Empowering women as sustainable energy leaders in Palestine

PENGON - Friends of the Earth Palestine

In a region where the majority have unmet energy needs, this project is bringing power to the people.

Mariam Barghouti

Open Democracy  /  October 8, 2019

In an office just a few minutes away from the city centre in Ramallah, Dr. Ayman Rabi scurries to submit a report on the latest efforts of the Palestine Hydrology Organization. As acting executive director and co-founder of the organization, Dr. Rabi reflects on the founding days and the current efforts and accomplishments of the group. In a low voice and with a slight smile he remembers: “We’d drink and eat and live in the office for 22 days. We kept going as a hydrology group and contacting the outside world through this work.”

The Hydrology Group was founded in 1987 at the peak of the first Palestinian uprising in light of increasing Israeli violations against Palestinian water resources. Presently, a humanitarian crisis engulfs regions across Palestine. In Gaza, 1.3 million out of the 1.9 million people living there require some form of humanitarian assistance. According to the UN, more than 55% have unmet energy needs, 47% have food insecurities and only a small group have access to water. Zena Agha, a policy fellow with the U.S think tank al-Shabak said that this resembles eco-apartheid whereby “while Palestinians and Israeli inhabit the same physical terrain, vulnerable Palestinians – those under occupation and siege – will suffer the effects of climate change more severely purely as a consequence of their ethno-religious identities.”

Perpetual electricity cuts have further exacerbated the already volatile conditions of living in Gaza where 90-95% of water is contaminated. In the West Bank, demolitions by Israeli forces of Palestinian structures have further impeded access to natural resources such as water and agriculture. Palestinians have resorted to creative solutions for survival, and the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network- Friends of Earth Palestine (PENGON-FoE) has become a leading organization in bridging together these endeavours.

Up until 1996, organizations working within the environmental sphere were largely divorced from one another. PENGON-FoE in Palestine was established as an umbrella organization to coordinate among various Palestinian non-governmental organizations tackling issues of environmental sustainability in Palestine. It remains the only Palestinian environmental organization’s network that works in both the West Bank and Gaza, with fourteen organizational members within it. Given the geographical division of the West Bank from Gaza in light of Israel’s 13 year siege on the strip, and control of Palestinian movement within and from the West Bank, and the obstacles enforced by Israel to building sustainable agricultural and clean energy technologies, the coordinated efforts of PENGON are becoming increasingly pivotal. PENGON and its members have already brought people-powered electricity to 650 households in the Jordan Valley and 270 in the Gaza Strip.

In a cafe in downtown Ramallah, Abeer Al-Butmeh marshals her two children while carrying her infant child. Al-Butmeh has been with PENGON-FoE for 11 years and is the current campaign coordinator of the organization. Having witnessed both the challenges and the wins the organization, Al-Butmeh emphasizes “remaining steadfast, seeing the changes, it keeps us going and re-affirms our rights to our lands.” PENGON-FoE and affiliates have four major concerns. They focus on water rights, preservation of biodiversity, justice in accessibility to energy, and confronting the various forms of pollution in Palestine.

More recently, however, PENGON-FoE is foregrounding the role of women in environmental sustainability. “The women are involved in all aspects of life” explains Al-Butmeh, “and the woman is most harmed in environmental pollution as she also plays an important role in raising awareness and giving guidance to the younger generation.” By focusing on the role of women and empowering leaders in environmental sustainability and clean energy, PENGON-FoE is also moving towards changing legislative and policy structures to emphasize the gender dynamics in Palestine.

With a hearty smile, Al-Butmeh reflects on the gender aspect of their work, confidently stating that “what we are doing is reinforcing the role of women in influencing and shaping the policies and institutional programmes, as a benefactor and a forerunner.” In bringing together both the work of the organizations within the network on environmental sustainability and emphasizing the empowerment of women, PENGON-FoE’s work helps restructure social relations as well.

However, in spotlighting the gender aspect of environmental efforts, PENGON-FoE must navigate two marginalized areas in Palestine. Given the overarching Israeli occupation and increased human rights violations by the Israeli government and Israeli settlers, both environmental and women’s issues are often relegated to secondary concerns. The Palestine Energy Authority is now recognizing the importance of gender issues, and PENGON-FoE is enabling increased research and policy consultations on changing the approach of organizations with consideration to gender. It is tackling legislative articles to pinpoint their weaknesses as well as offering solutions in coordination with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoFA).

What further distinguishes PENGON-FoE (as well as its member organizations) is their approach in working with the impoverished communities in Palestine. Organizations like the Palestine Hydrology Group work directly with the communities they are aiming to help. This means being in the field and engaging with a diverse set of realities in Palestine’s social fabric and “this is also why any interventions we implement are through the communities” says Dr. Rabi. PENGON-FoE (and members) maintains that they “don’t go to locations and provide them with help that they don’t need, or don’t want, or haven’t thought of. We also don’t force anything that the community does not want.” In this way, PENGON-FoE is not only promoting its mission, but also establishing relationships of mutual trust and respect across the social spectrum in Palestine.

Such considerations largely sprung from the reality in which these organizations were birthed. At the peak of the first uprising in the 80s and 90s, Palestinian civil society revolved around communal efforts for survival against Israeli incursions. Presently, access and freedom of mobility is worse. “We have to take different considerations now” Dr. Rabi explains, “now we have a greater risk and so we have to plan more broadly and carefully which isn’t easy, but it’s because our employees are under greater risk as well.” As Agha notes, “environmental and political realities in the occupied territories are intrinsically connected.” Organizations like PENGON-FoE, then, must necessarily operate in the shadow of the geographic and political division in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The West Bank is divided into three sections: Areas A, B, and C. Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in area C which is under Israeli control, and this means any coordination efforts or building permits must be acquired from the Israeli government and they are difficult to come by. Further, it means that Palestinian communities in these areas are most vulnerable and dependent on Israeli decisions. This translates into not being able to procure clean and sustainable energy because there is no sovereignty of Palestinian natural resources, and any projects that are forged are at risk of demolition.

For instance, in August of 2019, Israeli forces demolished a piece of water infrastructure built by one of PENGON’s member organizations in Deftlik within the Jordan Valley. The Jordan Valley is especially volatile and subject to Israeli demolitions. Israeli refusal to give permits, the building of the segregation wall, and restrictions on land, water, and basic services further increases the challenges that Palestinians there must face. These occurrences are not an anomaly, but the norm: “we’re used to these complications,” explains Dr. Rabi. Despite this, PENGON-FoE remains steadfast in the face of these obstacles: “When we decided on this path, we moved with the idea that this is our right as we are a part of the Palestinian people that has the right to be in control of its resources and lands. Everything we do, small or big, serves this goal and message that focuses on Palestinian rights.”

The Empowering Women as Sustainable Energy Leaders project is one of twelve inspiring stories of local transformation shortlisted for the 2019 Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award. Transformative cities is a global search for transformative practices and responses that are tackling global crises at a municipal level. You can still vote for the story that inspires you the most until the 9th of October at https://transformativecities.org/2019award/

Mariam Barghouti is a Palestinian American writer based in Ramallah. Her political commentary has been featured in the International Business Times, The New York Times, TRT-World, among others