Rain Man

A local entrepreneur believes rain collection systems could go a long way to alleviate the country's water shortage.

amir yechieli 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Amir Yechieli)
amir yechieli 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Amir Yechieli)
Amir Yechieli is a short, wiry man, a fast talker with a sales pitch. He has a product to sell and he promotes it with the enthusiasm of a late-night infomercial presenter for the latest miracle culinary appliance. But this is no klieg-light-bathed studio-set kitchen counter and Yechieli is more idealist than capitalist. It's a quiet garden table in his tiny, very green Jerusalem yard under a canopy of darkening gray clouds that indicate - maybe, perhaps, if we're lucky - a bit more rain for what has begun as a somewhat dry winter.
'Go ahead, drink it,' he says, handing his guest a heavy, stylish kitchen glass filled with water, before he stands aside with the hint of a self-satisfied, knowing smile.
His guest fancies himself in an elegant restaurant and swishes the liquid around the glass, sticking his nose beyond the rim for a deep whiff, taking a sip and then rolling it over his tongue before swallowing and pronouncing it delicious, which it truly is. 'What year is it?' the guest asks, propelling the scene to its inevitable conclusion, more for humor than anything else.
'Two thousand and eight,' is the carnival barker-cum- sommelier's matter-of-fact re- ply, although he quickly corrects himself by adding that it's really a mix of 2008 and 2009.
Yechieli is not kidding. His guest is drinking rainwater that originally slid off the Yechieli family roof a year or two before, dropped through a series of rain gutters and pipes into a rubberized-plastic sediment tank, made its way through a set of charcoal and ceramic filters and ended up in another rubberized-plastic tank, this one completely dark and sealed, where it remained fresh and tasty before being allowed to flow out a special kitchen tap on this mild winter morning in January, 2010.
'Do you have any idea,' he asks his guest, having reverted back to salesman mode, 'how much of Israel's rainwater ends up flowing into the sea?' He knows the guest has no idea so he doesn't wait for an answer. 'One-fifth.' He pauses to let the figure sink in and then comes back to his pitch. 'I don't know if that sounds to you like a lot or a little. People might know how much money they spend on water, but they have no idea how much water they use. They have no idea what 'a lot' is.'
The total consumption of fresh water in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is about two billion cubic meters a year, the primary sources being Lake Kinneret and two major aquifers. Half of this water goes for domestic use; the rest goes for agriculture and industry. (Farmers use additional water that is either recycled from sewage or saved from runoff and stored in private reservoirs.) Precipitation in the area is said to average about 10 billion cubic meters a year. Of this, about 60 percent evaporates and another 20 percent flows to the sea. Only the remaining 20 percent go to replenish the Kinneret and the aquifers.
Meanwhile, a growing population means not only an annual five percent increase in consumption, but also more construction and pavement, resulting in more runoff that sends rainwater to the sea rather than to aquifers. For the last ten years, consumption has outstripped supply by 100- 200 million cubic meters a year, pumped out of the country's dwindling aquifers. The cumulative water deficit is one billion cubic meters.
'All but one of Israel's natural springs have dried up, as well as one third of all wells,' says Yechieli.
To address the problem, the government made a strategic decision to build desalination plants, which should produce one billion cubic meters of desalinated water in ten years and solve the water problem. But Yechieli bemoans that strategy, arguing there are cheaper and cleaner solutions. 'Those facilities will end up using a quarter of Israel's electricity supply,' he explains, while shaking his head, 'and think what that will do to the country's carbon footprint.'
One thing the government should be doing seriously, Yechieli contends, is to maintain and upgrade water systems throughout the country, to save large amounts of water lost to pipe seepage. He maintains desalination was chosen because it was the easiest route for government bureaucrats, not the best solution for Israel.
The country's Water Authority recently raised prices by a whopping 40 percent and more, partly to pay for desalination. There was also a much-talked-about and often ridiculed series of televised public service announcements featuring well-known Israelis appearing to dry up and crack like a parched riverbed through the magic of computer enhancement as they exhorted viewers to save water before the country became a dustbowl.
'Bar Rafaeli is not the answer,' Yechieli says, alluding to the supermodel who was one of the celebrities in the public service ads (which reportedly did save the country some 4.5 million cubic meters of water by raising consumer awareness).
Yechieli is animated as he explains that the answer, or at least a good part of it, is right around us in a yard cluttered with gutters, downspouts and black plastic tanks leading to pipes and hoses with small handles that open valves and close others, while sending water this way and that to faucets, showerheads and toilets. He's even more energetic as he jumps up, light blue eyes twinkling, and goes over to one of the tanks, a 56-year-old with the enthusiasm of a little kid who clambers up ladders and gingerly steps sideways across iron support rods to explain how the water starts as rain that collects there and drops down here to go through this tank and that spigot and that valve over there.
