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New Grants, Global Partnership Extend Water Center’s Reach

A new global partnership led by the Northwestern Center for Water Research is taking a multifaceted approach to water challenges facing the Middle East.

The research and academic collaboration between Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Israel and Northwestern University further establishes efforts that began shortly after the center’s launch in 2016.

“This partnership substantially increases opportunities for Northwestern faculty and students to collaborate with peers in Israel, and allows us to contribute to solutions faced by the Middle East and other arid regions,” says Aaron Packman, civil and environmental engineering and director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research. “This is an important step towards the vision of broader collaboration with Israel on water that was developed jointly by the Water Center and the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern.”

Northwestern has long-standing relationships with TAU including student exchange and dual degree programs in business and law. Northwestern students have participated in BGU’s overseas student program and collaborations with BGU water researchers date back more than a decade.

Noam Weisbrod, director of the BGU Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research was one of the keynote speakers at Northwestern’s first Symposium on Water in Israel and the Middle East in May 2016.  When Dror Avisar, director of the Water Research Center at TAU, came to Evanston in September for the second-annual Northwestern-TAU Materials Workshop — focused on energy, sustainability, and biomaterials — the idea for an international working group on transboundary water sustainability further took shape.

The Buffett Scholars in Israel Collaboration Fund has supported this working group, bringing together faculty from the partnering institution around one pressing and contentious transboundary challenge: sustainable water management between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority administration areas.

“Israel is the region’s leader in water management technologies, such as efficient irrigation and cutting-edge desalinization techniques,” says Elie Rekhess, Crown Center associate director for Israel studies at Northwestern. “Water treaties forged in the mid-1990s between Israel and Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian Authority have produced significant cooperation between entities historically at odds toward one another.”

Given that history, however, peaceful collaboration is always a challenge, Rekhess said ahead of the second-annual Symposium on Water in the Middle East and Israel held in Evanston on May 24.

“The continuous instability in the region and particularly the ongoing armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians cast a shadow over regional collaborative efforts,” he says. “In Iraq and Syria, ISIS turned water installations into strategic weapons, threatening to flood vast areas, deny millions of basic water rights and displace entire populations. The international community, the United Nations, humanitarian NGOs and academic research institutes can — and should — play a major role in enhancing cooperative policy.”

“There is a very strong incentive for everyone to protect the available water, so it’s really just a question of developing good working partnerships to manage the resource well,” says Packman.

The Water Center recently initiated a new seed grant program that supports research collaborations to solve these water challenges. The first round of seed grant funding has been awarded to four international groups:

  • Sera Young, Northwestern; Noam Weisbrod, BGU; and Hwong-wen Ma, National Taiwan University, will study “novel tools for the cross-cultural assessment of water insecurity and water interventions.”
  • Neelesh Patankar, Northwestern; Kyoo Chul Park, Northwestern; and Naftali Lazarovitch, BGU, will study a “moisture trapping net for agriculture.”
  • George Wells, Northwestern; Hadas Mamane-Steindel, TAU; and Dror Avisar, TAU, will complete a “metagenomics-guided analysis of antibiotic resistance genes in hospital wastewater treatment systems for decentralized water reuse.”
  • Kyoo Chul Park, Northwestern; Neelesh Patankar, Northwestern; and Jack Gilron, BGU, will study “next generation water treatment technology for brine management and decentralized water supply.”

“These projects hold the potential to yield scientific discoveries and practical community-centered solutions for water security in Israel and beyond,” says Packman. “Water is central to life, and also to industry and agriculture. In a water-poor region like the Middle East, this makes water central to both peace and health for everyone in the region.”

Northwestern’s Center for Water Research was created in March 2016 to link the University’s water research efforts in basic sciences, technology development, law and policy, and systems analysis and simulation to address challenges in water systems sustainability and efficiency.

“Such complex interdisciplinary studies are the essence of our 50-plus University Research Institutes and Centers, supported by the Office for Research,” says Fruma Yehiely, associate vice president for research. The center enables faculty from multiple disciplines to come together for achieving solutions for global, regional and local water challenges. Under Aaron’s leadership, the Northwestern Center for Water Research has put forward exciting research, education, outreach and collaborative programs.”

The center has more than two-dozen faculty affiliates and supports numerous undergraduate summer research projects in Chicago and Israel. Academic partners include the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, the Northwestern-Argonne Institute in Science and Engineering, the Environmental Advocacy Center at the Pritzker School of Law, and the Center for Optimization and Statistical Learning at the McCormick School of Engineering.

Local Ties, Global Leader

Northwestern engineers and social scientists, playing a leading role in seeking solutions to a global crisis over water insecurity, visited Israel in early September to deepen academic exchanges, create new partnerships, and collaborate with Chicago officials who are also working on the problem.

Members of the Northwestern community were in Israel participating in WATEC, a major international water industry conference, as part of a delegation with the city of Chicago.

On September 11, Packman and Yehiely signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Ben-Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research in Israel. The MOU seeks to facilitate the exchange of students, faculty and postdoctoral fellows.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also attended and gave opening remarks at the WATEC conference in addition to witnessing the signing of the MOU.

By Roger Anderson