Water surplus

Israel now has water to spare thanks to technologies ranging from water purification and desalination to improved water infrastructure.

Water irrigation 521 (photo credit: reuters)
Water irrigation 521
(photo credit: reuters)
In 1949, when Arie Schraiber, now 81, came to Kibbutz Nirim in the Western Negev just after the War of Independence, there was no running water. The young men and women of the fledgling frontline kibbutz, which had warded off Egyptian forces in a fierce battle, losing eight of its members, barely had enough drinking water for themselves, let alone for watering crops, and worked mainly for the Jewish National Fund, planting low-maintenance trees in the desert.
Only in 1954 did the first water line from the Mekorot national carrier finally reach them down south, bringing water to the Negev from the Yarkon River in the center of the country.
“That suddenly allowed us to work in agriculture,” says the silver-haired great-grandfather, who looks younger than his years, as he strolls along between green clementine trees whose first fruits are budding. “Until the early 1950s, this was an empty land; nothing was growing here except for what we had planted and what had managed to survive with a little rain.
It was a difficult time,” Schraiber tells The Jerusalem Report.
The arrival of water, says Schraiber, allowed for real agricultural development in the mid-1950s, when the kibbutz settled down to growing citrus fruit.
Today, Nirim manages about 5,000 acres of citrus orchards and field crops such as carrots, potatoes, wheat, barley, corn and watermelon. At first, they used sprinklers to irrigate the crops, he says – until, in the 1970s, the Israeli-invented, drip-irrigation system made its debut in the water-hungry Negev, saving thousands of liters of water. After the 1967 Six Day War, when the security situation improved on the southern border, more water reached them through the national water carrier.
“The moment we had water everything changed. The area developed, settlement increased and children were born. We also opened a dairy, we had chickens,” Schraiber recalls.
But the biggest push, he says, came when they began to receive recycled water from the Dan region, the country’s central metropolitan area, which they were able to use to irrigate their crops at a lower price, freeing up the more expensive fresh water for other daily uses.
Much of the recycled water used by Nirim and 11 neighboring kibbutzim is stored in large reservoirs, some built by the JNF, some by the government, and some smaller ones built by the kibbutzim themselves several decades ago, Schraiber says. And this large quantity of stored water is what allows the kibbutzim to cultivate the extensive orchards they now have, he adds.
“See what has blossomed from the Negev,” the veteran farmer says, voicing what sounds like an old-time Zionist slogan.
Even Biblical patriarch Abraham, who avoided a confrontation over water by reaching a pact with Abimelekh, King of Gerar, by agreeing to transfer seven ewes in order to retain ownership of the water well he had dug in what is Beersheba today, would be envious of the abandon with which the desert city is using water to revamp its image. The Negev city now boasts green gardens, fanciful water fountains and a JNF-funded 900 acre River Walk along Nahal Beersheba that will soon include a boating lake filled with purified waste-water from the once polluted river. Nearby in the city of Yeruham, a similarly funded lakefront project reusing treated waste water is also being developed in attempts to attract young couples to the periphery town once considered one of the country’s poorest.
“Why not?” asks Prof. Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University’s Sde Boker Campus, whose researchers provide the groundwork for much of Israel’s top-notch hi-tech water technologies industry. “We want to live a normal life. We want to see water. If we can afford it, why can’t we have irrigated land with grass and flowers? It is nice to [have] green patches despite being a desert city,” he tells The Report.
Though sounding a bit on the defensive, Adar makes his point by noting that strange as it may sound, and though environmentalists may disagree, this desert nation now has water to spare thanks to technologies ranging from water purification and desalination to improved water infrastructure that leaves Israel with the lowest municipal leakage rate in the world of about 15 percent.
“In Israel, there is more water being produced than God has provided,” Adar says. “We are doing it through desalinating seawater and brackish groundwater and cleaning effluents. Since we already need to bridge demand and supply with artificial water, we need to keep producing more and more efficient ways to create water.”
Israel’s water supply is secured for the next 20 years, Adar believes.
Last year, after seven dry years, the Water Authority lifted its severe drought advisory following a winter of heavy rains, and news headlines trumpeted the end to the water crisis. Authority head Alexander Kushner noted that though the rains had helped to partly replenish the natural water supply, it was the growing desalination and purification industry that had led Israel out of its current water crisis.
Indeed, as the world begins to wake up to the need to address the enormity of the environmental issues of water usage and supply, Israel has become a world leader in desalination and water purification, and its water technologies are among the most sought after in the world.
According to government statistics, almost 80 percent of Israel’s waste water is treated – with the next top purification country, Spain, trailing at 18 percent.
Israel plans to reach a record 90 percent of purified waste within the next decade.
WITH A few small desalination plants already in place, the government finally gave the go ahead 13 years ago to fully pursue desalination as a third prong in its water security program, which also includes education towards conservation and purification.
