Chrisine Buesser left Switzerland more than 15 years ago to initially pursue a degree in Business Administration at Babson College. From there, she worked as an investment banker in New York City for three years before joining Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/ Doctors Without Borders) in 2007. Since then, she has lead MSF’s projects and missions in North Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti and Pakistan. In June 2013, she began a 1-year graduate degree in Public Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University).
As part of her coursework at Harvard, she participated in Larry Susskind’s Water Diplomacy class, and subsequently produced a case for the AquaPedia Case Study Database between March and May of 2014.
Her case is about water –available sources and also the lack of sources — in the Palestinian Gaza Strip (Gaza), which is currently under Israeli military land, air and sea blockage. Her case highlights the gap between supply and demand and also seeks to demonstrate that technical solutions cannot be used to derail political solutions. In her analysis article, Threats to Addressing a Water Strategy for Gaza, which is included in the case, she wrote: “Technical solutions should not be an excuse for the international community to stop the pressure on Israel to meet its obligations under International Law to secure water for the occupied Palestinian population or to absolve the Israelis of its respective responsibilities.”
She was generous enough to take some time to answer questions about how she developed her case – from the initial idea to working with her contacts in Gaza and getting the case online and her advice for anyone thinking about adding to AquaPedia or proposing a case study under the current RFP, which is open until October 30th.
How did you decide to write a case study on the topic of water management and rights in Gaza?
It was important to me to write about a current trans-boundary or shared water conflict. Initially, I looked at territories I had previously worked in with MSF, such as Lake Kivu (a shared water source between DRC and Rwanda) or the Indus Water Treaty (between India and Pakistan) since I had a firm understanding of the political, socio-economic, humanitarian (developmental) contexts in these regions.
Yet, when choosing the final case study, I decided to focus on the Gaza Strip (Gaza) as my recent impressions from the March 2014 Harvard student-led trek to Israel and the West Bank in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) were still very much on my mind. Given the fact that I was not allowed to visit Gaza as a tourist during the trek due to the on-going blockage, I initially felt compelled to analyze and explain the physicality of the dispute linked to the Coastal Aquifer, which is a trans-boundary water source that stretches from the northern Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, via Gaza to Israel in the north.
Professor Susskind gave me a free hand in regards to the approach of the case; we did agree that I needed first hand accounts from the people of Gaza, particularly those working in the area. I decided to start preliminary discussions with different regional stakeholders, as I was unsure how to best present the issues linked to water in Gaza. One interlocutor responded as follows: “The Coastal Aquifer isn’t a good case study for a trans-boundary watercourse as the Gaza part is relatively small and most of the recharge is at the Israeli side. There is no shared management of the aquifer. Israel is supplying water to Gaza (a few million cubic meters a year).” Another difficulty was that the Palestinian-Israeli dispute over water (not just in Gaza) has been elaborately documented and interpreted by many commentators. Hence I had to find a fresh perspective of the story for AquaPedia, and not necessarily talk about the Gaza Coastal Aquifer disputes in the context of the larger, well-documented, water conflicts.
My own interpretation began to take shape when one of my contacts, whom I had met during the Harvard trek, responded to my email by connecting me with the UN WASH Cluster Coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza. She put me in touch with different international and national interlocutors in Ramallah and Gaza. I began to understand that others were equally open to respond to questions, share data, information and their experiences working in and around water and sanitation (WATSAN) in Gaza. This gave me the foot in the door to write a case study on Gaza. Needless to say, being a student from a known university with a lot of professional experience, who was writing a paper for a course of a respected professor and practitioner, definitely helped.
I would also like to thank Professor Susskind, as he patiently supported me as I changed topic three times before I settled on the Gaza case. His only worry was that I would not find enough first hand information to allow me to write a paper on the topic.
Can you talk a little bit about how and why this was personally important to you?
1.8 million Gazans depend almost entirely on the Coastal Aquifer Basin for their water supply, which is severely threatened by over-abstraction and pollution. There are no agreements for the optimization of use or protection of the aquifer. Political constraints and on-going conflict make riparian cooperation over water resources in the Coastal Aquifer Basin unlikely. At the time of writing the case study the security situation in Gaza was considered relatively calm. However, the blockage and political constraints were making day-to-day life for Gazans very difficult, if not impossible.
Also, Gazans do not have access to alternative water resources, due to a political deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians. Gaza’s neighbors, Egypt and Israel, have invested in alternative water supply options for the coastal areas through inter-basin transfer or the use of non-conventional water resources. Desalination and other investment-intensive solutions (e.g. waste water treatment) have been proposed and explored as large-scale alternative sources of water for Gaza for many years, but so far only low-hanging fruits (water-demand management, collection of rain/ storm water, repair of infrastructure, etc.) have been partially achieved. Even though low-hanging fruit solutions are absolutely needed and important no matter what other types of solutions might be found, these can only alleviate the pressure on the system, but cannot provide large-scale sustainable solutions that will provide sufficient quality water to all Gazans.
