Last week I was in Israel with Julie Weisman from the Water Resources Action Group, a non-profit that works on Middle Eastern water issues, and a group of University of Maryland students. The group, which included students from my Global Environmental Law seminar, spent spring break studying environmental issues in the Middle East. On Sunday we traveled from Tel Aviv to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which is located in the Negev desert on a kibbutz 30 miles north of Eilat, the southernmost city in Israel. On Sunday March 10 Dr. Elli Groner, an ecologist, gave us an opening presentation on the work of the Arava Institute. He noted that this has been one of the wettest years in the Negev, which has resulted in some interesting ecological changes. A panel of students then discussed the projects on which they are working. The Arava Institute pairs Israeli, Arab and foreign students in teams to emphasize the need to overcome political differences in addressing the environmental issues that afflict the Middle East.
On March 11 we toured Kibbutz Keturah where the Arava Institute is located. Because of the intense sun in the Negev the kibbutz hosts a facility where various designs of new solar panels are tested. We visited Israel’s first solar power plant, which is located on the kibbutz and run by the Arava Power Company. The project has been such a success that it will be expanded dramatically over the next year. The kibbutz also runs a biogas facility. We saw the world-famous Methusaleh Palm grown from an ancient seed discovered during the excavation of Masada. We also visited an algae factory operated by the kibbutz that is used to produce an antioxidant that sells for $5,000 to $6,000 per kilogram. Following our tour, Julie and I met with the leadership of the Arava Institute to discuss opportunities for student exchanges.
Our group spent the afternoon of March 11 attending a class on water resource management taught by Dr. Clive Lipchin. He gave an excellent lecture on water problems in the Middle East and the need for basin-wide water management structures, which are very difficult to establish given the political conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Israel is investing in desalination projects and efforts to recycle water are increasing throughout the region. On the evening of March 11 we attended a briefing on a new project to recycle grey water from the dormitories at the Arava Institute, on which construction would commence on March 12. Our students then joined students from the Institute in an Arabic lesson followed by salsa dancing.
On March 12 Dr. Lipchin took us on a field trip to the Dead Sea. We stopped at the Dead Sea Works, a major industry in Israel that extracts potash and magnesium from the mineral-rich waters at the south end of the Dead Sea. Dr. Lipchin then took us up close to view some of the giant sinkholes that are forming as the waters of the Dead Sea recede by one meter per year. We then took a dip in the Dead Sea at a resort on its north end where we had lunch. The students and I experienced the phenomenon of being unable to sink in the extremely salty waters.
We spent the evening of March 12 in Jerusalem where Julie had arranged a meeting with Richard Laster, an Israeli environmental activist who teaches as an adjunct at Hebrew University. He and his friend Mohammed, who joined us for dinner, have been part of a coalition trying to get a sewage treatment plant built to treat sewage from East Jerusalem. They have made amazing progress in winning approval for the plant, but still are thwarted for now by the Israeli government’s fear of its implications for future negotiations over the status of Jerusalem.
On March 13 our group toured the Old City of Jerusalem. I discovered a shop selling t-shirts that claimed that it had every American sports team’s logo in Hebrew. But when I asked for a Washington Nationals t-shirt they said they had never heard of the team. I pointed out that the Nats had won the most games in baseball’s regular season last year and that they are owned by the Lerners, a Jewish family. The shopowner then told me not to leave while he confirmed my assertions about the team on the internet. WIthin 10 minutes he had made me a Nats t-shirt in Hebrew and promised to make a second such shirt to display in his shop window.
Our group drove back to Tel Aviv in the late afternoon of March 13. On March 14 we spent the day at Bar Ilan University where we met with professors and students from the university’s Environmental Law Clinic. Professor Oren Perez gave us an excellent presentation on environmental problems in Israel and the evolution of Israeli environmental law. Professor Galit Ofer, director of the clinic, then gave us a presentation on the clinic’s work. Israel has very liberal standing requirements, but it does not have a student practice rule so the clinic students cannot serve as actual lawyers. However, students in the clinic provide tremendous assistance to the clinical professors and other lawyers who handle the clinic’s cases. One important issue on which the clinic is focusing involves petroleum leaks from underground storage tanks. We had a very useful discussion comparing environmental law in the U.S. and Israel and discussing how petroleum tanks are regulated in the U.S. and recent U.S. litigation involving such tanks.
On Thursday evening March 14 I hosted a farewell happy hour for our group in the executive lounge of the Renaissance Hotel. Afterwards I met Israeli lawyer Asaf Pink to discuss the growth of public interest class action litigation in Israel. I learned a lot on this trip and I was really inspired to see so many people working together to address the many challenging environmental issues that the Middle East faces. An album of photos from the trip can be viewed by going to my parallel blog at: http://www.globalenvironmentallawcom and clicking on “Photo Albums” at the top of the opening page.
There were several interesting developments in global environmental law last week, which I will cover in next week’s post. Right now I am in Mumbai, India, on my way to Kolkata where I will be speaking at a conference on environmental enforcement hosted by the government of India.