But therein lies the problem, says his guest, who asks why anyone would want to go out in bad weather to fiddle with a Rube Goldberg contraption when the most it should take to get a glass of water is to walk over to the faucet in the warmth and dryness of one's own kitchen. Of course, that's an exaggeration, too; Yechieli's system calls for nothing more than the walk to the faucet, although it does require maintenance and the occasional once-over to ensure that sediment has been flushed out of holding tanks, empty tanks are clean before being refilled, and valve handles are in the correct position to prevent overflow and make sure the city water main is on tap should the holding tanks dry up. (Oh yes, there's also the gray-water system that takes his family's shower, bathroom sink and laundry run- off and routes it to a garden that's clearly thriving, but whose network of slim black hoses also has to be checked from time to time for blockage.)
Many, if not most, homeowners would probably chew seriously on this issue when mulling over the installation of one of Yechieli's home systems, which he can design to provide for all of a family's water needs or just some. He's also vague and answers 'a few dozen' when asked how many he's installed - they cost the equivalent of up to $5,000, which he says can be made back in about ten years through municipal water savings.
Because of the cost, he says, most people don't install the system unless they are building a new house, or are extremely committed to protecting the environment. He would like to see the government subsidize rainwater collection and gray water systems, which he says on average save households one third of their water consumption; considering the hundreds of thousands of ground-level homes in the country, refitting them on a national scale could add up to a substantial savings.
'Between rainwater collection and runoff prevention, we could solve the water problem without needing any polluting desalination plants,' claims Yechieli. 'I get the feeling there's no one to talk to,' he sighs. 'I'm totally alone.'
Yechieli was born and raised on Kibbutz Nir David, at the confluence of the Jezreel and Beit She'an valleys in Israel's north. After leaving the kibbutz, he took a job with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel before earning degrees in biology and microbial ecology, and going on to become a science teacher. Which is what he considers the best investment for the country's future.
'The best way is through the schools,' he proclaims. 'If we can reach the children, we'll have made a good start.'
He arrives at the Yuvalim School in Jerusalem's Givat Masua neighborhood in a beat-up white economy sedan with a bumper sticker trumpeting the green mantra: Reduce, reuse, recycle, respect. It's a message, he says, that has to be passed on to the next generation, and he's doing it in his own special way: through Yuvalim's toilets, which he says account for 80-90 percent of the school's water use.
The set-up at Yuvalim utilizes the school's paved playground to catch rainwater, which is channeled to a simple drainage pipe that leads to a settling tank, where small stones and other debris fall to the bottom. After that the water moves on to a series of seven 400-gallon holding tanks, all painted by the students with scenes of nature, and each of which further allows the water to release sediment before a pump moves it to a last holding tank on the roof. From there, the water falls via gravity to refill empty toilet tanks.
'This isn't rocket science,' Yechieli says emphatically. 'A few plastic pipes and a few plastic tanks, and you can save water.'
Yuvalim is one of more than 50 schools in Israel (there are two more in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and an additional two in Jordan) to have adopted Yechieli's system, which costs about $7,500 to purchase and install. The funds come from several sources: discretionary budgets each principal is given by central and local authorities, the Jewish National Fund, which has taken up water conservation in the schools as a flagship project, and the U.S. and European Union, which have helped underwrite the system at 12 schools, including the ones in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. The city engineer authorizes use after making sure no pipes have been crossed that could inadvertently introduce runoff into the school's own pipes (although the runoff, says Yechieli, is probably 'just as clean as city water, and maybe even cleaner').
Where possible, the system becomes part of the program of studies, with a science teacher integrating its operation into environmental or other curricula. So while the head of maintenance is usually responsible for the main valves that reintroduce city water when the tanks run dry, it's the students who do the real work. And that's where the fun comes in, for what can be a royal pain to a homeowner actually raises awareness among school children, who help maintain the system and are integral to much of its operation. By getting their hands dirty marshaling water from one holding tank to the next, checking runoff and keeping records by getting down on their knees to read clear plastic pipes with volume lines, they internalize everything Yechieli has been saying about water - and then go home to tell their parents. A system that's hidden and runs on its own would be almost worthless to his grand plan.
'The system right here,' he says, pointing to the holding tanks and plumbing outside the school, 'is much more important as an educational tool than it is as a device that saves a few hundred gallons of water.'
Yechieli says he gets dozens of inquiries each day, and is constantly on the go to look over sites, consult with principals and lead workshops for the teachers running the curricula. He insists that in five or six years, he could install a system at every one of the country's remaining schools, and that there couldn't be a better investment for the government.
'If all the schools or most of them got rain collection systems itwould save one million cubic meters directly,' he says. 'But theindirect saving is immeasurable because the students would be educatedto save water at home and this would potentially save tens or hundredsmillions of cubic meters more, which the government wouldn't have todesalinate.'
'My workload is crazy,' he exclaims. 'I also get calls from people withentrepreneurial ideas, but I'm not in this for the profit. I'm asocialist and the former kibbutznik in me doesn't like to call this acompany. Call it an 'initiative.''
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on March 1, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.