Friday, 27 February 2009

Gaza: war and renewable reconstruction

Farid is a professor of architecture at the Islamic University of Gaza, in fact he’s the Director of the architecture faculty. He completed his PhD in sustainable urban design at the University of Nottingham in the UK. We’ve been in touch over the last couple of years about potential training modules in sustainable community design. He had already started to introduce passive design and environmental construction concepts into his faculty.

I had just helped launch RESET – an NGO with grand plans to increase awareness and skills about environmental building, renewable energy and local food production in the international humanitarian and development sector.

I had worked with international NGOs in a fair few war zones and post-disaster recovery areas since 1990, doing shelter, water, health care; recovery and reconstruction. Later with the UN advising Governments and UN agencies on issues of internal displacement (people displaced within their own country, not quite refugees).

Then, in 2006 I launched into a Masters degree on energy and environment studies in Wales, at the Centre for Alternative Technology, to learn about the alternative energy and “sustainable building” sector, properly. I had become so frustrated with the aid industry’s complete lack of understanding and knowledge about the opportunities renewable systems offered, and the potential disaster we would face if peak oil kicked in (I had watched End of Suburbia and The Power of Community so I felt at least partially informed).

In my last mission, in the Maldives, I was part of an international cocktail of UN, Red Cross/Crescent agencies and local NGOs helping local people and the Government rebuild a few thousand homes, on islands that were utterly dependent on diesel for generated electricity, desalinated water supply and transport. Our efforts were part of a region wide tsunami recovery programme which received ample funding.

With such funding, we could facilitate a reconstruction process that could incorporate better building standards. Indeed, a recovery motto used then was “build back better”, but, on the contstruction side at least, it did little to trickle down to the actual construction process, which just applied the same old industrial world mistakes: disregard for passive design (solar shade, max ventilation in humid climates), ‘sustainable’ sewage treatment (don’t even talk about biogas – already hugely popular across Asia – offering both cooking gas and a much needed natural fertiliser for the sandy and salinated island soils), solar, wind and tidal energy, solar hot water, lighting, and so on.

None of these were applied. The British Red Cross at least paid for some Ozzy consultants to advise them on the solar potential for their new builds. Nice guys, we went surfing together a few times. But they actually advised that solar alone could not cover the needs. Now I know they were wrong: of course the energy needs could be covered by renewable sources. Through a combination of reducing demand, increasing efficiency and diversifying energy sources, any community, anywhere, can go renewable if it really wants.

I explained all this in a lecture in the green of Wales and we decided to launch RESET to do something about this knowledge vacuum that exists in the world of post-disaster recovery.

So when Farid contacted from the architectural faculty of Gaza, I was excited: here we may get a chance to work with a kindred spirit – someone from the construction industry who has had his own green-building enlightenment, and was already working from the inside to change attitudes and practices.

We were in touch throughout 2007 and 2008 about training programmes we could potentially run together in renewable energy, permaculture in the built environment and natural materials in construction – building on what he has already initiated at the faculty.

In brief, we proposed to expand his department for research and testing, then do a town based study on actual energy consumption, equivalent CO2 emissions and possible income from carbon removed from the atmosphere, and the various renewable systems that could be built, theoretically at first, to meet those energy demands. Involve as many local people and relevant agencies as possible. It was all security dependent, of course.

Then the security situation went from bad to worse, late last year. Then, from worse to outrageously bad. Driven to extreme measures by their estranged Israeli neighbours, elements within the local community decided to fight back at their ongoing oppression and fire a few rockets. Probably not the best idea, but I wasn’t there and don’t know what really started it off. What happened next is well known: multiple rocket attacks, by fighter plane, helicopter, tank, mortar, sniper fire upon the peopled communities of Gaza.

The destruction was phenomenal. It was a real hell on earth” Farid wrote to me recently, after weeks of silence, during which I heard nothing and was seriously concerned.

Nobody could image that such barbaric and drastic war can be waged in the 21st century. The shelling and bombardment did not stop any moment, day and night, the sound of blasts and explosions and the noise of F16 jet attacks was extremely distressing, especially for my kids”.

What a nightmare. I have experienced my fair share of shelling in Bosnia and West Africa, but nothing like this. A smallish mortar shell exploding nearby shakes you to your bones. It’s like a train has collided with your house. The apartment-block crunching explosions they had to endure is beyond description, and nobody should have to endure that. Especially not a city full of civilians. This is just wrong. How can we – modern society – have sunk so low?

Luckily Farid and his family survived, and despite his admission that “Gaza is the largest prison on Earth, no one is allowed in or out” he is still able to talk about the possibilities for reconstruction and recovery.

These are already underway, planned to begin in Cairo on the 2nd March. It is usual, that alongside ceasefire negotiations a reconstruction plan sketched out, a donor conference organised and inevitably, connections between rehabilitation and lasting peace manifested. In the case of Gaza today emergency shelter and basic services are needed given the level of destruction, but full recovery goes far deeper than that.

