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Collaboration to ease Middle East water shortage leads to honorary degree

As war in the Persian Gulf gives way to reconstruction, many have discussed what role oil will play in a new Iraq. But two scientists with ties to U-M believe water is the natural resource upon which the region's future rests.
Dr. Charles Koopmann, Senate Assembly chair, and Anthony England, professor of engineering and computer science, and of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, place the honorary doctoral hood on Hillel Shuval, while Regent Katherine White congratulates the honorary doctor of sciences (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

"Water, not oil, is the key to peace and economic stability in the Middle East," says Khalil Mancy, professor emeritus of environmental health sciences and of environmental chemistry.

After decades of collaborating to find ways to ease the water shortage in the Middle East, Mancy nominated Hillel Shuval for the honorary degree Shuval received at Michigan's commencement April 26.

"Together we have done great things, and I thank the U of M for granting us the rare privilege of being able to be creative together in promoting the welfare and peace of our nations in the Middle East," Shuval says. After receiving the degree, he returned to Israel, where he is the Lunenfeld-Kunen Professor of Environmental Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This partnership might not have happened if not for two men who chose to cross political boundaries to address an international concern. In 1962, Mancy, then a 25-year-old Egyptian graduate student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met Shuval, then a 40-year-old Israeli professor of environmental health at the U-M School of Public Health. Mancy later recalled he'd never seen an Israeli in person before. The ongoing war between Israel and its neighbors had prevented such things.

The two kept in touch through the turbulent years to come—the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973-74 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978. Shortly after the signing of the Camp David accord, the two began their first joint research project—an inexpensive, low-tech water treatment system for the Middle East.

"In the beginning, we had to face opposition from our colleagues who accused us of collaboration with the enemy, but in time we won over many friends and supporters for our work," Shuval says.

Mancy graduated and became part of U-M's faculty, and the two spearheaded U-M-based projects, in collaboration with several institutions in the region, that lasted about 15 years. Based on their work, construction of the Suez Experimental Station began in 1984 and was finished in 1989. It includes 20 acres of stabilization ponds that slowly purify wastewater using algae, bacteria and sand, with power from wind and the sun.

"Now, you may wonder and ask how effective were these efforts, especially in view of the tragic violence that is going on right now," Mancy says. "Our collaborative studies were essentially people-to-people reconciliation, people who are eager to know more of each other and harbor strong desires for harmonious relations.

"When the politicians come about and reach a settlement, the results of our studies will provide a blue print for the immediate practice of peaceful coexistence. This includes the protection and equitable sharing of water resources, environmental management, pollution prevention, food safety and the like."

"Cooperative efforts by scientists in helping to solve problems of mutual interest and concern can help build bridges of mutual understanding and mutual respect. I believe the same will hold true for Americans and others in Iraq," Shuval says.

"I am a peace activist in Israel and have been thrilled by the opportunity of being able to promote mutual understanding and mutual respect among Israeli-Egyptian-Palestinian and Jordanian water and environmental scientists by working together on joint research projects for the past 20 years. This form of 'second track diplomacy' has helped build up a large group on each side who begin to understand each other and has helped prepare them for peaceful coexistence," he says.

Dr. Charles Koopmann, Senate Assembly chair, and Anthony England, professor of engineering and computer science, and of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, place the honorary doctoral hood on Hillel Shuval, while Regent Katherine White congratulates the honorary doctor of sciences recipient.

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