Tamer Alslaibi is a Palestinian engineer who lives and works in the Gaza Strip. And through a TWAS fellowship he is leveraging his expertise to improve his people’s quality of life by addressing a basic need: clean water.
The Gaza Strip faces the Mediterranean Sea and suffers from chronic water shortages. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reports widespread contamination of local groundwater reservoirs and, according to UNICEF, 78% of Gaza’s domestic water is unfit for human consumption.
In addition, the region is also experiencing a skyrocketing rise in its population, with an annual increase of about 2.5%, according to 2021 World Bank estimates. Today, more than 2 million people live in a territory of 365 square kilometres, roughly the size of the isle of Malta in the Mediterranean sea.
Alslaibi is an engineer in the Civil Engineering Department at the Islamic University of Gaza. He received a TWAS fellowship with Science University of Malaysia (USM), in 2010–2014, and specialized in environmental management. Now, he is a point of reference in the administration of solid waste and water treatment in Palestine (West Bank and Gaza Strip).
"Obtaining a PhD from a foreign country such as Malaysia has been decisive, because our university, here in Palestine, doesn't offer Master and PhD degrees," Alslaibi said.
Since June 2016, he is also the Director-General of Beit Lahia Municipality, a city in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. There, he follows up projects regarding solid waste management, water contamination and water treatment, and fine-tunes annual strategic plans for emergency situations.
Water is a problem not only in Palestine but worldwide. Over 2 billion people live in countries where the water supply is inadequate, and some 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030, UNICEF warns. To raise awareness towards access to clean water, the United Nations has observed the World Water Day every 22 March since 1993.
"Thanks to the TWAS-USM fellowship I got a better understanding of how to address local problems and improve the situation in Palestine," Alslaibi said.
How is water contaminated?
Clean water availability is a serious problem in the Gaza Strip. Sewage containing heavy metals, biological waste and fertilizers often infiltrates groundwater reservoirs, posing a severe health risk. In addition, frequent seawater intrusion from the Mediterranean Sea makes the water too salty to drink.
Therefore, municipal tap water is often scarce and of poor quality. On average, there are less than 80 litres daily per person, below the 100 litres that the United Nations General Assembly recommended in 2010. So Palestinians there often need to buy water from private suppliers.
Electricity is also a critical issue. "Wastewater plants use electricity to operate, but the availability of electricity is limited to 6–8 hours a day," Alslaibi noted. This is not enough for Gaza's three wastewater treatment facilities, that process over 35,000 cubic metres per day of sewage to make it available mainly for agricultural purposes.
To overcome this limitation, wastewater plants also use activated sludge, a purification process that mixes water with a dense mixture of sewage-eating bacteria. Bacteria feed on the chemical content and produce methane gas. This gas can be converted into mechanical energy, which is then used to produce electricity. But the amount of electricity obtained through bacterial activity is not enough to power the plants.
However, there is good news. And this is where Alslaibi's expertise comes into play.
Circular economy can help
The region is rich in olive trees. Some of them are among the world's oldest, dating back to 4,000 years. Olives are a mainstay for the local economy thanks to favourable soil and climate, with the Palestinian olive trees producing some of the world’s highest quality olive oil.
Once olives are squeezed, their stones become a byproduct that farmers discard. But olive stones are a good raw material for producing activated carbon. Activated carbon is a highly porous material that can clean water by attracting unwanted chemicals in liquid waste to its surface.
Cleaning and reusing wastewater in this way contributes to a circular economy. Such an approach calls for recycling what can become a new product; reducing consumption; and reusing what can serve different purposes.
"Commercially available activated carbons are usually made from coal, at relatively high costs," explained Alslaibi. "We used low-cost starting materials such as olive stones, introducing some adjustments in the preparatory phases to make the whole process even cheaper."
Alslaibi and his colleagues milled a number of olive stones and carbonized them in a microwave oven. Carbonization changes the physical features of the stones in a way that is similar to making popcorn—after popping up, the grains are softer and have a greater surface area in a small volume.
"The carbonization process amplifies the global surface area by creating tiny pores and cracks inside the granules," he explained. Increasing the inner surface area increases the removal efficiency because each pore may attract a higher number of pollutant molecules.
"Using microwave heating has a great advantage over the traditional methods of carbonization," added the scientist. "This approach reduces the time requested for carbonization, with lower energy consumption, requiring fewer intermediate steps and no specific chemical reactions.”
“In addition,” he added, “the resulting product displays an efficiency of more than 95% in the removal process." Zinc, cadmium, nickel, iron, lead and copper are among the removable heavy metals that threaten human health.
One gram of carbonized olive stones has a surface of 3000 square metres, considering both the external surface and the inner pores. On average, 0.25 grams of activated carbon made from olive stones purify 100 millilitres of water.
After the optimization of the baseline process, Alslaibi aims to scale-up the procedure in large-scale columns adequate for big, urban treatment plants.
Caring about the environment
Water purification is not Alslaibi's only interest. In his capacity as Beit Lahia Municipality's Director General, he establishes plans for solid waste management, wastewater and heavy rainfalls and droughts. He also provides orientations on preparing strategic emergency plans.
"Gaza undergoes several types of emergency situations: from natural disasters worsened by unstable climate, to political instability and wars," he explained. Water pump stations and infrastructures are easy to damage and need emergency recovery plans. "We need quick reconstruction of basic infrastructures and to periodically adjust the sewage system, in view of the ever-growing population."
Two awards that he has received, in particular, observe his commitment to his country and people. One is the 2014 Austrian Energy Globe World Award for sustainability in the field of Water and Environment. The other is the 2017 Award of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Environmental Management in the Islamic World, Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
"With the experience I gained, I can transfer my knowledge not only to students but also to policy makers in Gaza, and be a focal point in emergency situations,” he said. “This motivates me not to give up."