For now, however, Farid says that no building materials have been allowed in. Nothing is moving; huge piles of rubble stand where dozens of people once lived, their owners either dead or homeless.

Nathaniel, another friend now working with UNICEF in the West Bank, says that masses of workers are waiting for permission to enter Gaza, to help rebuild. They too are disallowed.

Meanwhile, Sultan Barakat, head of the Post War Reconstruction and Development Unit ( my former faculty) and colleagues published The Reconstruction of Gaza: a guidance note for Palestinian and International Stakeholders.

In a rousing forward by Jordan’s Crown Prince, HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal, who also represents the intriguingly named Arab Thought Forum and the World Conference for Religions for Peace suggests that “the politics of fear must give way to the politics of peace, and the reconstruction of Gaza, which this document addresses, possesses immediate potential to initiate this transition”

This is not uncommon in post war recovery strategies: use the reconstruction funds and the opportunities they offer to undermine the divisive and corrupt resource-grabbing thiefdoms that so often caused conflict in the first place. Gaza, however, has got to be one of the most complex conflicts to hope to resolve through reconstruction. Nevertheless, Sultan, et al, have a go, proposing, among other things, that:

  • A War crimes tribunal be established,
  • A Forward base for reconstruction be in Egypt, not Israel
  • Depoliticise the reconstruction , to the extent possible
  • Launch a Gaza reconstruction commission: technical not political focus. To include multiple Palestinian actors. Which may also contribute towards Palestinian reconciliation. And better coordination.
  • Put forward an international focal point, to remove external political impediments, to pursue coordination of donor investments, to make sure funds follow priorities laid out by the local Gaza reconstruction commission
  • International agencies should offer to partner with local institutions that fall within their mandate, and help them to apply for the large grants, and, where necessary, second selected professionals for short periods to deliver training and capacity building.

They add, towards the end that inevitable, hope that this upcoming reconstruction presents an immense opportunity to get Gaza back on the track to development, to ensure that reconstruction supports peace and Palestinian unity and to, more fundamentally, tackle the suffering which has afflicted the Gazan population”.

This is a report about process, rather than any specific sector, such as energy and as such it does well by calling for an inclusive process – that ensures all local representatives are involved – including Hamas. It refers to the mistakes made in Lebanon and Afghanistan when Western donors insisted that Hezbollah and the Taliban, respectively, be excluded from the planning and implementation of projects. Surely this is obvious, right? Clearly not, and it shows how much politics has a hand in deciding how recovery money is spent.

Getting back to Farid and the reconstruction of Gaza: let us assume that the ceasefire is maintained, that George Mitchell (Obama’s envoy) has some restraining influence over the warring factions, Israel in particular, and that the reconstruction fund now under discussion can be mobilised.

Sultan’s report describes some 17,000 damaged houses, a further 4,000 completely destroyed, not to mention the 25 schools and health facilities flattened or 1,500 shops and other small industries. This alone represents a massive building and repair process, with associated water, sewerage and power supply infrastructure needs.

So the people of Gaza sit on the ruins of their former community, but also on the threshold of an enormous opportunity to build-in local, decentralised, renewable and clean building, energy and waste systems. I have often thought that it would be easier to incorporate clean energy systems in new builds, rather than retrofit the old. Could Gaza be such a case?

In terms of power supply, the existing system could not be more inappropriate. According to a UN report in 2008, Gaza’s electricity demand is around 240MW. 75% of this comes from a diesel fed generator based in Isreal, which it can turn up or down as it sees fit, to the distress of local residents. (The remaining 25% comes from Jordan and Egypt, it seems there is almost no local capacity).

So, power demand is 240MW. One big wind turbine these days has around 2MW capacity, so Gaza’s power demand is equivalent to 120 big turbines.

Portugal recently started work on one of the world’s largest solar PV (electric) array at 62 MW(peak) – at a cost of around 250m euros, on approx 130 hectars of land. Of course these are not constant power supplies, one relies on a windy day, the other on daylight and sun. But options for massive energy storage exist, such as huge flow batteries, electrified vehicles which store power and feed it back to grid when they are not being used, pumped storage, to name just a few.

But massive progress has also been made in the field of concentrated solar power: (parabolic mirrors reflecting solar heat onto a container of oil that produces steam to turn a turbine, or a Stirling engine). These are now being built in Spain, USA and elsewhere at prices that are competitive to the capital investment of diesel or coal power plants.

Recent advances have include systems that produce both electricity and thermal energy (heat) that can be used for hot tap water, heating, heat-powered air conditioning (cooling) and… desalination for drinking water.

The key here being the running costs: fossil fuels are finite and prices are vulnerable to geological limits, geopolitics and other little known but hugely influential and powerful interests. In short, it is extremely unwise to invest your community’s future on systems that depend on oil and other fossil fuels that rely on the cheap prices enjoyed for much of the past 100 years. Even the conservative International Energy Agency accept that the “time of cheap oil is over” (latest World Energy Outlook).

