The Across Borders Fellowship gave a unique opportunity to 17 emerging professionals and early career academics from different disciplines to strengthen their understanding of the critical issues surrounding managing natural resources across significant political and cultural boundaries. There are several photo entries and this great summary post that explain exactly what we did throughout this summer. This post however, is my reflection of lessons learned throughout the trip.
To give you a snapshot of the lens with which I began my view on this program you have to understand my background. I am a graduate student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. I studied Environmental Science as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech. My previous international work experience focused on designing various water systems in Central America and the Caribbean. Everything involved technical solutions to water concerns. I have always followed politics but it has never played a significant role in my research or work. The first part of the trip in Israel included presentations from various speakers and a week of study at the Arava Institute. I loved being on the lookout for the white and blue water pipes that signified the Mekorot water system (Israel’s national water company). The most significant of this pipe spotting was the pipe shown (left). This pipe carries water from Israel (Lake Tiberias/Upper Jordan River), across the Jordan River, to Jordan. There is also a pipe on the Jordanian side that delivers water from the Yarmouk River to Israel. I could not wrap my head around this from an engineering point of view. The amount that Israel delivers is about twice as much as the amount Jordan delivers. In my eyes, it didn’t make any sense for both countries to be spending tons of money and electricity pumping major amounts of water to each other when they could just split the difference and Israel could pump a smaller amount of water to Jordan while Jordan wouldn’t pump anything back. It took me a while to understand the significance of this pipe and of the whole pumping allocation process (despite the waste of energy).
Completely centralized water systems were all across the region. The Israeli Mekorot and the Jordanian King Abdullah Canal were extremely fascinating to study. Throughout the region, I was excited by how many regular citizens were aware of the centralized infrastructure planned for their respective countries. How many Americans would be aware of a big water project happening in a region? the answer: probably not many. When talking with people on both sides of the Jordan River Valley, there was a lot of faith in the ability for infrastructure (red/dead canal, desalination, disi aquifer pumping..) to solve future water demands. Is this how all of the world views engineering natural systems? Will we be able to solve problems by expanding infrastructure?
Throughout the whole trip, I had to learn to question the simple technical solutions. These technical infrastructure projects have major pricetags and unknown environmental costs. In addition to infrastructure, at Purdue University, I have been studying agricultural water systems. I loved trying to identify different crops from the bus and looking for irrigation systems wherever we were. Despite all of this, there were several times where I (we) questioned if there is a right or wrong place to farm in this world?!? Should we be spending time optimizing irrigation and farming sustainably in the desert or should we focus on using that water for other purposes? Is this an issue to discuss on a regional scale? national scale? or international scale? Of course we didn’t get a chance to solve all of these problems (hehe) but it was a major exercise in interdisciplinary and multi-scale thinking.
Overall this was a successful experience that included all types of networking, learning, and just plain fun. Several of us came to the conclusion that water definitely has the potential to unite this region rather than divide it and there are many brilliant people working on how to make that happen.
Peace and Hope,