland.

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Ten weeks earlier – fresh off the plane, eyes still wide with wonder – I had met a man named Yair Teller. Yair is a thirty-year-old Israeli born to American parents. He wears long dreadlocks and enjoys attending rainbow gatherings in the States. I met Yair at Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an outstanding school that brings together students from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, the US, and around the world. Yair graduated from Arava a few years ago and now works for the school developing small-scale biodigester technology especially for use by the Bedouin and other poor rural communities of Israel and Palestine. The systems he builds turn manure and water into methane gas for cooking and into nutrient-rich fertilizer. These biodigesters can include a system to filter grey water, so that families with low water resources can recycle the water they use for cleaning and cooking. They can be made from materials readily available in any major town. I got to help Yair build one of these systems for a family of sheep and goat herders in the southern West Bank village of Susya.

Sunset in Susya

A few weeks after meeting Yair, I got a second chance to work with this biogas technology. A friend of a friend set me up with TH Culhane, a biogas expert who was making a brief trip through the West Bank. TH describes himself as an Iraqi-Lebanese-French-German-American. He is a science educator and entertainer who has worked for National Geographic and now runs a project called Solar Cities from his home in Germany. I helped him build a biogas digester for a school in Bethlehem.

With two biogas projects under my belt, I began to look for a way to share this knowledge with my American friends. The opportunity presented itself when our experiential education program brought us very close to Susya. We visited a family of cave-dwellers in a village called Ghwein. They cooked us a delicious traditional meal and served us ceramic cup after ceramic cup of freshly ground Arabic coffee. When we left Ghwein, I arranged with our tour guides to stop in Susya to see the biodigester I had helped build. We made a surprise visit to the family and I explained the system to my friends. When they saw the installation in Susya, it occurred to our Palestinian guides that the biodigester would do a lot of good for the Ghwein family we had just visited. In that moment a plan was born. Ezra and I took note, and weeks later when we returned to Palestine on our own, the plan came to life.

Tractor gazes down at tour bus.

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Bringing biogas to Ghwein started with fund raising. We sent a Facebook message to our group telling them we were going forward with the project and asking for their financial support. Within three days six people had pledged a total of $600, exactly what we needed to buy materials. We called Yair to ask if he could donate a day of his time to lead the project. He agreed without hesitation and sent us a list of materials. We then called Nayef Hashlamoun, one of our tour guides from the first trip to Ghwein. Nayef is president of the Alwatan Center, a non-profit in the major Palestinian town of Hebron that works on peace-building, conflict resolution, and community development in the southern West Bank. He recently retired from a 20-year career as a photojournalist for Reuters. We asked him if he could help us acquire materials and communicate with the community. Nayef agreed, and we set a date to meet and begin planning.

Two days before we were to build the biodigester, Ezra and I rented a car and drove south to prepare. We picked up Nayef in Hebron and continued toward Ghwein and Susya. We spent the day surveying potential sites, talking with families, judging the need for the biogas system, and gauging their interest in the concept. Nayef knew the community well, so he identified two families for us to choose between.

The first family we visited lived on the side of an Israeli settler highway about fifteen minutes from the family that had hosted us and our friends before. The family included a mother and her five children, most of them grown. They owned a few concrete buildings that made up the living quarters, a greenhouse full of vegetables, a herd of sheep, a small outhouse, and a large meetinghouse that served as a women’s center for the surrounding community. This family was not one of the most poor in the area, but Nayef thought it might provide a good location because the women’s center would give the biogas digester exposure to the community and get more families interested in the technology. We sat in their home and drank tea while Nayef explained the concept of biogas and translated our questions about water, livestock, and manure. They explained that they had tried to filter their grey water so that they could use it in the gardens. They poured it through a material like cheesecloth, but this did not sufficiently filter out the soaps and oils, so they could not reuse it. Their experimentation showed, however, that this family would benefit from the biodigester and understand the principles behind it. Ezra and I felt that this would be a great place to introduce the biodigester, but we decided to visit the other family before making a final decision. We jumped in the car and drove down the road to the village of Ghwein itself.

As we moved from one family to the next, Nayef raised an important concern: if we told both families about our plans, the one who did not get the biodigester might be disappointed. He hoped to maintain a relationship with both families, so he wanted to avoid any hurt feelings. We agreed to ask the second family only basic questions instead of explaining that we might build this system for them.

