Reflecting on transboundary environmental issues

19 Dec

A response to Clive Lipchin’s ENV 100 presentation, “Transboundary Decentralized Waste Water Management in the Middle East”

Nature knows no borders, according to Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. This dictum was the basis of Clive Lipchin’s lecture on waste water management in the Middle East, as presented to ENV 100 students this fall. Lipchin framed the region’s transboundary water issues as complex environmental, social, economic, and political problems, the solutions to which necessarily involve both science and diplomacy. As director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, he explained the ecological factors at play, the overarching political context, and the efforts being made (and not being made) by various stakeholders. In addition to stressing the need for intergovernmental cooperation in water resources management, Lipchin presented promising approaches to solving waste water issues in Palestine and Israel.

Arava Institute students monitoring the Be'er Sheva stream, which carries sewage and industrial pollution from Palestine into Israel. For legal reasons, Israel can only partially treat this contaminated water before returning it to the stream. ( Institute students monitoring the Be’er Sheva stream, which carries sewage and industrial pollution from Palestine into Israel. For legal reasons, Israel can only partially treat this contaminated water before returning it to the stream. (

In Environmental Science & Policy Integration I, we often discuss the transboundary nature of environmental issues. Transboundary externalities are present when activities that occur within the jurisdiction of one politically-defined region (such as a state or nation) produce results that affect the environment or people in other regions. Many of the world’s greatest environmental and human health disasters have been transboundary in nature, such as the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union, which spread nuclear pollution over much of Europe and western Asia. Acid rain in the northeastern United States is a close-to-home example of a transboundary externality, as the chemical pollutants that cause it are largely produced by industrial activities that take place outside the region.

While we are all familiar with a handful of high-profile transboundary issues, it is important to note that a great many environmental issues produce transboundary externalities. Why is this the case? Because nature does indeed know no borders. The boundary lines imposed by human activities are artificial and inconsequential to the complex ecosystems we inhabit. These are ecosystems governed by geophysical and biological processes, not by politics. The water carrying industrial pollution and human waste across state lines is not cognizant of these borders in its journey through the hydrologic cycle. Only we are.

Yet political boundaries are of great consequence in the human world. We fight wars over them. We carry special documents that communicate which borders we can cross and which we have no business crossing. We spend enormous sums to barricade our borders from illegal entry. Meanwhile, the population contained within the political boundaries of a region – a nation for instance – might adhere to culturally-specific beliefs, values, and laws; their governments and economies might be wealthy and established, or in debt and unstable; and their natural resources might be abundant and well stewarded, or over-burdened and depleted. At the same time, a neighboring region may live under the exact opposite conditions. This is to say that while neighboring ecosystems might be interdependent, and things might flow through them naturally and harmoniously, quite the opposite can be true of neighboring human populations. They might clash, be at odds, have conflicting needs or goals, have disparate capacities to meet environmental challenges, or struggle to come to agreements.

This reality in large part defines Israeli-Palestinian water resources management. Palestine has a very limited capacity for dealing with waste water – though like any nation, it is continually producing it. As a result, the vast majority of Palestinian waste water is either stored in improperly constructed septic tanks or flows directly into the environment. Due to the configuration of the landscape, much of the waste that enters surface water in Palestine flows into Israel. An affluent nation, Israel (which enjoys the highest standard of living in the Middle East) maintains a more extensive infrastructure than does Palestine, and so is able to treat some of this waste water once it enters its borders. Though Israel taxes Palestine for the treatment of this waste water, Palestine does not receive any benefits from the treatment process, such as the ability to reuse treated water (which is crucial in a chronically water scarce region). In other words, Palestine’s lack of infrastructure and the transboundary nature of this issue leads Israel to take unilateral actions, leaving Palestine taxed and without benefits. Underlying this situation are incredibly complex and contentious issues of national recognition, sovereignty, and land rights – issues which often preclude rational planning for improved infrastructure.

While Lipchin acknowledges that political tensions often stalemate progress in improving the Israeli-Palestinian water situation, he does name one promising approach. Given that the current political reality does not allow for the improvement of centralized infrastructure, some researchers have advocated a decentralized approach to waste water treatment. One decentralized treatment method being explored is the use of greywater filtration systems in private homes. These mimic marsh environments – nature’s great water filtration systems – and produce water that can be reused by the household, namely for irrigation. I have seen a system somewhat like this at the UMass extension turf station, which I visited with my horticulture class last year. I believe they were testing the effectiveness of the system, and possibly which grass species lent themselves best to water filtration. At the time I was struck by how brilliant nature is. I was also impressed by the idea that by approximating what nature does so well, we might solve massive development issues.

Greywater lies on a spectrum between potable water and blackwater (sewage). Though often discarded, it can be effectively recycled and reused by households for various purposes, including irrigation. ( lies on a spectrum between potable water and blackwater (sewage). Though often discarded, it can be effectively recycled and reused by households for various purposes, including irrigation. (

However, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian water issue, bringing the genius of nature into everyone’s backyard (e.g. in the form of a greywater treatment system) is unfortunately not the cure-all. Solutions like this still cost money that many people do not have. Overcoming the obstacles that divide stakeholders (whether they be political tensions or something else) will still be pivotal in resolving the transboundary water issues specific to the Middle East.

– Jacqueline Maasch, ’15

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. This spring she will be studying in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies.

One Response to “Reflecting on transboundary environmental issues”

  1. Jeff February 21, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    Other transborder issues include the air pollution in China, the rupture of chemical storage tanks on the Danube, and in some senses the Three Rivers Gorge Dam and the re-direction of Russian rivers.

    Grey water systems are good systems, but reducing initial water flow needs to be a first step, which will then influence the grey water system

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