Israeli expertise to shape global water standards

When it comes to the vital resource of water, and the complex issues surrounding it, Israel has long been a world expert.

kuneitra reservoir 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kuneitra reservoir 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Next week, the Standards Institution of Israel (SII) is hosting an international conference with the relatively innocuous and convoluted title of "Crisis Management of Water Utilities - ISO/TC 224 WG 7." ISO stands for International Standards Organization, TC stands for Technical Committee number 224, and WG 7 is Working Group seven. In simpler terms, what is happening at the SII next week is of such critical importance worldwide that it took months of wrangling over the wording of the title of the conference, with some participating nations wanting to stay away from a more alarmist, yet more accurate, conference title such as "Security of Water Utilities in the New Era of International Terrorism and the Increase in Frequency of Natural Disasters." When it comes to the vital resource of water, and the complex issues surrounding it, Israel has long been a world expert. Situated in arid land and surrounded by enemies, the Jewish state has had to devise tools and methods to make the best possible use of the water available to it, as well as defend its water resources from sabotage and attack. Both peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have included water agreements. Potential peace agreements with the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon, if and when they come, will detail water arrangements. Several experts, including officials at the SII and the Israel Institute of Energy and the Environment, a private energy policy think-tank in Tel Aviv, do not discount the possibility that someday in the future, the price of water may equal or surpass the price of crude oil. Several Gulf States have already started investing massively in desalination and water resources security. "The next wars will be over water, not oil, and nobody is threatened by water war like Israel is," says Jacobo Sack, a veteran official at Israel's national water carrier, Mekorot, and now a water and wastewater quality consultant. According to Israel NewTech, the national program promoting the Israeli water technology sector, safety of water systems is increasingly becoming a worldwide concern due to greater awareness to possible terrorism attempts since the September 11, 2001 attacks (terrorist plots to poison water sources in America and Italy were thwarted in 2001), as well as to the growing frequency and intensity of natural disasters as a result of global warming (the recent earthquake in China made up to 40 percent of the water in affected regions undrinkable) and to the higher risk of technical mishaps as systems become more complex (four tons of ammonia were mistakenly released into Israel's water carrier in 2001). NewTech says the potential threat that exists from contamination of water sources can quickly affect an entire region and large population. As water contamination can rapidly spread, it can endanger millions of people, create mass hysteria and have a devastating economic impact. "While there are gaps in the system, the relevant people are doing what needs to be done to protect Israel's water," Sack says, refusing to talk about concrete threats and scenarios, as well as equipment and countermeasures deployed for water security. Next week's conference at the SII will bring together water security experts from 10 countries hoping to learn from their Israeli counterparts and hash out the first-ever guideline document on water security for adoption by the ISO. If and when it is adopted, the document will be heavily influenced by the Israeli experience and will include information on a range of equipment. The SII, by formulating standards in this field, is hoping to develop new Israeli technology in water reuse, security and irrigation (already three areas in which Israel leads globally) and encourage their export. The last time Israel proposed guidelines to the ISO - on water reuse technologies and management - the proposal was so widely applauded that it breezed through the ISO's formidable bureaucracy in about nine months. It was the first time any country had proposed such guidelines, and its speedy adoption is still a source of pride at the SII. This time, however, is going to be different. The issue of water security is touchy among so many nations where differences of opinion are manifest regarding what constitutes threats. Several nations are uncomfortable with advancing technologies and methods that may cause unease among their populations as well as controversy on the political level. Officials at the SII say that even if a working paper on water security standards is produced at the conference, it will take at least three years before its recommendations are implemented. To illustrate how difficult creating a water security standard is, seven years after the September 11 attacks, America still does not have a water security standard. After the attacks in 2001, the federal government made it mandatory for water utilities to assess their vulnerability and report that to the government. But only in December 2006 did a document, drawn up jointly by experts at the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Water Works Association, make its way through to the ASCE standards committee, which accepted it. The standards document still has not passed the American National Standards Institute. C. Wesley Strickland, a member of the US Natural Resources and Water and Public Lands groups and who was on the committee that drafted the standards document, says a standard is needed to provide comprehensive information that is helpful to improving water security. There is increased awareness across the globe to the needs of water security, says Strickland, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post by phone from his office in Santa Barbara. "There is always someone who will try and get around the physical security measures in place. The idea is to increase the effort of that person to a point where it becomes not worth their while," Strickland says, adding that his committee analyzed the full range of threats to water utilities, from vandals to sophisticated terror activities. In the meantime, Israel is implementing cutting-edge water security measures and private Israeli companies working in the field are looking abroad for new markets. But defensive technologies such as security guards, electronic warning alarms, permanent computerized water quality testing and police surveillance are not enough to secure water resources and carriers against sabotage and natural disaster, says Yaron Ben Ari, water technology program manager at the SII. Ben-Ari's department is responsible for framing the guidelines that inform the work of various bodies tasked with securing the nation's water, including the Israel Water Authority, IDF, Health Ministry, Interior Ministry, Israel Police, Mekorot and others in the water industry. As new threats arise, new thinking is needed, Ben Ari says. "Every crisis, whether it is terrorist act, natural disaster or human error, needs models of response and crisis management," he says. Water reuse and water security are linked in the sense that the improper implementation of reuse technologies is likely to cause health hazards. Israel "recycles" about 80% of its water - a huge amount by international standards, with Spain coming in a distant second at 12%.