The world is facing a growing water crisis as at least half of the global population of 7.6 billion is expected to be living in water-stressed areas by 2025. As of 2017, over two billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water according to the World Health Organization.
Last year, the World Resources Institute, a global research non-profit organization focusing on goals for a more sustainable future, listed seven reasons the world is facing a global water crisis. The issues on the list included climate change and its effects on the aridity of a region, water demand, depleted groundwater, water waste, poor water infrastructure, lack of healthy ecosystems, and the price of water for investors and the general public.
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Israel, a nation that is 50 percent made up of desert, and with recurring droughts has over the years faced these challenges. Since the founding of the modern state, limited precipitation, a difficult desert climate, water waste, lacking infrastructure and a growing population have been adversaries to the water effort. Israel has been able to conquer each and every one of these issues with the Israeli government, scientists and companies developed cutting-edge solutions.
In honor of World Water Day, an annual observance on March 22 established by the United Nations to highlight the importance of freshwater, NoCamels takes a look at the wide range of innovative water tech coming from Israel. From seawater desalination and drip irrigation to water conservation, water recycling, wastewater treatment, and water purification, Israel has become a leader in the development of advanced water technology. And it has been sharing its knowledge with the world.
Israel’s water challenges
Since before the founding of the modern state of Israel, the limited rainfall and dry desert climate pushed Israeli residents to find new ways to develop safe water supplies and distribute them throughout the country.
The National Water Carrier, one of Israel’s first investments in water tech, was the first time the country found a means to distribute water. While in its planning stages even before 1948, its construction was backed by Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s and full infrastructure was completed in 1964. The carrier — considered the largest water project in Israel — is essentially a series of giant pipes, open canals, tunnels, reservoirs, and large-scale pumping stations that takes freshwater from the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater reservoir, and transports it to the south through an 81 mile path.
While the Sea of Galilee does supply a small portion of Israel’s drinking water needs, as the population of the country swells, it can’t be the only way to provide potable water. And while the country, mainly the north part, does receive rainfall, it is usually not enough to keep up with the water demand.
Abraham Tenne, an independent consultant on water, wastewater, desalination, and energy who says he was “once responsible for all water technologies in Israel” as the head of the desalination division and chairman of the Water Desalination Association for the Israel Water Authority from 2005-2015 says Israel uses about 2 billion cubic meters of water per year but it only produces about 1 billion cubic meters in limited rainwater.
Thus, the Sea of Galilee is shrinking, with the Water Authority warning in October last year that it was at “a dangerously low level and expected to reach the ‘lowest level ever recorded.'” Furthermore, the dropping water-levels are causing rising salinity in the reservoir, affecting the quality of the water.
Limited rainfall isn’t only detrimental to people who need to drink, but also to the crops that supply much of the country’s food. Among Israel’s list of noteworthy inventions is a technology that has changed the face of agriculture. Drip irrigation has the potential to save water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly into the roots of plants from above or below soil surface. It was created by Israeli engineer Simcha Blass and perfected by Israeli inventor Rafi Mehudar for water tech firm Netafim. This invention has proven to be “the only technology that has been proven to significantly increase the supply of food,” according to Mehudar.
Last month, Mexico-based company Mexichemcompleted a deal to acquire 80 percent of drip irrigation company Netafim, raising its company value to $1.895 billion. “The deal will strengthen the company’s global standing in smart irrigation while leveraging Mexichem’s assets and its geographic deployment, basket of products, and many years of operating experience,” Netafim president and CEO Ran Maidan said. The deal was seen as another step forward in the expansion of Israel water tech around the world.
Israel is perhaps even more well known for pioneering desalination, the process where salt and minerals are extracted from seawater to produce potable water. The first desalination plant was built in Eilat in the 1960s, but Tenne says it wasn’t until 1999 that desalination really became a new ways to produce potable water.
Today, more than 60 percent of Israel’s domestic water comes from desalination, according to Yaron Straschnov, the head of commercial desks for Central and North America for Israel Desalination Engineering (IDE) Technologies. He says the achievement is “unprecedented” with no other country getting close, while praising Israel’s water tech expertise which he says stemmed from a need. “Need is the father of all inventions. Israel is a pioneer in water tech because it is surrounded by unfriendly company. It’s natural. We had no choice,” he tells NoCamels.
Tenne too, hailed the country’s achievements, saying “Israel has succeeded in the last generations to deal with water shortages. We know how to live in the desert. We know how to live with the challenges,” he tells NoCamels.
Currently, Israel has 34 small-scale brackish water desalination plants bringing in about 17 million cubic meters a year, according to Tenne, and five large-scale seawater desalination plants.
Three of those plants, in Sorek, Ashkelon, and Hadera along the Israeli coast, are partly owned (50 percent) by IDE Technologies. The company, headquartered in Kadima, has become a world leader in water treatment solutions specializing in the development, engineering, and operation of desalination and water treatment plants, spreading its knowledge and main engineering process from Israel to 400 plants in 40 countries, including Australia, China, India, Chile, and the US.
