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West Bank city sees a future in recycling

Nablus is at the heart of a Palestinian movement to promote biodiversity and self-sufficiency.

NABLUS, West Bank — When Nablus city councilman Hafez Shaheen took office in 2005, he struggled to maintain basic urban functions like electricity and water as he filled in for the mayor, who was under arrest in Israel.

Five years later, with the mayor back in office and Nablus enjoying the relative prosperity unfolding across the West Bank, Shaheen aims to make his city a pioneer in recycling plastics, metals and cardboard.

"Nablus is paying $4 million a year for transporting and dumping garbage," said Shaheen. It's about 8 percent of the annual budget for the ancient city of 126,000.

Shaheen got his Ph.D in water management in Germany. While in Germany, Shaheen saw people separating their garbage into glass, plastic and cardboard. "I want to implement the programs I saw in Europe," he said.

Three years ago, Nablus began a recycling pilot east of the city. There, on a Tuesday in May, a bulldozer shoved dripping trash into a rotating cylinder called a screener, which separates out organic waste. Piles of boxes, broken plastic chairs and a smaller heap of metal waited to be picked up for sale to Palestinian and Israeli companies.

The project processes around 160 tons of garbage a day. A third is recycled; the rest goes to a landfill near Jenin, to the north, or gets dumped illegally on site, Shaheen said. Locals have been complaining about the smell, he said.

Nablus's bid to recycle reflects a growing green awareness among Palestinians. For 10 years, Nadir Al-Khatib has directed the Bethlehem office of the international Friends of the Earth Middle East. He said environmental awareness began rising during the Oslo negotiations of the mid-1990s, when the Israelis and Palestinians negotiated on water and other ecological issues.

"Suffering from water pollution and the water shortages makes the environment one of the main issues [for Palestinians]," he said. "Maybe people do not define it as the environment, but from the way they talk it is a pure environmental issue."

The problem with this approach, however, is damage people do not see. Conservation biologist Sami Backleh, 30, noticed this first hand while scouting vultures in the desert around the southern city of Hebron.

"Two shepherd kids came and asked me what I was doing," said Backleh, from East Jerusalem. "When I told them the vultures could be biodiversity markers, the shepherds said 'instead of watching birds, why don't you get us shelter and food?'"

Backleh worries that without action to preserve water quality, biodiversity and disappearing agriculture, "we will buy our food, our water, our experience and our expertise. We will be a dependent nation."