Using Israeli technology to live in a water-stressed world

“Today we live in a water-stressed world. It’s not just Africa and India that are suffering from a shortage of water – it is all over the world.”

SHAFDAN WASTEWATER treatment plant. (photo credit: YOSI & UZI)
SHAFDAN WASTEWATER treatment plant.
(photo credit: YOSI & UZI)
“Today we live in a water-stressed world. It’s not just Africa and India that are suffering from a shortage of water – it is all over the world.” 
David Balsar, general manager of innovation and ventures at Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, explains that population growth and climate change, along with contamination of water resources, play a major role in water shortages. How does Israel, with its extremely limited water resources, arid climate, and largely desert landmass, maintain a water surplus? The answer, Balsar suggests succinctly, can be explained in one word – innovation. 
Israel’s innovative water management techniques have reduced its dependence on the climate. Five water desalination plants that dot the Mediterranean cost – in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Palmachim, Sorek and Hadera –  provide almost 80% of the country’s drinking water. In addition, almost  90% of the treated wastewater in Israel is used for agriculture. Further illustrating its creative abilities, Mekorot has recently completed the largest water tunnel in Israel  – almost 14 kilometers  – from Sorek to Jerusalem, that brings desalinated drinking water to Jerusalem. 
INSIDE THE new water tunnel to Jerusalem (Credit: Gadi Arfayat)INSIDE THE new water tunnel to Jerusalem (Credit: Gadi Arfayat)
MEKOROT IS undergoing a digital transformation, centralizing its operations to one main command and control center, using machine learning and deploying smart meters that measure data and information. Establishing a unified national command and control center will enable coordination and synchronization of all of the regional control rooms, and strengthen the stability of the water economy. Moti Shiri, Mekorot’s vice president of technology, explains that the constantly changing nature of water handling today requires a national center to coordinate the supply. 
“The water situation can change quickly. For example, last year there was a lack of water in the North, so we moved water from the center of the country to the North. Today, the Sea of Galilee is full, and we’ll move more water from the North to the South. Things change all the time, and we need to build a national center.” 
Construction on the national water command and control center will begin this year in Rosh Ha’ayin, and is expected to be completed in the next year and a half. 
As the result of a recent government resolution, Mekorot is now permitted to invest in Israeli startup companies and is working to position itself as the world’s “go-to” water technology company, both in terms of its own internal development, and its work with other companies. 
Today, Mekorot is increasing its innovation beyond water management in numerous ways that will make it more efficient – saving both money and water – and enabling consumers to have a greater understanding of the water quality that flows into their homes. 
One of the end results of these changes is greater energy efficiency. Mekorot is the biggest energy consumer in Israel, spending almost NIS 1 billion per year, and “any efficiency in the usage of energy has a dramatic effect,” says Balsar.
In addition, the company’s digital operations are important in its protection of the country’s critical water supply, which has been targeted many times by hackers and electronic intruders.  
MEKOROT RECENTLY invested in a startup that has developed an algorithm that will be used with the company’s digital systems to monitor and analyze up to 30 million bits of data per day. Balsar explains that this algorithm will help Mekorot maintain asset management and predictive maintenance in addition to defending Mekorot from outside cyber threats. 
MEKOROT CONTROL room (Credit: Mekorot)MEKOROT CONTROL room (Credit: Mekorot)
Further expanding its reach into the digital and high-tech world, Mekorot is partnering with Microsoft for Startups Israel to identify new technology ventures that can be utilized in water technology. The Microsoft and Mekorot startup program will help ventures in Israel promote their solutions to revolutionize the water ecosystem. 
“We are trying to find the right applications for these technologies in Mekorot,” says Balsar. Mekorot and Microsoft for Startups Israel will select eight startups committed to solve the challenges facing Israel in the new decade.
One of the main philosophies of Mekorot’s water management strategy is what Balsar calls the “circular water economy,'' in which water is consumed, recycled and used yet again. Sea water is first desalinated at one of Mekorot’s desalination plants on the coast, before arriving at the customer’s home water tap. 
“After you drink the water,” explains Balsar, “the waste that is produced is flushed down the toilet. We take the sewage, treat it in a wastewater facility and while treating it, make energy out of it from the sludge, producing biogas which then activates the wastewater plant. We then deconstruct the sludge, which means that we are entering a zero-waste economy.” 
Almost 100% of the sewage is treated, of which close to 90% is reclaimed and used for agriculture. Israel is today the leading country in the world in terms of usage of recycled or treated reclaimed water.
“Mekorot is responsible for transmitting the treated water to the Negev,” adds Balsar, “which then produces billions of dollars in fruits and vegetables that are exported around the world.”
Balsar notes that Mekorot, which has a very low percentage of water leakage, manages to get the most out of its water supply. Mekorot’s leakage rate is just 2.5%, which is one of the lowest rates in the world today. Many countries lose as much as 30% or 40% of their water. 
Beyond savings and water quality, Mekorot is also turning its attention to the customer, with innovative solutions designed to provide important information about water quality. Mekorot is currently developing a smart “lab-on-a-chip'' that can be installed on water taps, that will monitor, track and assess the water quality that comes to private homes. The chip will notify users if the water is of sufficient quality, or if there are impurities that need to be removed. When customers know that their water is of sufficient quality, they will not need to purchase bottled water, which will then reduce the amount of plastics in the environment. 
Balsar calls the “lab-on-a-chip” a type of “disruptive technology,” adding, “There is no other existing technology in the world that can predict and analyze the water quality of your tap at a reasonable price.” 
With the increase in the contamination of water and water pipes and reservoirs, the ability to provide information about water quality is especially important.
MEKOROT IS also part of the global effort to fight the coronavirus, and has co-developed a disinfection and decontamination device that produces chloride disinfectant, in a “green,” mobile, and ecologically friendly process. The device uses salt to produce chloride, which is one of the disinfectants used to kill germs and viruses found on surfaces. It can be used in hospitals, senior adult residences, and other institutions to produce the amount of disinfectant spray needed. 
In addition, Mekorot is part of several research groups that are focusing on identification and monitoring of viruses in wastewater systems. Analysis of water in sewage systems can shed light on possible virus outbreaks in neighborhoods and cities.  
Summing up Mekorot’s innovative uses of technology to solve water issues, Balsar says that the gap between the world’s water needs and the amount of available water is growing. 
“We think that technology can bridge this gap, and this is why we are investing in technology to facilitate narrowing the gap.”
This article was written in cooperation with Mekorot.