“We focus on three domains,” Straschnov, tells NoCamels, “first, we look for the efficient way to remove chemicals and add energy. Then, as part of our seawater examination, we minimize the brine. When you are in the process, you want to decrease the brine, which is the high salinity and waste, minimizing the environmental footprint. The third domain is the highly focused manipulation and reuse of municipal wastewater.”
While some might argue that the high cost and high energy consumption of desalination negatively affect the environment, IDE has taken steps to minimize its footprint, Straschnov states, noting that IDE offers chemical-free desalination with minimal impact on the environment.
Carlsbad and California
Straschnov says IDE Technologies has taken Israel’s “globally recognized innovation” in desalination to impact areas like Mexico, Canada, and states like Texas and Florida. One of IDE’s most world-renowned desalination plants to date is the $1 billion Carlsbad desalination plant, built in San Diego, California in 2015, when the governor asked Israel for help in dealing with the water shortage due to drought.
While the drought state of emergency was only lifted in April 2017, many Californians are still experiencing it. The Carlsbad plant was named “Desalination Plant of the Year” by Global Water Intelligence magazine back in 2013 even before it was fully constructed and is now considered the largest plant in the Western Hemisphere, providing 54 million gallons of water a day for 300,000 California residents. IDE has also built another desalination plant in Santa Barbara.
Countries all over the world, including Somalia, India, Brazil, and South Africa are currently experiencing severe droughts, and the South African port city of Cape Town is in the midst of the worst water crisis the city has seen in over a century. While the drought has run three long years, residents of Cape Town are quickly approaching ‘Day Zero,’ the day at least a million homes in the city will no longer have running water. ‘Day Zero’ was originally scheduled for April, but recently moved to July, due to extreme water rationing. But the city is quickly running out of time.
Despite longstanding tension between the Israeli government and the ruling African National Congress party over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel has offered to help. Attending a water symposium in Johannesburg last month, Israeli researcher Dr. Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at Arava Institute, even said that representatives from the country were open to help from the Jewish state.
Both Tenne and Straschnov agree that politics should be left out of it.
“We try and are usually successful in not involving politics,” Straschnov says, “when a country is in need of water, policy is put aside.”
Tenne says that if the city were to ask Israel for help, he would suggest to bring in 50 to 100 desalination units as quickly as possible to spread around the entirety of South Africa.
“The important thing right now is to supply drinking water for people and livestock. This takes time — a few months, sometimes a year. They’re running out of time. This is a huge emergency situation. We would try to help,” he says, “Water is a necessity in the world.”
Tenne has traveled the world extensively promoting Israeli water know-how, and recently came back from Botswana, where he was asked to assist the country with desalination. “We will share [our knowledge] with whoever is interested in listening to us,” he says. “We want water to be a bridge for peace.”
Red Sea-Dead Sea
Like Tenne, the leaders and experts in the Israeli water industry believe that the country’s water technology is something that brings countries together. One attempt to do just that is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, a joint proposal by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority to build a pipeline that would run from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea in the south of Jordan, taking water and treating it in a Jordanian desalination plant, and then using the brine to replenish the shrinking Dead Sea, the salt lake at the lowest point on Earth shared by Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians.
Though it has faced some diplomatic setbacks, Israeli Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzahi Hanegbi has said the project will proceed as planned, telling i24 news in December, “The project is alive and kicking and it’s reasoning, its justification, is still very realistic and the vision is there.”
According to Tenne, a consultant on the project, the “diplomatic differences” have slowed down the project’s expected start date in 2018.
“I hope in the next year everything will be finalized and four to five years from now we will have 30 million cubic meters of water going to Jordan and 35 million going to Israel. We need to build a new desalination plant.”
Private Israeli companies have also developed promising and innovative technologies.
Israeli company Water-Gen developed technology that captures humidity to make drinking water out of air. The technology uses a series of filters to purify the air. After it is chilled to extract its humidity, the water that forms is treated and transformed into clean drinking water.
Jerusalem-based firm Lishtot, Hebrew for “to drink,” has built products able to effectively and rapidly detect 20 different contaminants in drinking water – without ever touching it. Founded in 2015 by Netanel Raisch and Dr. Alan Bauer, who also serve as the company’s CEO and Chief Scientist, respectively, Lishtot developed the TestDrop Pro, a keychain-like, handheld device embedded with a sensor that, when placed in close proximity to a cup of water, instantly determines whether water is safe to drink – no microfluidics or strips necessary.
In India, Israeli water tech company Aqwise has built a water treatment plant that supplies drinking water to the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. Using an innovative technique of releasing polyethylene biofilm carriers into the water supply, the company provides around 2 million inhabitants and tourists with clean, potable water.
On Thursday, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon hosted a special forum for ministers and ambassadors from around the world to showcase the technologies developed by Israelis and used in over 100 countries.
“We are proud that Israel provides the world with cutting-edge innovations for integrated water management. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to guarantee water security for everyone,” said Danon in a statement.