Bringing clean water to the Middle East: How an ASU initiative is crossing borders to help refugees

Dr. Rhett Larson (right) is working to bring sustainable water solutions to the Middle East. (Ashley St. Thomas/ASU Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives)

Growing up, ASU Associate Professor Rhett Larson always had water on his mind as a desert dweller.

“I grew up always hearing and seeing things about water issues,” Larson said.

Born and raised in Arizona, Larson’s fascination of water and water policy stayed with him throughout his academic life, and eventually led him to ASU, where the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law professor put his extensive water policy knowledge to use through a special project.

The USAID project titled, “Holistic Water Solution for Underserved and Refugee Host Communities in Lebanon and Jordan," has been funded a two-year, $1.95 million grant to ASU and its partners to help bring portable and clean water solutions to the Middle East.

“Every day it feels like there are more questions and challenges and that’s what make it fun,” said Larson.

The role of Larson’s ASU team is to help local refugee host communities in Jordan and Lebanon adapt to the influx of refugees by providing clean and sustainable solutions. They are identifying communities that host large refugee populations and developing ways to make sure they have enough water capacity to assist with their swelling populations.

“Most refugees aren’t in camps, they just find some place where they can settle and they do this best they can,” Larson said. “Issues with communities hosting refugees has been around for the long time.” 

Along with Larson’s knowledge of water and water policy, other partners around the world have joined in on the project to help aid with the creation, cultivation, and retention of water solutions. Partners like Green Co. Water, bring ideas regarding water storage through a collapsible water storage system; another partner, Zero Mass Water, uses a process involving solar energy that converts water vapor into water. Other partners include H20 For Humanity, Mercy Corps, and the Rene Moawad Foundation, which is a foundation based in right in the line of Larson’s work, in Lebanon.

Issues surrounding water doesn’t always stem from a single environmental issue—water problems can also originate from political battles as well.

Iraq, Jordan, and other middle eastern countries have had issues for years surrounding the limited water resources in their areas. Having little water creates sources of conflict, and when more people are added to the population, the scarcity of water gets even worse. Larson said problems surrounding the relationship between water and refugees didn’t start with the recent news of the Syrian refugee crisis. 

“Water can be a source of great communication or a source of conflict,” Larson said.

Larson added that he wanted the access to water to be the least of refugee’s concerns when they come to a new country. His idea is to remove water as a challenge, and use it instead to help the people of these communities.

Larson has traveled to the areas of impact frequently, recently taking a trip this past January to find selection sites for the project in Lebanon and Jordan. Along with the Rene Moawad Foundation and Mercy Core, Larson met with the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, who helped give sense of context of the issues that were present and why they came to be. Larson also worked closely with Non-Governmental Organizations and even the host refugee communities, where focus groups were used to see where were the best places for the locals to get water and how the water is treated.

Although the project is still in it’s beginning stages, Larson is already looking ahead. When asked about the next 5-10 years, Larson said he’d love to see the program expand outside their current areas, and serve host communities in Palestine, Iraq and Turkey.

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