But I have come to understand that a holistic approach to community design is needed – that incorporates environmental building systems and as much food production as possible within the built environment.

None of this is rocket science, in fact it has been developed over many years across different continents. Although what works in one place is not necessarily suited to another: it is hugely climate dependent, and Gaza sits in a hot-dry climate zone. So passive building design (as shown by the vernacular architecture) in such settings needs heavy thermal mass to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature without the need for mechanised cooling, and small window spaces to reduce solar gain. Thermal mass can be massive concrete blocks, or, shock-horror, earth from the ground we are standing on, for smaller dwellings at least. Environmental science in building is a massive field of study and experience – which is available and willing to lend its collective hand to advise any reconstruction process, to work with local counterparts such as Farid and to be involved, but they need to be asked in.

How plants and agricultural production is incorporated is another fascinating and well developed field. Permaculture design concepts have revolutionalised how we think of home, town and community planning. Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute has proven in neighbouring Jordan that enormous productivity can take place in bone-dry desert settings, as shown in the popular Greening the desert video.

But how plants and the shade and food they offer can be incorporated into building design is something that is often overlooked by zealous concrete-loving modern architects and engineers.

Biogas is a good example of how energy, buildings and biodiversity come together. While we live, we need the toilet. You eat, you shit. This human manure contains enormous energy potential, and for decades the Chinese, Indians and others have built biogas (anaerobic) digesters into their homes. In one simple technological sweep, it deals with local sewerage (and public health) issues, collects gas that can be used for cooking or electricity production, and delivers an odourless effluent waste product that can help fertilise depleted soils, hold moisture in the ground and stimulate productive plant growth. It can also help reduce waste by consuming all organic waste: food scraps, butcher or fish waste, the lot. Tied into a municipal plan for integrated energy systems, it can create jobs that are by their very nature, long term and reliable.

How feasible is any of this in a region torn apart by conflict? Farid would be a good one to ask, as well as the architects of the reconstruction plan. Prince El Hassan bin Talal believes that “reconstruction must be viewed as only a first step towards the long-term aim of improving conditions on the ground through attention to issues such as water and energy, arms control and, above all, economic development”.

So surely, if addressing these issues in a way that delivers decentralised, reliable, sustainable energy and food supply systems, it should be incorporated if at all possible into the recovery process. And it may even help remove some of the sources of frustration and conflict.

Meanwhile, Farid writes about the reality on the ground:

Fortunately, we have survived this all and our responsibility now is very critical to rebuild and reconstruct the Gaza Strip. As you know, the Israeli offensive has also destroyed some of [university] buildings and facilities. If the truce is started, which may happen any moment, and the entry of construction material has been allowed, major building efforts will begin

So, the challenge is thus: how to rapidly increase local capacity and awareness of integrated sustainable community design, while maintaining the urgency to rebuild the basic infrastructure people there need just to get along.

In our humble and largely insignificant way, I have offered Farid the option of a “training break” for some of his students. To come and work with us on our reconstruction project in the mellow Minho of Portugal, to learn about building a biogas plant and testing the performance of earth compared with cement in 40 degree heat, and all the rest.

How visas and travel would be arranged is another matter, indeed we look forward to suggestions from people who are more familiar with such things to help us.


Logan England said...

Granted, I'm slowly becoming a (more involved) game player on the same team as you, so I'd be biase; but, you're a great, charismatic writer. I'd be convinced if I wasn't already. I've got to get out in the world, though, and do it to it!

Logan England said...

Granted, I'm slowly becoming a (more involved) game player on the same team as you, so I'd be biase; but, you're a great, charismatic writer. I'd be convinced if I wasn't already. I've got to get out in the world, though, and do it to it!

Farid Al-Qeeq said...

Hi Magnus

Really, it is a great post on Gaza. You have managed to quote every single word I have written in my previous email, and put it within a good context. You have also managed to summarize the report of Prof. Sultan on Gaza reconstruction very well. By the way, I have contacted Prof. Sultan pointing out that any rebuilding efforts should adhere to sustainable principles. I think this aspect has not been clearly emphasized in the report. Anyway, I assume that you have a good contact with Prof. Sultan, as PRDU was your former faculty, and can convey this to him.

It seems that the reconstruction efforts await some political developments. A breakthrough in establishing a Palestinian unity government may take place in the upcoming weeks, which may accelerate this process.

Brief comments:
- Gaza is a semi-arid zone (rather than hot-dry climate zone), taking into account that Gaza is a coastal plain, and the humidity is relatively high.
- Generating energy from biogas has been examined few years ago in the Gaza Strip, especially in rural areas, depending on animal and organic waste, but the main supply for renewable energy in Gaza should utilized solar power.

Tomorrow we will have the start of next semester, with approximately a month delay due to the recent war. I will be busy for some time but promise to have more contribution later on. Kind Regards, Farid

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