Interview with David Lehrer about the Arava Institute for Environemntal Studies

Global environmental change is largely indifferent to political boundaries, but meeting the challenges they pose in the future will inevitably require cross-border cooperation. We talk to David Lehrer, Executive Director at The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, about how this challenge is at the heart of their academic mission.

■ Tell us a little about the history of the Arava Institute and its main aims.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura ( was founded in 1996 by Alon Tal and Miriam Sharton to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict. We bring Jews and Arabs together: Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and international students, with the aim of teaching that ‘nature knows no borders’. The institute started originally as an academic programme offering two semesters of multi-disciplinary environmental studies in natural and social sciences. Accreditation for courses comes from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the institute also has agreements with more than 20 American universities. Most of our research involves cross-border environmental challenges and includes Israeli, Palestinian and/or Jordanian colleagues. We also pay attention to social ethnic boundaries that tend to become spatial borders thereby replicating challenges similar to those posed by geopolitical borders.

 ■ Why do researchers and students choose to work at the institute, and where do they come from?

Water, air, energy and land are shared environmental resources in the Middle East. As the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis persists and relationships further deteriorate at all levels, cross-border environmental problems continue to plague the region and are increasing tension between the sides. The Arava Institute offers a unique opportunity for peaceful scientific collaboration. The needs of nature, and the future of the region, must transcend current political discord. Our faculty, researchers and students believe in the power of cooperation to solve our region’s environmental problems.

 ■ What do you think other scientific organizations can learn from the experience of the institute?

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from our experience at the Arava Institute is that the scarcest resource in the Middle East is not water, but trust. To learn to trust each other, students and researchers must first learn to respect each other. The answer is not to avoid political discussions but to embrace dialogue, share histories and listen to the other’s narrative without judgement or defensiveness. At the Arava Institute, students are given the tools to learn to have difficult conversations, to explore environmental challenges from multiple and at times contradictory perspectives, and to find commonalities in their mutual concerns for the environment. We promote project-based learning and constructivist pedagogies, meaning that we teach our students how to design solutions that fit community contexts. For example, social acceptance of emerging technologies that can solve community water and energy challenges.
 ■ Tell us about some of the environmental projects that the institute has been involved in.

The institute’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture has facilitated germplasm exchanges with Moroccan and Jordanian universities for development of crops appropriate for arid lands. The institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management studies pollution in the Hebron–Besor watershed, which begins in the Hebron region of the West Bank, crosses over into Israel, then into Gaza emptying out into the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers at the institute have developed the first water-quality monitoring system for this watershed as an initial step to its restoration. In the central Negev, we have a project promoting a collaborative Jewish–Bedouin agro-tourism development that incorporates local traditional ecological knowledge. Rebuilding terraces and improving irrigation, for instance, increase green zones near villages, which decrease Bedouin grazing and provide agro-heritage tourist sites. Finally, our cross-border research teams between Israel and Jordan have been able to collaboratively study the Arava Valley, a hyper-arid region stretching from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea that contains many endemic and rare species.

■ What do you think are the most pressing challenges facing scientific researchers in the Middle East currently?

The ongoing political conflict undoubtedly hampers the exchange of ideas, knowledge and innovation. International academic boycotts and cold relations among Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian universities impede scientific research and the development of solutions to improve people’s lives in the region. Scientists understand the need to transcend politics. Good science may not always be above politics but it should be politically constructive and serve the public good. Scientific cooperation can show the way towards a more sustainable and peaceful Middle East.

 ■ And the most challenging environmental issues?

The combination of climate change and the exponential growth in local populations will radically transform the region. In his recent book, The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel, Alon Tal, founder of the Arava Institute, sounds a warning that Israel is on an unsustainable trajectory to grow to between 15 and 20 million residents over the next 40 years — approximately doubling its population. This will create new stresses on natural resources and infrastructure. Jordan is the fourth most water stressed country in the world and has already experienced an exponential growth rate in the past 20 years, going from under 5 millio Cross-border science in the Middle East