Today, Israel can lay claim to the world’s second-largest desalination plant, in Ashkelon, as well as the largest plant using advanced reverse osmosis technology, which was co-invented in 1958 by JewishAmerican chemical engineer Prof. Sydney Loeb while at UCLA. This technology revolutionized the concept of desalination, which may even have been mentioned in the Book of Exodus, when God showed Moses how to “make the waters sweet.”
Desalination is also referred to in accounts of shipwrecked sailors in past centuries who would place sponges on top of pots of boiling seawater to catch the steam.
Former US president John Kennedy’s administration dreamed of saline water conversion in order to go to the moon and make it bloom.
Loeb moved to Israel in 1967 and continued to do research and lecture on reverse osmosis membrane technology at the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research, later incorporated into BenGurion University.
One of Loeb’s students, Abraham Tenne, is today the head of the Desalination Division of the Israel Water Authority and chairman of the Water Desalination Authority. Israel already has 400 million cubic meters per year of desalinated water going into the national grid, he points out to The Report.
Tenne describes the Water Authority’s approach as “holistic” and aimed primarily at “saving water” and not necessarily at pushing the desalination industry onto the national agenda, though environmentalists say there is too much emphasis on desalination and not enough emphasis on conservation and restoring natural water supplies.
“What we want to do first thing is to save water, to use as little as possible,” Tenne says. “Then, we want to reuse water because this is the cheapest way to get new means of water and only after that do we go to desalination. It is a huge amount of holistic approaches including [minimizing] water loss, and going to new technologies.”
Instead of the old technology of thermal desalination, which requires huge amounts of energy to boil sea water to collect vapors and is still being used in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Dubai, reverse osmosis uses about the same amount of energy to produce enough water for one person per week as it does to run one hour of air-conditioning, Tenne adds. In reverse osmosis, seawater is brought to a very high pressure to be pushed through a special thin layer polymer membrane, which acts like a sieve to catch the sea salts at one end while allowing the water molecules to pass through to the other, after a vigorous cleaning process of the water.
Walking past tall, neat rows of metal capsules containing the polymer membrane filters at the Ashkelon desalination plant, 50,000 in all at the plant, where the seawater is silently flowing through at high pressure on its way to becoming drinking water, Tenne notes that much of this high pressure energy is still retained in the concentrate that remains following the desalination process. Rather than send this energy back into the sea, it is harnessed through an energy-saving piston system to partially pressurize new incoming sea water, thus requiring only a small motor to make up for the difference to get the water to the required pressure for the process.
In an average year, Tenne says, the country gets about 1.2 billion cubic meters of water from nature, leaving a gap of about 800 million cubic meters per year.
But Israel only has one or two years of average rain followed by drought years, he notes. And with the population growth rate at about 1.8 percent, and a predicted decrease in the amount of annual rainfall, that gap will continue to grow, with an estimated 10-15 percent less available water by the year 2050.
IN 2013, desalination helped close the gap between natural supply and the demand for water, which, in an average year, is about two billion cubic meters, including 1.5 billion cubic meters of drinking quality water and half a billion cubic meters of lower-quality recycled water used mainly for agricultural purposes, thus freeing up more fresh water for domestic use.
“The gap is only going to get bigger and bigger and we need to close the gap,” warns Tenne. “This is what we are looking at in the Water Authority – how to close this gap. You need to be able to save water.”
Israel must create stores of water for drought years, he says, and reservoirs are needed to keep the extra water produced from desalination, water purification and collection of runoff and flood waters.
The agricultural sector uses more than 400 million cubic meters of recycled water and about 100 million cubic meters of rainwater collected in reservoirs per year, compared to the 1 billion cubic meters of fresh water per year it used about 20 years ago, says Tenne.
While the United States is still taking baby steps in introducing desalination into its water economy, Israel will soon have five desalination plants in production. By the end of next year, these plants will be producing about 670 million cubic meters of desalinated water per year.
“That means that we are not only able now to produce all the water that we need without emptying our aquifers and the Sea of Galilee, but we are also succeeding to pump less water out of them, allowing the water levels to go up in these strategic reservoirs of ours, the aquifers,” Tenne says.
Environmentalists, such as Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Middle East, acknowledge Israel’s successful efforts in the sphere of water security.
However, Bromberg is concerned not only by the financial side of how the desalination project is being carried out, via a Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) scheme, which sees private companies competing for tenders to build the plants and operate them for 20 years with a government guarantee to buy all surplus water before the government takes the plant over, but also about the possible environmental effects desalination may have and the subsidies farmers receive to cultivate crops, including non-native crops, such as tropical fruit, that leave a heavier water footprint.
Water security also needs to be sustainable, he tells The Report, and though his organization appreciates the usefulness of desalination, it would like to see more efforts put into improving usage of gray water for household use and irrigation.
“The government decision to advance desalination through the BOT process as a whole is contrary to the interests of the Israeli public,” Broomberg maintains.
“We have witnessed this year the almost total removal of government efforts to encourage water conservation and, therefore, a rapid increase in water consumption levels. The Water Authority has no incentive to encourage water conservation because the BOT process requires that the Water Authority purchase all water produced. The situation is, in fact, the opposite – the government has an incentive that we consume more. Because we had a good winter, and more and more desalinated water is coming on board, if we do not consume the desalinated water produced, the government will have to foot the bill.”