Nayef takes a picture of a girl in Ghwein while she plays a game.

The village of Ghwein consisted of four or five families living together about ten minutes down a dirt road from the main settler highway. From the hill they occupied, one could see – about a kilometer away – the forested edge of the Green Line, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank. For generations, this community lived in caves beneath the rolling desert hills of Palestine. However, a few years ago they moved above ground when the head of the family narrowly escaped a collapsing cave. They moved into tent-like structures made of canvas stretched over a frame of metal pipes. The people of Ghwein raised sheep and goats for a living. Most of their land was dry and rocky, with a few scattered olive trees. Some younger members of the family had once held paying jobs in Israel, but when we visited it appeared everyone stayed home.

When we arrived in Ghwein, the family sat us inside for tea. Nayef explained the concept of biogas and asked the same lifestyle questions we had presented to the first family. As Ezra and I got some of our questions answered, we started weighing our two options. It was clear to us that this family – with more mouths to feed and less resources – had the greater need. But we were not sure if they would be able to fully implement the system. They did not at that time grow any of their own food, so it seemed they would not be able to utilize the fertilizer created by the biodigester. We desperately wanted to give back to this poorest of families, but we also needed to build the system for people who would benefit from every aspect of the technology. We could not let our efforts go to waste; we had put together this project so that it could have a real and lasting impact. We found ourselves in a difficult, emotional position as we contemplated the possibility that we might not be able to do anything for those who needed the most help.

The leaders of the poor family we visited in Ghwein.

After tea, we got a tour of their property. They showed us a pen that housed about fifteen sheep, whose milk they used to make yogurt and cheese. At the uphill end of their property, two cisterns collected rainwater from an area of several square meters. Just down the hill from the main building and the sheep pen, they had a cistern full of water that was too dirty to drink. We realized this would provide a great input for the biodigester. Then we walked a little further downhill and found the turning point.

Just below the dirty cistern lay three freshly tilled fields with fertile soil and no crops growing in them. This was the missing piece Ezra and I were looking for. If the fertilizer created by our biodigester could encourage these people to begin growing some of their own food, then the technology would indeed change their lifestyle. Although we suspended the final decision for another 24 hours, in this moment our minds were made up and our hearts were satisfied.

Before leaving that day, we decided to orchestrate a modest community-building event. In two trips in the rental car, we shuttled two or three members of each potential recipient family a few kilometers down the road to Susya, so they could see a biodigester in action. This proved to be an inspired idea, we realized, as we watched these three families interact. The Susya family showed the other two families the biodigester, and explained how it worked. Then we all sat inside, and they talked for at least an hour. We realized during this conversation that any family with a new biodigester could benefit a lot by communicating with the families that already had it. These families would be able to share knowledge about how to use and maintain the system. This meeting also had the powerful effect of showing the new families firsthand the effect that the biodigester could have on their lifestyle. We envisioned a local network for biodigesting families, and the potential scope of our project began to widen.

*         *         *

At about noon on the day we had planned to build the biodigester, the hardest step in the process emerged, and it was finished before the materials had been unloaded from the truck.

At 7:30am, Ezra and I left Bethlehem in our rented car. We brought with us two young American women and an Englishman of Algerian descent, friends we had met in Bethlehem. At about 9:45 we arrived at the dirt road that led to Ghwein. A few minutes later, Yair the biogas expert showed up with two friends in tow – a Canadian man with red dreadlocks and an Israeli woman wearing her nine-month old baby on her back. Nayef was supposed to meet us there at 10 with the supplies, but he called to say he would arrive around 12 instead. When Yair heard this, he began to doubt that we could finish the installation in one day. Regardless, we brought him into the village and started talking with the family. Yair quickly found a man his own age who spoke Hebrew because he had worked in Israel. He gave everyone a tour of the village and began talking with Yair about where they should install the system. The woman with the baby sat inside with the Palestinian grandmother, and they both played with her tiny son.

A few minutes before he arrived, Nayef called me with some troubling news. The leader of one of the neighboring Ghwein families had called him to try to stop the project. He told Nayef that he had thought the system was going to be available for the whole village, when in fact it was only for one family. He wanted us to stop because it was unfair. He also mentioned that the presence of Israelis in his village was making people uncomfortable. Our experience in the first hour contradicted this claim, but the call made it clear nonetheless that we had more work to do in laying the groundwork for the project.

