Drinking sea water

Israeli destination may solve region's water shortage

Avshalom Felber 521 (photo credit: Johannes Gerloff)
Avshalom Felber 521
(photo credit: Johannes Gerloff)
For the past seven years, Israel and its surrounding countries have not had enough rain. This lengthy drought has forced the Israeli government to embark upon an ambitious program. By the year 2020, it wants to supply 80 percent of the nation’s domestic water needs through desalinated sea water.
David Ben Gurion, who presided over the state’s founding in 1948, had a lifelong dream of making the desert green.
He also happens to be the founder of Israel’s sea water desalination program, which he launched in 1965 after his second stint as prime minister.
Today, the project is no longer government-run, but has been handed over entirely to the private free market. If you want to be a competitive supplier of drinking water, you have to think first about energy consumption.
Leading that charge is Avshalom Felber, president and CEO of IDE Technologies Ltd. His firm is one of the world’s largest companies specializing in sea water desalination, the production of snow, thermal energy storage, deep mine cooling, district heating and water purification.
In Israel, IDE Technologies operates mainly membrane desalination plants, which produce fresh water through reverse osmosis.
Felber boasts, “We have the lowest energy costs worldwide!” He claims that desalinated sea water produced in the Bahamas in 1996 cost $1.50 per cubic meter. “Here in Hadera, we offer a cubic meter of fresh water for 57 cents!” IDET’s new Hadera plant was built in a record 28 months, with operations starting in May 2010. It is situated next to the largest coal-burning power plant in Israel, a half-hour south of Haifa along the Mediterranean coast, and supplies at least 127 million cubic meters of water per year. This makes the project, which cost $425 million, currently the largest sea water desalination plant worldwide. Its funding was provided exclusively by foreign banks, a novelty for Israel.
The plant in Hadera is fully automated, and is controlled and maintained by only 40 workers – 30 of whom work in administration. It follows on the heels of an initial desalination plant which opened in 2005 in Ashkelon, producing 118 million cubic meters of water per year.
Thanks to the rapid pace of construction and the technical genius of Israeli engineers, consumers have not had to face the shock of turning on the tap and not getting any water.
Israeli authorities have flirted with water rationing and a special “water tax.” But in the past two years, Israeli consumers have already obtained more water from desalination plants than from the Sea of Galilee.
If the government’s plan is implemented, there will be a complete halt to drawing water from the dangerously depleted fresh water lake. To date, however, Israel still has to deliver 50 million cubic meters of Galilee water per year to its eastern neighbor Jordan. This was required by the peace treaty with the Hashemite kingdom.
The Arab boycott of Israel still hampers Israel’s efforts to help nearby Arab states to solve their water shortage problems.
But even this has a solution, says Felber.
“We are having talks with a Swiss company owned by some Dutch people, and we hope that soon our Arab neighbors will be able to use water that was obtained with Israeli know-how,” he said.
“Only 42 minutes ago this cup of water was splashing up to the Mediterranean beach,” smiles Felber, offering a drink that tastes like mineral water.
IDE Technologies Ltd. is also involved in projects in China, India, America and Europe, reflecting Israel’s diplomatic priorities. It operates about 350 thermal and 50 membrane desalination plants worldwide, supplying more than two million cubic meters of fresh water daily.
Ultimately, Felber hopes his company can take the regional water problem out of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
“It would mean huge progress if we could become independent of our neighbors and of the vicissitudes of nature, where water is concerned.” •
Johannes Gerloff is Israel bureau chief for the KEP Christian Media Association in Germany; www.israelnetz.com/ Translation by Deborah Vollkommer.