Water Solutions in the State of Palestine: Innovations failing to make it mainstream

February 2, 2020

© UNDP/PAPP - Ahed Izhiman

Although 91% of Palestinian communities are connected to public piped water, intermittent access is widespread. Limited water resources are scarce, leading to a dramatically low water consumption per person of 70 liters/day, far lower than the global average of 340 liters per person. Many root problems can be attributed to the damaging restrictions imposed on the access and use of natural sources of water as part of the Interim Oslo Accords. In Gaza, the reliance on the coastal aquifer as the only source of water has led to over pumping, deeming more than 97% of the drawn water undrinkable and leaving only 10% of Gaza’s population with access to safe drinking water. While a political breakthrough would help to considerably alleviate this water challenge, Palestinians particularly in Gaza can not wait.

Water – a forefront challenge

To this end, the Palestinian Accelerator Lab has identified this issue as a forefront challenge that requires intervention. Considering the lack of access to basic water services, there is a critical need to generate new and innovative ways to improve quality and equitable access to water. There is a growing need for genuine efforts from Palestinian entrepreneurs, innovators, and other water stakeholders to design, test, adopt, and scale-up new innovations to tackle the challenges in the water sector.

Eco-System Mapping: An Innovation Pipeline

In our eco-system mapping, we met with the Research and Development Unit at the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). We were delighted to hear of their long-standing partnership with several Palestinian universities, identifying priority areas of research to address the pressing water and environmental issues. Over the past ten years, PWA oversaw around 300 student researches related to water and sanitation services. Many of these had applied research components, demonstrating potential for new innovations that can solve some of the State of Palestine’s pressing problems in the water sector. However, rarely did any of these leave confined lab settings to a widespread use of the Palestinian community. As we expanded our eco-system mapping, we identified many initiatives that solicited ideas to solve water and sanitation problems. These ideas were ready to be recognized, but there is a missing link between those ideas and their application, uptake and scale-up.

Accelerator Lab Experiment…

UNDP, through its Accelerator Lab and in partnership with the PWA, launched a water challenge inviting tested, validated, and promising innovations. The challenge did not seek new ideas, but rather aimed at soliciting innovations that proved efficiency and effectiveness in confined labs or geographical areas. The “Ready to Go” Water Solutions Challenge will select winning solutions and provide them with the backstopping support needed to community-test the product/service. We advertised the call using “Solve It”, a new platform the accelerator lab launched recently. Our announcement was shared with targeted audiences, including universities, incubators, NGOs, and relevant social media pages.

Response so far?

The turnout to our call was limited in numbers, but overwhelmingly positive in quality. We received diverse ideas with promising application potential: solutions to desalinate brackish water, software to manage water flow, detect leakages, and curb water losses, and devices to clean up polluted water. A total of five ideas were shortlisted and provided the opportunity to pitch their solutions to a group of five judges prominent in the water, sanitation, and agriculture field. While we intended to choose one solution to support in closing the loop for community testing, the judging panel were impressed of the potential of two ideas and as such recommended moving forward with these two.

Solutions for scale

The first solution came from Rinad, a young Palestinian scientist who conducted applied research in seed coating to improve tolerance of plants to brackish water. Record highs of water salinity are leading to less rewarding and unsustainable cropping patterns. Many farmers are leaving agriculture particularly in the Jordan Valley, long known to be a main source of agricultural produce. As such, Rinad’s solution has paramount potential for the livelihoods of farmers in the Jordan Valley and other areas facing similar high salinity rates. We will be supporting Rinad in testing her solution in various communities to demonstrate the effectiveness of specially coated seeds to tolerate the use of brackish water.

The other solution was presented by a 4-team member hackathon idea that has transformed into a startup to combat water losses and improve local council water management. The widespread application of the new smart meters and “flowless” software could become a prominent solution that combats the heavy water losses in the distribution network (estimated from one third to half of delivered water). Provided its low cost compared to advanced water management systems, coupled with the integration of artificial intelligence components to analyze real-time data, “Flowless” can make a huge difference in more effective water management and fair consumer prices.

Accelerator Labs vs. Business Incubators

Ideas to solve the State of Palestine’s pressing problems like Rinad’s and team “Flowless” are not limited to the water sector. In fact, the Palestinian pipeline for ideas combatting the plethora of challenges is rich, however giving these ideas the safe space to experiment, adapt, and grow into scalable solutions is lacking. While business incubators and accelerators have become the traditional channel for those innovators, the localization of their solutions is not attractive for these incubators as they are interested in global markets. The Palestinian Accelerator Lab is meeting an increasing reception from these social innovators, who are keen to find a support system for their solutions to the State of Palestine’s problems.