Power to the people: off-grid technologies for resisting displacement

Power to the people: off-grid technologies for resisting displacement
Feature: Israeli activists are installing renewable energy systems in Palestinian communities, empowering locals to stay on their land in the face of pressure from Israeli authorities to leave.
6 min read
18 June, 2015
Solar panels provide the energy for a new kind of power struggle [Alice Gray/alAraby]

Comet-ME was founded by Elad Orian and Noam Dotan, two Israeli physicists, in 2006. It started out as a voluntary organisation and went on to register as a non-profit in 2009. 

"We used to go to the demonstrations in Bil'in and this kind of thing," Orian told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "But then we wanted to do something more practical to help the people, using the skills that we had. We are both physicists: designing energy grids was something that we could offer, so we started to do that.

"We built our first wind turbines in Noam's back yard, installed them in a couple of communities we knew and went on from there," he continues. "As our work went on and we started to serve more communities, it made sense to open a centre in the area, so here we are."

Comet-ME installs hybrid wind and solar powered energy systems for communities in Area C of the southern West Bank, who have little access to electricity due to the Israeli occupation. 

Their centre is in a series of caves and small buildings in Gawawis, a tiny Palestinian hamlet in the shadow of Ma'on settlement, close to Susya, on land rented from a Palestinian landlord. 

     The strong survive, but people deserve better than that.
- Elad Orian, Comet-ME founder

"We focus on Area C because people there have no other option. Israel has total control of the area and Israel is not providing any services to Palestinian communities there.  The Palestinian Authority couldn't help these people if they wanted to," says Orian. 

As an occupying power, Israel has an obligation under international law to provide services to the occupied population - an obligation that is not being fulfilled. 

While Israeli settlements in the area, even those outposts considered illegal by the Israeli government itself, are well served with water and electricity networks, nearly all rural Palestinian communities remain off-grid. 

Many critics claim that this omission is a method of indirect ethnic cleansing, encouraging residents to leave by non-provision of essentials.

The threat of demolition

Since they started working, Comet-ME has installed 20 mini-grid systems in communities in South Mount Hebron, providing energy to more than 1,600 people. 

"Our systems help people to stay on their land and live normal lives," says Orian. "In some areas, people have even started to return, and communities are expanding."

But 16 of Comet's 20 systems have demolition orders pending on them.

"A major part of our work now is trying to fight these demolition orders," he tells al-Araby. "We are making a huge legal and diplomatic effort to remove this risk."

In July 2014, Orian travelled to Germany to raise awareness of the situation of vulnerable communities in Area C and the barriers Israeli places on development projects, meeting with senior Foreign Office officials and making a presentation before the Bundestag Committee for Economic Development and Cooperation.

Engineers build wind turbines to help

restore power to communities [Comet-ME]

In addition, Comet has supported communities in petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court to forestall demolitions, presenting a case for Maghayer al-Abeed community in October 2014. 

"Susya is the most worrying situation at this moment," Orian tells al-Araby. "It's not just our systems - the Israeli High Court has made a ruling that would allow the authorities to come in and demolish every stick and nail of the community at any moment."

Susya is a community of 340 people who were evicted from their original village in 1986, when Israel declared the area an archaeological site. They moved to agricultural land that they owned and are now accused of building without permits by Israeli authorities, who have also ruled that their village is "unfit for human habitation".

On June 5, hundreds of Palestinians and Israeli activists marched together in Susya to protest against the High Court decision, which demonstration organisers say "epitomizes the occupation".

Under the sign of H20

"We see ourselves not as a technical institute but as a service provider," says Noam Dotan, Comet-ME co-founder.  "There is a clear correlation between poor water quality and diseases, so now we are developing systems to tackle that issue."

Many communities rely on rainwater harvesting cisterns to provide drinking water for themselves and their animals.  Comet-ME have now added a microbiology unit to their centre to monitor water quality, as well as developing and installing water filtration and distribution systems. 

According to Comet technicians, the contamination level in harvested rainwater, particularly after rain events which wash animal manure into the cisterns along with the water, are threatening to human health. Lacking any other source of water, people drink it.

More on eco-resistance by Alice Gray
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- Permaculture and the sustainability of resistance
- Do it yourself in besieged Gaza

"The strong survive, but people deserve better than that," says Orian. 

"We have developed a system that fits in with our electricity installations, and we are continuously monitoring it to make sure it works properly," says Dotan. "We want to create flowing systems that form synergies between the different elements within them."

Electric pumps running on solar energy lift water from underground cisterns and pump it through mechanical filters into roof-top tanks.

Water processed in this way is fit for most household purposes and for consumption by animals, but not quite up to human drinking water standards, so Comet have developed a simple slow-sand filter, manufactured from local materials, to provide clean drinking water. 

The sand filter is a simple piece of technology consisting of a plastic tube containing a layer of gravel at the bottom with construction sand on top. Water is spread through a perforated plate to drip slowly onto the surface of the sand from above. Another tube carries clean water from the bottom of the filter to the outlet, which feeds into a bucket. 

"We got the basic design from an organization called CAWST [The Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology] who have been very helpful to us," says Dotan. 

"The systems they make are not expensive - but shipping them is. So we decided to adapt the design to be manufactured from local materials. That also shows that anyone can build them."

     I feel we are doing more to fight the occupation than many people.
- Ahmed al-Musri, Palestinian engineer

In 2014, Comet installed water filtration and distribution systems for 20 families in Susya and Wadi Rachim communities. 

Knowledge is power

"Technology is knowledge and knowledge is power," reads Comet-ME's 2014 Annual Report. A major facet of the organisation's strategy is the transfer of knowledge to the Palestinian communities that they serve: through community participation, local sourcing of materials and open-source access to technical details of their designs. 

A regional sustainability team consisting of Palestinian technicians monitors systems, ensuring that they continue to function as they should and are adjusted and upgraded as and when necessary. 

"Working with Comet, I really feel I am doing something to directly help people and improve their lives," says Ahmed al-Musri, a Palestinian engineer from Bethlehem who directs Comet's energy programme.

"Of course, there are always criticisms [from within the Palestinian community] of working with Israelis. But I feel we are doing more to fight the occupation than many people; and we have a really strong relationship with the communities we support," he continues. "Even during the Gaza war in 2014 we did not face any problems."

Orian agrees. "At its core our work is about resistance to the occupation," he says. "But we are not here to write political manifestos – we are here to install more systems, to empower people and to have a practical impact on the situation. Doing is the key."