Training Bedouin Women

SUMMARY: This proposal, spearheaded by Ms. Ilana Meallem, Mr. Mazen Zoabi and the Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), is an ideal candidate for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, fulfilling as it does the Challenge criteria.

The application proposes to carry out a five-year project introducing self-contained biogas systems in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev and training a cadre of Bedouin environmental health activists to operate them and educate their communities about environmental health hazards.
The proposal is comprehensive, addressing social, environmental, economic and health issues. This proposal is anticipatory; as the goal is to improve the level of Bedouin women’s health and economic standing to a level at least commensurate with their Jewish and Arab urban counterparts and to focus on future possibilities for sustainable development. The ecological responsibility of this proposal is clear – effective treatment of human and animal wastes can significantly improve the environment in the proximity of family compounds, as well as prevent groundwater contamination. It is certainly both verifiable and replicable – the use of household biogas digesters is widespread in China and Ms Meallem and Mr. Zoabi, have been trained in China in the use and application of biogas technology. It is achievable – Mr. Zoabi’s previous work among the Negev communities has paved the groundwork for the successful implementation and adoption of this initiative.

PROBLEM SPACE: Approximately 50% of the 180,000 Bedouin residents of Israel’s Negev live in unrecognized villages without sewage systems, with no way to effectively treat human and animal waste products. This lack of basic facilities leads to documented high rates of urinary tract infections, respiratory diseases and burns, primarily among women and children. Beyond the personal toll on the health of the residents, above-ground waste products pose a threat to the health of all inhabitants of these villages because the accumulated organic materials contaminate ground water resources as they seep through the soil layers.

SOLUTION: Biogas systems work on the anaerobic digestion of waste products (animal and human) to produce useable amounts of methane gas (biogas). Biogas can be used for cooking, heating, to provide light, or to run small generators for home use. Such systems will improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in multiple ways: by having a direct, positive effect on the quality of the environment; providing fuel for home use, and by the potential contribution to the empowerment and economic development of Bedouin women, who can sell the bottled gas or the slurry produced by the system (as fertilizer). The construction of biogas digesters will provide families with a clean, renewable and safe source of fuel.

Residents of unrecognized villages currently lack the means to deal with environmental problems that should be addressed at the municipal and regional levels. Thus, this project aims to enable Bedouin women to develop access to safe environmental conditions for themselves and their families at a level concordant with the rest of Israeli society. In order to address this basic human need, we must connect the Bedouin population with alternative means of waste disposal and educate Israelis on the environmental health crisis affecting not only a major portion of the Negev Bedouin, but their Jewish neighbors as well.

The project has two major goals:
1) Development of the environmental awareness of those who deal with the disposal of solid waste on a daily basis in their villages. Participants will develop Arabic language educational materials and conduct hands-on workshops in their own villages, with the aim of facilitating the emergence of Bedouin women environmental leaders, for the benefit of the region as a whole. This training program will be jointly led by Jewish and Bedouin or Arabic-speaking environmental and educational experts.

2) Introduction of biogas production as an accessible, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective method to generate cooking gas or heat through the sustainable re-use of organic waste. An innovative design for the integrated waste recycling system is being developed by a team of Israeli experts in the fields of engineering, renewable energy, water saving and microbiology, This innovative system incorporates two basic technologies to increase the biogas production; 1) solar heating appliances to raise the reaction temperature inside the digester and, 2) a specialized mixing devise to improve agitation of the waste with the microbes. The by-product (slurry) of the anaerobic digestion will be treated through a process of composting to ensure the system meets Israel’s Ministry of Health standards.

The proposed program will develop a cadre of twenty Bedouin women leaders in the field of environmental activism and public health, trained by a team of Jewish and Bedouin women. Research carried out by BGU and Arava Institute students shows that Bedouins are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, with women and children at greatest risk. The biogas system will provide Bedouin women an alternative to cooking over open fires, a practice which exposes both themselves and their children to respiratory irritants and the risk of burns, a constant hazard. The type of digester that seems to be the preferable option for these communities would also provide the household with hot water for bathing, something that will contribute to a significant increase in quality of life and health. The project will empower Bedouin women to advocate for better waste management and hazard mitigation and provide an experiential, hands-on leadership model for Bedouin women. As a central focus, trainers will introduce the biogas option as an accessible and cost-effective method for generating cooking gas or heat via the sustainable re-use of organic waste.

The cost is $100,000 a year – $50,000 for the biogas project and $50,000 for the Bedouin women’s training program. We are seeking funding for five years. Our hope is that the initial funding will come from the Buckminster Fuller Challenge prize, while additional funding to continue the program is sought.

The Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion at BGU proposes to introduce biogas digesters through a demonstration project in five unrecognized settlements around the Negev. The project will be introduced at the community level with the collaboration of both men and women. However, the actual implementation of the digesters will be carried out by women who will learn to maintain and document the process of using the digesters. They will train their family members to use the digester in order for the system to be used by all members of the settlement. They will also learn to use the methane gas safely for home use.

This is a joint project between Jewish ecological and health professionals and local Bedouin researchers and community activists. As part of her M.A. research, Ms. Meallem collected field data on solid waste management in Um Batin, a Bedouin Unrecognized village and compared it with the management of solid waste in the settled Bedouin town of Tel Sheva. This innovative research provided unequivocal evidence that environmental hazards in unrecognized villages have widespread impact on the health status of both the Jewish and Bedouin populations and lead to the initiation of this project. Mr. Zoabi’s Master’s research is in the area of environmental hydrology and microbiology, and in addition, he has been working in the Bedouin sector for the past two years. He is fluent in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew and English, an asset which has proved invaluable.

The biogas project has the recognition and collaboration of: the Council of Unrecognized Villages; “”Ma’an””, the Forum of Arab Women’s Organizations in the Negev, Bustan le’Shalom and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). In addition, research evaluators will join the project from the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. The Center will conduct a multiple case-study evaluation whereby it will collect data collected by observation and interviews in the selected villages before introduction of the digesters, during the process and at six and twelve months after their introduction.

BGU’s Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion is the only center of its kind in the world, utilizing a multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural, holistic approach to issues of women’s health. The Center combines the basic clinical sciences, medicine, and social sciences with community activism. The Center was the joint vision of Prof. Julie Cwikel, a social epidemiologist, and Prof. Rivka Carmi, former Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and current President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. These two founders are convinced that women’s health research must be a multi-disciplinary field and that women must be active and informed health care consumers in order to take advantage of the advances that modern science has to offer them. Moreover, they believed that any approach to women’s health care in the Negev must reflect the multi-cultural mosaic of the region.

This program wholly demonstrates the “trimtab” principle, in that a small investment in building and education will lead to a substantial improvement in the lives of thousands.