Academics are still in disagreement about the possible effects of desalination on the marine environment.
Hebrew University Institute of Earth Sciences Professor Haim Gvirtzman tells The Report that the effect of the desalination process on the sea is negligible. “The energy needed to desalinate seawater for one person for the whole year is less than the energy needed to drive one time from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv,” he says.
His view is supported by University of Haifa Department of Marine Geosciences research fellow Dr. Michael Krom, who tells The Report that “if there are effects, they will only be local and close to the discharge pipe. The volume of water in the sea is very large and the amount of discharge is [relative to the whole Eastern Mediterranean] tiny. It will have no effects on the regional sea,” maintains Krom.
Nevertheless, in a recent report by the Israel Climate Change Information Center at the University of Haifa, desalination was found to be a the “least best option” strategy for Israel’s water resources.
“Further desalination [already planned to reach 750 million cubic meters by 2020] must be carefully examined and compared to other strategies that produce cheaper water resources with less environmental impacts,” the report states. It notes that both desalination and wastewater treatment consume large amounts of energy and produce various pollutants including greenhouse gases.
PROF. NURIT Kliot of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa, and leader of the water resources team for the report, notes that although by using desalination aquifers are being replenished, it will still take 10 years of good rain to fill the large mountain aquifer. In addition, until now the plants have taken up huge tracts of land along the country’s most expensive coastal land – though according to Tenne future plants are planned inland.
Moreover, Kliot explains to The Report, she is concerned about the effects that dumping the high saline concentrate left over from the desalination process into the Mediterranean Sea will have on marine life. No complete study has yet been carried out she says, although the desalination companies maintain they are constantly monitoring and studying the situation. Legally, says Kliot, Israel, as well as all other countries along the Mediterranean basin that are also turning to desalination as a solution, is not permitted to dump anything into the sea.
“The Mediterranean is a closed lake and the exchange of water with the ocean is very slow,” she says, adding that overfishing and the successful invasion of foreign species into the marine ecosystem has further eroded the delicate balance in the sea. “The water is very much affected because of the multiplicity of variables.
Nobody really knows how the forces affect each other. It is a very delicate system; therefore, we have to be very careful.”
Several studies on the effect of both desalination and water treatment on marine life are being conducted by the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, under the Ministry of Environmental Protection, with no conclusive results yet reported.
Kliot says she can see why the government would choose to follow the desalination path, because it produces large amounts of water with one project. However, she maintains that the government’s campaign for water conservation in recent years was also “very successful” in saving some 125 million cubic meters of water, equal to the amount of water produced in one desalination plant in a year. She laments that the water-conservation campaign, including the distribution of water-saving devices, aimed at the consumer was halted.
“Water saved is the cheapest water produced,” she says. “Desalination is not right for all of society and is definitely not sustainable.”
While acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers to environmental concerns, Tenne says the Water Authority is constantly monitoring the sea and starts monitoring even before a plant begins production so they have a base with which to compare results. If you wait to have all the answers, he says, you will never be able to move forward, as happened in California, where it took 15 years just to get a permit to build a plant.
“We understood that we would not know all the answers for today, but we still need water so we are taking the risk. We are producing the water and we are looking to see if there is any damage. If we find damage, we will deal with it,” Tenne says.
“First of all, we try to find the golden path between the needs of the population and the needs of the environment. You can’t go one hundred percent for the environment and you can’t go one hundred percent for the population, so you need to find a real way to deal with it.”
Thanks to Israel’s innovative technologies, says Tenne, “Israeli companies are really going all around the globe.”
And when it comes to water technologies, everybody – including Arab neighbors such as the Palestinians, Jordanians and Gulf States – wants to benefit from its know-how, Tenne maintains.
“Historically, water has always been a reason for war or fights. We think that water is a bridge to peace and this is why we need to deal with water to try to build up confidence between us and our neighbors, to let them share in what we have already succeeded in doing, and let them step ahead with this water sector,” says Tenne.
In 2011, the biennial WATECH conference highlighting Israel’s activity in the water sector, sponsored by Mekorot, Israel’s national water carrier, attracted some 28,000 participants from 104 countries around the world. The fourth WATECH conference will take place October 22-24, and is expected to surpass those numbers.
Israeli hi-tech entrepreneurs like Booky Oren, chairman and CEO of Booky Oren Global Water Technology, and Eytan Levy of Israel Cleantech Ventures have spent decades building up innovative watersector technology. Levy’s latest product, currently in the development stages, involves electricity-producing bacteria for use in the water sector.
Oren says the way Israel has faced its water challenges is “almost revolutionary,” increasing its water sources not through nature but through innovative technology, which, in addition to improving ways of water production and conservation, must also face the global challenge of aging water infrastructure by developing a variety of meters and sensors.
“People need to drink and take showers, so let’s improve the technology to make that more efficient,” Oren concludes.