Posted by John Harris, Regional Outreach and Communications Specialist on Sunday, March 24th 2013
USAID’s Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) Program promotes cooperation between the Arab and Israeli scientific communities through joint research projects addressing common development problems. The program was established in 1981 to facilitate research cooperation between Egyptian and Israeli scientists, and was subsequently expanded to include Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and the West Bank and Gaza.
Today, active projects involve more than 400 Arab and Israeli scientists, engineers, students and technicians at 50 institutions in seven Middle Eastern countries. New project proposals which seek out sustainable solutions to regional development challenges are accepted every year. Working together, these scientists have led innovation in agriculture, environment, water resources and health.
Given the region’s water shortages and the regional nature of water challenges, the water sector is an important component of MERC’s research portfolio. Because agriculture consumes a large amount of the region’s freshwater resources, MERC projects seek to increase the use of treated wastewater as appropriate in agriculture, minimize water demand in existing crops, and identify new crop varieties that are resistant to drought and salinity.
For example, MERC programs explore the use of wetlands and membrane-based filters for the effective and efficient re-use of reclaimed water in agriculture. Its programs model crops’ abilities to make use of low-quality water, seek the optimal amount of water plants need, and develop protocols for the safe and effective use of reclaimed water. They identify and optimize high-value traditional and specialty crops suitable to arid climates and saline soils, such as potato varieties adapted to saline soils and water, and virus-resistant tomato lines.
As do USAID’s other water projects around the region, MERC’s water portfolio makes use of cutting-edge science, technology and innovation in improving the impact and sustainability of its initiatives. One new project, for example, brings together Israeli and Palestinian scientists to look at the interaction between coastal aquifers and the Mediterranean under changing conditions. The scientists are developing empirical, quantitative estimates of seawater intrusion and freshwater outflow along the coast in and near Gaza. They will subsequently provide policy makers with recommendations about how best to manage these aquifers.
The re-use of wastewater is a growing practice in the region. Another MERC project studies the hormonal health hazards related to this re-use, the effectiveness of new wastewater treatment plants in removing hormonal pollutants, and the cost-effectiveness of new treatment alternatives. Project leader Alon Tal from Ben-Gurion University, who works with Israeli and Palestinian scientists from Bethlehem University and other groups to implement the project, commented, “I think this is going to take to the next level what we know about streams.”
Today, at a time of rapid change in the Arab world, MERC continues to bring together Arab and Israeli scientists and students to create and share solutions to regional development challenges like water while promoting a peaceful exchange between neighbors.