JNF-USA water expedition exposes global professionals to Israeli expertise, innovation

"It’s a miracle that Israel has solved a 2,000-year-old problem."

December 7, 2016 00:29
PARTICIPANTS IN the JNF’s tour of water management solutions pose during a visit on Monday to the So

PARTICIPANTS IN the JNF’s tour of water management solutions pose during a visit on Monday to the Sorek desalination plant near Rishon Lezion, the largest such facility in the world.. (photo credit: TALIA TZOUR AVNER)

For Coloradan water industry leader Robert Lembke, Israel’s successful quest to quench its people’s thirst provides vital lessons for his own largely arid state.

“We have about 13 inches of rain on average in most of the state,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “We have a drought situation regularly.”

“In many ways, we’re a mirror for a lot of the same issues Israel is facing,” added Lembke, who is president of the United Water and Sanitation District and the chair of Jewish National Fund-USA’s's IsraelH2O Mission. “It’s a miracle that Israel has solved a 2,000-year-old problem.”

Lembke was speaking with the Post on the sidelines of a weeklong tour of Israel’s key water facilities, initiated and organized by the JNF, during a stop at the central Israel Shafdan sewage treatment plant. The expedition, entitled “IsraelH2O: A Tour on the Trail of Israel’s Water Solutions,” aimed to introduce its 40 participants to the highlights of Israel’s water successes, from North to South.

While mostly from the United States, with a particularly strong representation from Colorado, the participants also included four Thai government workers and a representative of the United Nations Development Program.

The H2O Tour is the culmination of a series of “Water Summits” that JNF held in the past year across the United States, which took place in partnership with Seth M. Siegel, author of the bestselling book on Israel’s water sector, “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.” Chaired by Lembke, the tour was directed by Talia Tzour Avner, KKL-JNF chief Israel emissary in New York.

“We thought it would be great if we could arrange a water mission to Israel to follow the steps of development and success of JNF and the State of Israel in the water field and water economy,” Tzour Avner said. “What we found out was there was a great interest from water professionals from the US and other countries.”

“The impression and the reactions are heartwarming,” Tzour Avner said. “They cannot believe what they see.”

With a diverse array of participants hailing from academia, the water industry, government, and backgrounds of general interest in water, Tzour Avner stressed that each participant is approaching the trip from a different angle, through a different lens. JNF is hoping to expose the participants to the miracles that the Israeli water industry is creating and to garner support for water projects in Israel and to develop the country’s periphery.

“This is a chance to share our knowledge with the rest of the world,” Tzour Avner said.

On Friday and Saturday, tour members spent their time in the North, meeting with an Israel Water Authority representative at Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), visiting the epicenter of bird migration at the Hula Lake, and experiencing both the religious and environmental implications of the Jordan River.

By Sunday, they began their day in the North, learning about water filtration mechanisms at Amiad Water Systems and then moving southward to discuss transboundary water pollution issues at an Emek Hefer reclamation facility – ending the day in Tel Aviv. Prior to their arrival at the Shafdan wastewater treatment plant on Monday, the group also saw the nearby Sorek desalination facility, and would later in the day hear lectures on Israeli water technologies back in Tel Aviv.

From Tuesday through Thursday, the participants were scheduled to visit relevant sites in the Negev Desert and in Jerusalem, such as JNF’s Nahal Besor reservoirs, which aim to trap floodwater that rushes through the Negev's longest river as well as containing recycled water from the Shafdan. They were also slated to see JNF’s Be’er Sheva River Park, a restoration project constructed for the city, and meet with representatives of Hagihon, Jerusalem's water and wastewater utility.

While not Jewish himself, Lembke said he began visiting Israel in 2011 and first started collaborating with JNF a year later.

“JNF has been a leader in trying to get Israeli water solutions presented in the US,” he said.

Lembke served as chairman at JNF’s Denver Water Summit in March. In 2015, he founded a project in collaboration with Israeli irrigation giant Netafim and Colorado State University to further drip irrigation research in Colorado's South Platte River Basin.

After the successful Water Summit, Lembke said he thought a comprehensive tour for those interested in Israel’s water sector would be an ideal next step. He expressed his hopes that participants would be able to “take their little sparks of knowledge they gain here” back to their home communities.

“Hopefully it will catch fire in a few spots,” he added.

For the government officials participating from Thailand, the Israeli water innovation was doing just that, as they explored ways to improve their country’s water management policies.

“Israel is the best for water management, and I hope that some areas of Thailand can have the benefits of sharing this experience,” said Worasart Apaipong, director-general of the Water Resources Management Department, within Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.

While Thailand does have a few desalination plants, Apaipong stressed his interest in learning more about Israel’s facilities. But first and foremost, he expressed his intentions to bring better organization to a country that technically has a surplus of water but poorly manages that critical resource.

“That’s why sometimes Thailand has a drought,” he said.

Because the water solutions demonstrated during the tour could be valuable to a variety of countries around the world, the hosts also invited a UN representative to participate.

The UN expert who joined the trip was Anne Juepner, the Nairobi-based director of the UNDP's Global Policy Center on Resilient Ecosystems and Desertification. Juepner expressed her interest in sharing Israel’s water sector experience through UNDP channels, stressing that the country has made enormous progress in water efficiency and recycling.

“It’s very impressive to see the technological solutions for Israel’s water issues,” she said. “Some of the aspects will certainly be of interest to other countries.”

The content of the tour is particularly relevant to the UNDP, as the body is continually working on water governance and transboundary water issues, creating a platform for exchange on the subject in partnership with a variety of other organizations, Juepner explained.

“It’s very inspiring to be with the other participants of the tour,” she said. “They are individuals who joined the tour because they are interested in the subject of water and in Israel as a country.”

“It’s a really, really remarkable project,” Juepner added.

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