An Olive Branch in the West Bank

An Olive Branch in the West Bank

UNEP and IFC on how a water waste problem becomes its own solution
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An Olive Branch in the West Bank

Chemical Engineer
UN Environment Program

Agribusiness Specialist, Advisory Services, Middle East and North Africa, IFC

In the West Bank, one of the world’s most arid regions, transformative agricultural practices are urgently needed by hundreds of thousands of farmers dependent on their lands for their livelihoods. For those working in olive oil production – a centuries-old mainstay of the local economy – safe and successful use of waste water from olive pressing is a welcome improvement.

Olives, and the oil that they produce, constitute an essential source of income for as many as 100,000 families in the West Bank. However, the olive oil production process frequently involves hefty volumes of untreated liquid waste seeping into groundwater tables and public sewage facilities. This waste can contaminate aquifers and neighboring fields and can cause damage to sewage systems and waste water treatment plants.

Under the “West Bank Olive Oil Export Development” project, IFC partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Sustainable Consumption and Production/Regional Activity Center (SCP/RAC) to provide olive oil farmers and small and medium enterprises with modernized practices to minimize the potential environmental impacts of the olive oil industry.

By conducting certain modifications in olive pressing processing, the practice creates a single waste that can be composted and used later on as an organic fertilizer, thus eliminating the problems associated with waste water.

The use of this organic fertilizer mitigates the effects of chemical fertilization, a source of nitrate pollution whose long term use has intensified soil erosion and desertification across the region.

Ecological Footprint

The use of treated waste water as compost can also help improve soil conditions in the West Bank’s lush olive fields and enhance productivity, offering both a safe and natural substitute for chemically synthetized fertilizers and helping improve the sector’s ecological footprint.

The compost is obtained by modifying the oil extraction process and letting the waste undergo a natural process of maturation during a six-month period.

For small and medium enterprises involved in the pressing and bottling of olive oil, that intervention has helped their businesses eliminate a toxic material and prevented it from polluting neighboring fields.

As firms globally sell products labelled as green and fair trade, organic fertilization can help in the certification of exported goods.  Further, the application of compost as a natural alternative can help increase the input of organic carbon in soils, acting as a climate change mitigation measure.

At a time when the world is facing enormous water scarcity challenges and prices of chemical fertilizer have increased, these alternative solutions for cash-strapped farmers and for those working in agribusiness, are celebrated as a refreshing bout of good news.

Regionally, olive oil is a key sector in Morocco and Tunisia, but this innovative solution can be replicated across fields where the traditional olive pressing process remains largely intact. Lessons learned in the West Bank, where agribusiness accounts for about two-thirds of total employment, are transferrable elsewhere, a testament to the fact that in recycling waste, we are often recreating value.

Special thanks to Dina Zayed, Communications Consultant, Advisory Services, Middle East and North Africa, IFC, for her contribution to this article.

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