When Nayef arrived at midday with the truck full of supplies, he suggested we pack up and move everyone down the road to the family we had first visited to avoid causing any trouble in the Ghwein community. Yair disagreed, and the two of them and I launched into a debate about the pros and cons of building at each site. Yair thought we had already spent too much time preparing this site, and that if we moved down the road we could not finish the project in a day. He also argued that we should not give in to the selfish stubbornness of our chosen family’s neighbor. Nayef wanted to avoid introducing any conflict into the Ghwein family at all costs. I did not want to simply give up because the neighbors were jealous, but I also felt that it would not be right for us – as foreigners with good intentions but no real business in this land – to step into this community and bring any problems with us.

When the three of us had nearly decided to pack up, Nayef walked off to have a conversation with the leaders of each family. I asked him to urge them that this was intended to be the first of many similar projects – a beginning. About fifteen minutes later, Nayef returned and directed our volunteers to begin unloading materials. Somehow his negotiations had changed the elders’ minds. He explained to me later that he had asserted to them that as the leaders, they should not get in the way of any project that brought progress. In a moment, our project lept from the back of a truck, its destination finally decided, into the backyard of the poor Palestinian family that had captured our hearts.

With the groundwork finally completed, several Palestinians and two Israelis put their hands together with four Americans, a Brit and a Canadian, and built a biodigester. The young American women played with children when they weren’t hauling manure from the sheep pen and depositing it into the two 1500-liter water tanks that made up the main section of the biodigester. Yair, his new Palestinian friend, Ezra and a team of zealous volunteers did most of the work cutting pipe to fit and piecing together the system. Nayef took photos and smiled. I mostly walked around marveling at what had unfolded before us. Four hours later, the magic was complete.

The scene as the team built the biodigester.

We packed up quickly, and Yair drove off with his friends. I piled into the rental car with Ezra, Nayef, and two of our friends. On the way out, we decided to meet with the family that owned the women’s center. We parked our car on the side of the highway and walked up to meet them. Once seated inside, tea at our feet, we told the matron and her eldest son that we had built the system for the other family down the road. We explained that they had a greater need for it. Nayef spoke with them about this for a few minutes, and then we asked him to translate. The mother, a large, warm woman with a round, young face, said that she understood why we had chosen the other family. She was even glad that they got it first. Her son agreed. Nayef urged her that he hoped to build another biodigester, and that hers would be the next family to receive one. “Inshallah”, she replied, with a furrowed brow, sparkling eyes, and smiling lips. God willing. Nasser, the volunteer from London, turned to us and said that her face made him want to come back immediately and build another one.

We left the woman’s family and drove north to drop Nayef at home and continue to Bethlehem. On the way, he told us that the family had just told him that the Israeli Defense Force had recently declared a demolition order for that home. A demolition order does not necessarily mean the IDF will actually come and destroy their home, but it puts them in a position of fear and uncertainty, and it illustrates the power that Israel has over these people’s destiny.

*         *         *

As we drove back to Bethlehem that night and processed the experience over the next two days, Ezra and I reflected on what we had accomplished. This project provided our entire three-month trip with a sense of closure and fulfillment. We had found a tangible way to better a few people’s lives. In the process, we raised awareness about an innovative sustainable technology and we forged connections between people, which might allow them to work together and accomplish more in the future. We did not change the world. We simply brought the right people together, and together they gave a gift. Our biodigester will save one poor Palestinian family $20 a week in fuel costs, but as an Israeli environmentalist and peace advocate posited to Ezra and me, our project also showed these people that they deserve progress.

Moving Forward…

The Alwatan Center now has a program called “Alwatan BioGas”.

Nasser returned to England, but told us he would like to fund another biodigester out of his own pocket.

Ruth, another British volunteer we met in Bethlehem, did not get to visit Ghwein or see a biodigester. However, after hearing our story, she pledged to raise funds in the UK and send them back to Palestine.

Ezra and I are creating a non-profit called the Green Diplomacy Corps, which will raise funds for projects like Alwatan BioGas and send people over to the Middle East to work on small-scale renewable energy and other environmental projects. See more at greendiplomacycorps.org.

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Author: adriandahlin

Graduate Student at NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress

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