The journey of writing the case became personal to me the moment I was not only reading the written materials but also started interacting with the many people directly or indirectly involved in Gaza and water. Some of my interlocutors felt that, given my Harvard-MIT connection, I could help advocate purposes to create consciousness. One of the interviewees summarized it as “You cannot build a wall around people and leave them without electricity for 8 years and not allow them to build an economy!”
I felt that through my case study I could contribute at least at a small scale to create some different awareness and to have a discussion around the issues of water management in Gaza.
Moreover, one of my first contacts working in and on Gaza told me that I had very good questions and that “a group of like-minded individuals from different organizations in Gaza [including Governmental and UN agencies, NGOs and civil society] are in the middle of organizing a roundtable meeting in Gaza on the 30th of April 2014 and this contact was now thinking about including some of them during that event as it should have all stakeholder groups around the table.”
The purpose of this meeting was get water and energy stakeholders together and to get the attention of donors and diplomats regarding the enormous challenges in implementing the Comparative Study of Options for an Additional Supply of Water for Gaza’s (CSO-G) recommendations. The CSO-G is a 2011 report produced jointly by the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) and some of the donors with the recommendation for rapid interventions to retrieve the situation in the water sector in Gaza.
When we talked about this case over the summer, you mentioned that writing this case was kind of like “opening a Pandora’s box” — can you elaborate?
As mentioned before, the UN WASH Cluster Coordinator connected me with many different local stakeholders, including those from other UN agencies, NGOs, civil society, the private sector and technical experts working in the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) and the Coastal Municipality Water Authority (CMWA). All of them took time to talk to me, and I conducted hours of interviews to collect different data and insights. One of the technical advisors of PWA based in Gaza, was especially helpful and shared an enormous amount of historical and current information. One of the first things he said was that there are politically and technically feasible ways to address the water issues in Gaza. Then he added the following: “I cannot solve the water if the borders are not open or if refugees are still there!” [About 70% of the 1.8 million people in Gaza are UN-registered Palestinian refugees]
After a few days of reading the materials and conducting interviews, I felt a responsibility to the people I had spoken to (over the course of hours of Skype sessions) to produce something ‘solid’.
In addition to the Gaza and West Bank contacts, I also reached out to the Israeli Water Authority, which was more challenging; it took me several weeks to get some information via email, but unfortunately I was never able to set up a Skype call with the relevant technical representative. I did receive some documents via email though, one report by the Hydrological service that gives a lot of information about the natural resources in Israel, and another one from their Palestinian colleagues regarding water resources in Gaza. Besides the obstacle of getting in touch with the Israelis, I also had trouble getting an interview with one of the major donors, the World Bank. Their answer to one of my emails was the following: “After reading through it [my email], I think you have a good handle on the challenges and constraints. I cannot add anything to what you have already stated in your email without going into significant speculation. So, no need for a phone conversation, I really will not be able to say anything more on the issues than what you have identified already.”
I also emailed back and forth with a member of the faculty of Engineering and Material Science at the German University in Cairo, Egypt, to get the Egyptian side of things. Then, I got in contact with EcoPeace/friends of the Earth Middle East, which is an organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists, and academics and experts working on water issues in Palestine, Israel, Jordan.
The more people I spoke to, the more connected I got and the bigger my network became. On the one hand, this was positive as I started to get access to an immense amount of information. However, the large volume of various facts, stories and narratives also meant that I needed to carefully weed through all of it, which was very time consuming.
Despite the challenges to conduct the interviews in the first place (due to time differences, poor Skype connections due to an ongoing energy shortage in Gaza as well as my buys class schedule) in the end I was proud that I managed to gather all the necessary information.
Within a few weeks, I had collected dozen of pages of interview minutes and hundred of pages of materials (PowerPoint presentations, internal and external reports, press releases, strategic water management documents, etc.). I remember sending Professor Susskind an email with the subject line: “Help Needed!” I was overwhelmed by the amount of information I had received after only a few weeks of research: rather than a class project, this had become a research project too vast to conquer alone.
Were there some high or low moments in the process? What was easy about putting together your case and what were some of your challenges?
Being able to speak to all these different stakeholders early on in the process was definitely a ‘high’. People trusted me with their information and stories! I was told early on that the questions I was asking were ‘the ones’. One of my interlocutors even told me that the fact “that she cannot answer any of my questions is an interesting fact in itself”. I was also told that asking questions was a political statement and I was advised to be careful of my future career. One of the interviewees put it like this: “Whoever is living there [Gaza] should have the right of the whole aquifer and this isn’t asked by the Israel government. These things are such obvious impunity that everyone including the international community stops asking the questions.”
The low came soon after initiating all these contacts, because I was somewhat at loss as to how to create a fresh perspective of the dispute for AquaPedia. However, I was determined not to give up not only because this is who I am, but also because I felt a responsibility to the people I had spoken with. Several times I read or heard that water is one of four issues that has been left out of final political negotiations, but it should have been taken up.
