Israeli-developed technology aims at solving the world's growing water concerns

hydroy feet 88 224 (photo credit: Marissa Levy)
hydroy feet 88 224
(photo credit: Marissa Levy)
With deep blue carpets, snow-white displays and sounds of rushing water all around, the International Water Technologies and Environmental Control exhibition and conference - WATEC 2007 - was an oasis of innovation in the midst of the arid Middle East. The fourth annual exhibition at Tel Aviv's Trade Fairs and Convention Center aimed to quench the world's thirst for new sources of fresh water, and navigating the indigo walkway like a river, one could find a bevy of solutions set up on the virtual banks. The conference, which featured over 2,000 visitors from 80 countries worldwide, dealt extensively with Israeli-developed water technology in fields as diverse as desalination, waste recycling for agricultural purposes, security from pollution and water terrorism, and the joint Israeli-Jordanian Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit (RSDSC) project. Featured guests included President Shimon Peres, former Jordanian Minister of Water and Irrigation Munther J. Haddadin, Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai, Minister of Environmental Protection Gideon Ezra, and Minister of National Infrastructures Binyamin Ben Eliezer. The turnout of politicians reflected a growing awareness of the potential importance of water technologies to Israel's economy. According to WATEC coordinators, "about two billion people around the world either lack access to sufficient quantities of water, or are supplied with water unfit for drinking." And this shortage will only worsen in the near future, with an estimated 35-percent decline in consumable water over the next 15 years. To address this growing global need, Israel played host to the three-day international forum, which ran from October 30 to November 1, to promote its renowned achievements in water conservation, re-usage and technological inventions. Taking a cue from Israeli water management expertise, hundreds of overseas visitors came to survey the latest developments on display at WATEC. Delegations from the governments of China, Italy, France, Austria and Germany were on hand to discuss partnerships with Israel aimed at alleviating the planet's water resource problems. The exhibition, on a site spanning 20,000 square meters, is considered to be one of the leading water and environmental technology conventions in the world. Some 250 companies from across the globe turned out for the expo, to present their latest innovations in water resource management. Abounding with lasers, filters, pipes and other gadgets, the exhibition room was an eye-popping revelation into the facets and dynamics of water technology. In one of the largest displays, representatives from Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research mingled with exhibition-goers to talk about the 11 bilateral cooperation projects currently operating between Israel and Germany. The SMART Project - a cooperative venture between research institutions, private sector companies and government organizations in Germany, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan - aims to boost the availability of groundwater in the Lower Jordan Rift Valley, "an extensive geotectonic fault system shared by three nations," according to the project description. According to Dr. Hike Werz, SMART Project coordinator and hydrogeologist at the University of Karlsruhe, a participating institution, people living in this arid region need to come to terms with the benefits of using purified wastewater in every day life. "[The project is] trying to take into consideration not only fresh groundwater, but the enhanced availability of other water resources such as sea water, and the use of treated wastewater," Werz said. "The use of treated wastewater is not that well accepted in the public, but it's very important to do a socio-economic assessment to come to terms with sustainable water management." So far, SMART, which launched its initiative in September 2006, has taken steps to develop what it calls IWRM - Integrated Water Resources Management - in the Lower Jordan Rift Valley, in Arab-controlled lands east and west of the Jordan River where water treatment and management lags, to the detriment of people who live on these lands. "Especially in the Middle East, there is a need to manage a small amount of water in a good way, and to enhance water quality and quantity," Werz said. "One of the major problems in the area is that often people are not connected to wastewater treatment plants, so the contamination potential of valuable groundwater is high. SMART needs to look where we can build wastewater plants to enhance groundwater quality." The exhibition highlighted Israeli innovations in water technologies. Among the exhibitors was Ben-Gurion University's Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research from Beersheba, which demonstrated a monitoring system of possible water pollution sources such as gas stations or factories. These carry a risk of chemicals seeping into underwater aquifers, and have become an environmental blight in Israel and other countries. "Water that has already been polluted this way is very hard to clean," explained Nehemiah Hassid of Ben-Gurion Technologies, which presented the institute's developments. "We can locate the polluting element before it has time to filter through the ground into the water, by using a device that reaches dozens of meters beneath a potential polluting source through drilling at an oblique angle. There we install sensors that can measure the moisture level of the earth. This way, the threat of contamination can be neutralized." The institute also demonstrated a device for purifying wastewater, rendering it fit for agricultural irrigation by using bacteriological treatment. Israel currently recycles 75% of its wastewater. Representatives from Tivon-based A.A. Engineers aim to use the planet's most natural resources to purify used water and convert it into usable agricultural forms. Their "converted wetlands" offer a wholly natural solution to water management that is described as both environmentally friendly and sustainable. "Converted wetlands are based on one very basic principle: that bacteria in plants work for free while machines and people do not," said A.A. Engineers manager Amitay Avnon, whose water purification systems can be found from Kibbutz Elifaz in the Arava desert to Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael on the Mediterranean coast. According to Avnon, the converted wetlands route wastewater beneath the ground and between plant roots, where naturally present microorganisms ignite natural biological, chemical and physical processes that purify water refuse. The newly-cleaned water can be used for a host of purposes, while the treatment system simply appears to be part of the natural landscape. "The idea is that this is an extensive system which doesn't need any maintenance; not the plants nor the machinery," Avnon expanded. "It's just natural." Environmentally-conscious solutions like Avnon's reflect the spirit and ideology of this year's WATEC convention, which emphasized the increasingly urgent need to address the planet's "green" issues, such as the consequences of global warming, the search for alternative energy sources and growing water shortages worldwide. On a more prosaic note, the Whitewater Security Company is offering to provide water security against accidental as well as intentional chemical and biological pollution, also known as water terrorism. "We consult to local authorities and advise them what they need to do to provide better security, and they deal with it themselves," Eitan Ajchenbaum of Whitewater Security elucidated. "For example, we cooperate with [the national water company] Mekorot in this area." "There are two parts to water security - identification and treatment," he continued. "Nowadays, identifying threats is the more important part. Treatment technologies are still at an early stage, so it's important to know how to handle this type of event, to tailor the solution to the problem. Israel has a big advantage in this area and we build alarm systems worldwide." When asked about prior attempts at water terrorism, Ajchenbaum acknowledged that "there have been attempts before. This is a very big issue for a lot of countries, so you must be able to answer many different questions regarding varying levels of threat." One of the event's panel discussions addressed environmental challenges in developing regions such as Asia, Africa and South America. An Israel-based startup and WATEC exhibitor claims that it is ready to offer solutions on the ground. Water Sheer, one of 20 Israeli startups who exhibited at WATEC this year, introduced its Sulis personal purification device - a compact 100-gram water filter that fits onto the top of most standard narrow-neck bottles, and allows its user to drink from almost any groundwater source. According to Water Sheer presenters, the patent-pending device, which uses a chlorine tablet to disinfect the water for 10 minutes before it becomes drinkable, "took the Mekorot water company's (filtration) technology and shrunk it down to a tiny device that sits on top of a bottle cap." Water Sheer founder Ron Shani says the idea for Sulis came to him more than 10 years ago while he was researching the humanitarian conditions in Asia and Africa. Water Sheer, which opened for business on the first day of the WATEC conference, offers four different water purification products aimed at helping people in need of access to clean water. "More than one billion people don't have access to good water, and more than 2.5 million children under five years old are killed from this every year," Shani said. "I understood there was no solution for this humanitarian need." Shani's products - the Sulis personal purification filter, a multi-liter reusable water purification system, a one-time emergency use purifier and a multi-source water purification system - are targeted to humanitarian needs, the global traveler market, emergency preparedness response (for use in natural disaster and environmental crises) and military use. "The idea was to produce something that was in the target price range any country can use," Shani said, noting that when the Sulis device goes on sale in January it will retail for $25 at shelf price. Another innovative startup called Atlantium Technologies is taking a new approach to water disinfection by using ultraviolet light to eliminate chemicals and microbes. "Previous techniques used non-environmentally friendly chemicals that have various side effects, whereas UV light damages every microbe in the water and does not allow them to replicate," explained Dana Cogan, an Atlantium representative at the conference. "We use UV light on water running through a quartz tube. As a result the light beam fractures on its way through the quartz, eliminating the pathogens in the water to a level of pasteurization," she claimed. Beyond private innovation, the three-day event highlighted some of the challenges facing the region. The conference's closing session, attended by President Peres and Mr. Haddadin, dealt with the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit project. In his statement on the subject, Director-General Uri Shani of the Israeli Water Authority had this to say: "Dead Sea levels are dropping at a rate of one meter per every passing year, because much less potable water from rivers and springs is reaching it than in the past. Those waters are being diverted and consumed by the huge, 20-million strong population increase in the entire region that occurred during the 20th century. If nothing will be done, eventually all that will remain of the Dead Sea will be a pond 560 meters below sea level." Shani described how the project would utilize a conduit (most likely a pipeline) to pump Red Sea saltwater across Jordanian territory, emerging south of the Dead Sea on the Israeli side of the border, where it will pass through desalination facilities. "A portion of the water would then go to Jordan and Israel, and the rest would be used to restore the Dead Sea to its normal level," he said. In his closing speech, President Peres stated: "I studied in an agricultural school, but the fields of agriculture and water technologies have since changed beyond recognition. Today agriculture is much less dependent on land and available water. Ninety five percent of it is science, and that has increased Israel's agricultural yield 17-fold since the founding of the state. What has been achieved in land-based agriculture can also be achieved in marine agriculture. We don't have the landmass to be a fully industrial country, but our quality and quantity of scientists allow us to become a laboratory for developing technology. Today politics, economy and ecology are what are most important. We must take that into account, because a polluted environment affects all of our children. Since we're all short on water, all of us - Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians - must find a way to solve this problem." The politics and technological innovations of the Israeli water industry are two of the main reasons for the recent boost in Israel's reputation as the "Silicon Valley" of the global water and environmental technologies. A WATEC exhibition attendee could not walk more than 10 meters without hearing the expo's unofficial slogan priding Israel on its water innovations: "Necessity is the mother of invention." And at the end of the day, WATEC Israel 2007, with all its bells and whistles, proves that there's much more to water than a simple H2O.