Again, I decided to seek Professor Susskind’s help. We agreed that I would write something about water in Gaza and the conflicts within Gaza and the rest of Palestinian state including the various interests in Gaza. I would do so by highlighting the water demand and supply (since the latter has been getting lower while demand has been increasing). Furthermore, I would do an analysis on ways to match supply and demand including a strategy for closing the gap (with a handful of different ways to solve it), such as increasing supply (e.g. if Israel provides more water, desalinate more water with an investment in desalination and energy).
Is there anything else that you would want people reading your case to know or think about beyond the what you’ve shared in the case?
It is key to conduct interviews with the main stakeholders for any of these case studies, as they provide insights that cannot be found publicly. I had to be patient to get the right contacts, and be persistent to get a response from some of my interlocutors, but it was worth the effort.
Firstly, I had to educate myself on the different interlocutors: to have a general understanding of their personal, political and socio-economic connections. I had to learn to ask the right questions to the right people in a careful ‘peel of the onion’ way, stripping layers to get to the core of an issue. My years of experience with MSF in Sudan, DRC, Haiti and Pakistan helped me with this delicate process as some of my former job duties included the collection, triangulation and analysis of data and the development and maintenance of contacts with key actors (military and civilian authorities, belligerents, UN, NGOs, etc.).
Secondly, in order to remain as impartial as possible and not to undermine my credibility, I had to carefully monitor my language so not to use terms that carry any personal or value judgments (e.g. blockage vs. siege, the State of Palestine vs. Palestine, occupied territories vs. Palestinian Land or Territories, etc.). Thus, I often chose terms of the ‘UN language’.
Thirdly, some of the interviews were more challenging than others because of the high emotional and value judgments carried by the people. I had to train myself to separate facts from beliefs or emotions when re-reading their statements. I had to try to put myself in their shoes to attempt to understand their viewpoint. However, I also had to be aware of my own lens, based on my background and experience.
Fourthly, when researching such a sensitive case, it is important to stay respectful at all times (independent of your personal views) and practice empathic listening. I sometimes could feel the utter frustration and cynicism in the person’s tone or choice of words when describing the situation in Gaza. Hence I was important to empathically listen during the interviews, as some of them had the desire to be heard and acknowledged, even if I could not change anything in their daily struggle.
Last but not least, I had to be conscious of not being afraid of making mistakes, and of learning from them. I remember that for one of my interviews, I talked to a Palestinian woman who is working for one of the UN agencies in Ramallah. The conversation was going well until I started talking about seawater desalination for Gaza without access to the water resources in the West Bank. The woman became irritated: the only thing she heard, was that I was ignoring the territorial unity of Gaza with the West Bank by seeking independent solutions for each part of the occupied territories.
While I merely aimed to get woman’s opinion, I had instead upset her (about the non-realization of Palestinian water rights and full sovereignty over their equitable and reasonable share of trans-boundary water resources), exposing a very painful part of her struggle!
Is there anything you would say to someone who might be interested in writing a case for AquaPedia?
This is a unique opportunity to be part of something bigger than oneself. AquaPedia is a unique database, a wiki-style resource, for sharing insight and information about water conflicts with professionals around the world. Water conflicts can be extremely complex, especially when they cross physical, sectorial, and political boundaries. Thus, having a website that explains past and/ or on-going cases to learn from is a huge asset. Being part of Professor Susskind’s advanced Water Diplomacy course, where the final assignment is writing a case for AquaPedia, is much more than your regular university course where you chose a class topic in order to get credit and/ or a good grade. It is a life experience to research, get insights on and write about a real case where governments, industries and people are affected. Publishing a case in AquaPedia contributes to building a knowledge base and developing solutions to complex water problems around the world. Moreover, AquaPedia is an open knowledge resource, which means that other people can add information so that the case can develop.
To show you that this is being and can be used in ‘real’ life, one of the interlocutors mentioned something along the lines of: “Water diplomacy framework…could we do something with that in Gaza? There are donors and there is money around but they are all at the end of their senses of what could be done…we should explore it!” That’s when I made a note to myself: “Larry we need to talk about this!”
I want to invite all water professionals and experts to visit the AquaPedia cases, including the Gaza Water Management case, so that these cases can also benefit from further acknowledgements and comments.
The case study Gaza Strip Water Management which include Christine‘s ASI articles Short and Long Term Solutions for Water Problems in Gaza, Threats to Addressing a Water Strategy for Gaza, and newly updated Additional Notes and Personal Insights on Gaza Water Management are available for reading or comment in AquaPedia
While anyone can create, edit, and extend case studies in AquaPedia, we’re currently (through October 30 2014) seeking short proposals for new case studies that will receive additional editorial support and are eligible for financial awards. Please visit our RFP website to learn more about this unique and time-sensitive opportunity.