Is Israel’s scarcity of water a blessing in disguise?

Israel is a small country on the edge of the desert with scant amounts of water, yet today it is considered a water superpower.

Tzalmon Reservoir (photo credit: ARIK ARBEL)
Tzalmon Reservoir
(photo credit: ARIK ARBEL)
‘Israel is blessed by its lack of water resources,” says Dr. Diego Berger, international special projects coordinator at Mekorot.
Clarifying this unusual remark, Berger explains that the country’s shortage of natural water resources requires it to manage its supply carefully. “If you don’t have water, you have to manage with your lack of water resources.”
Numerous areas throughout the world that have abundant natural water sources, says Berger, have experienced acute water shortages, such as Latin America and parts of the United States, including California. Yet Israel, which has limited water resources, provides water to its nine million residents with little difficulty.
Water shortages in many areas of the world, he explains, are due to poor management of resources. And while some see technology as the salvation for water shortages, Berger demurs, saying, “The main water problem in the world is management – not technology.”
Israel is a small country on the edge of the desert with scant amounts of water, yet today it is considered a water superpower.
By implementing integrative engineering and technological solutions to maximize the country’s water supply, Mekorot has managed to maintain the stability of Israel’s water sector even during prolonged and extreme droughts.
According to Global Water Intelligence, the leading publisher serving the international water industry, Israel’s water economy is ranked fourth in the world. Moreover, says GWI, Israel is rated “the best in the world in water efficiency,” thanks to annual water depreciation of less than 3%, along with excellence in infrastructure, research, professional knowledge and water resources.
Israel also stands out in its management of water security, including protection from cyber threats, water safety, water resource security, and its supply processes.
Today, Mekorot supplies more than 1.6 billion cubic meters of water to homes, agricultural fields, and industrial plants every year. Approximately eight million consumers use the water that the company supplies to municipal authorities, local authorities, rural localities, the private sector, and the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan, under government agreements.
Berger, who has held several positions at Mekorot since 1996, explains that Israel’s water management rests on four main concepts – ownership of resources, measurement, centralized control, and self-financing.
Unlike in the United States, for example, where individuals can own water rights for water located on their property, in Israel, water– no matter where it is found – belongs to the public and is managed by the state for the people’s benefit.
The second concept, explains Berger, is that of precise measurement. According to Israeli law, all water that is consumed must be measured and recorded. In the US, water used for agriculture is only estimated but not measured precisely.
“If you don’t measure, you cannot manage,” he says.
Berger adds that the water law applies to all forms of water resources, including effluents, which are also considered a water resource.
Shafdan Research and Development Center near Tel Aviv. (Elad Bruk)Shafdan Research and Development Center near Tel Aviv. (Elad Bruk)
The third principle in Israel’s water plan is centralized management. In Israel, responsibility for water management rests exclusively with the Water Authority, which makes all decisions related to the water supply.
The fourth and final pillar in Israel’s water strategy is that of self-financing. Israel’s water sector uses its capital to provide funding for development, with close to 30% of the water bill earmarked for new projects. The Water Authority does not receive any budget from the state.
Because the water sector is self-financed, it is more efficient, notes Berger.
He recalls the visit of a water company official from Belgium and their discussion regarding the price difference between the cost of water in Israel and Belgium. When Berger told his Belgian counterpart that the cost of water in Israel was less than $2 per cubic meter, he replied that the price in Belgium was €3 per cubic meter.
“We started to compare,” says Berger, “and in the end, we realized that the cost of water for both of us was almost the same. The difference is that they have a municipal tax that is almost 50% of the bill.” It’s a problem of public perception, explains Berger. “The people are paying for the water, and in Israel we use all of the money that comes in for the public water sector and nothing else.”
Mekorot deals with numerous countries around the world that are interested in Israel’s advanced water technologies. He cautions, though, that technology alone is not a panacea. “People come here to buy technology because they think it is like Microsoft Office. They think that they will buy something, put it in the ground, and everything will work.” To solve water issues, says Berger, water providers need to make changes in their management process. Only then can they understand the proper techniques to use.
Berger recalls when Mekorot began consulting in South America several years ago. “I heard them say that they wanted to transfer the technology. I asked them, ‘Which technology do you want?’ You must first understand your needs. This is the kind of thing that we do, and this is why people come to Israel for solutions. It’s more than just a technology transfer.”
With the support of the Israeli government, Mekorot provides rich knowledge assets, technological leadership, and proven development capabilities to provide solutions to water challenges around the world.
Some of Mekorot’s recent projects include consulting and planning a water master plan for the state government of Maharashtra in central India and the state government of Punjab in northwest India; restoration, management, and planning of water supply system-based aquifers for the government of Mexico; establishing a water desalination sector in Cyprus, including the construction of two desalination plants and operating them for 25 years; and training and upgrading water quality laboratories in Azerbaijan, in addition to the establishment of a mobile sampling system for dealing with the emergency water economy.
But, Berger stresses, the added value that Israel brings is more than technology and innovation – it is efficient management.
“The water sector in the world has a lot of potential,” he says. “Perhaps with the rise of the coronavirus, people will realize now what is important.”
Berger notes that residents of Honduras experienced a water shortage because most people were at home and used more water due to the pandemic. The State of Israel was called in to deal with the issue there.
Berger sums up Mekorot’s water philosophy in two parts: People have the right and expectation of having water available 24/7. Correspondingly, it should be used wisely and not wasted. “In this area,” he says, “most of the world fails.”
Zofar desalination plant. (Amihai Sande)Zofar desalination plant. (Amihai Sande)
BERGER REFERS to current and future trends in water management, speaking of climate change, desalination, and the uses of effluent water.
Regarding climate change, he says that being prepared for climate change is part of Mekorot’s 30-year master plan.
The main difficulty with climate change, he explains, is that while there will be years with a great deal of rainfall, there will also be years where there will be very little rain. In short, there will be greater extremes in climate. To maintain the water supply, countries will need to have water management rules that people can accept.
“In the end,” says Berger, “you are managing the water sector for human beings – not for robots. You have to make management rules that they can implement.”
Climate change, says Berger, will increase uncertainty regarding the water supply, and as a result, the importance of technology will increase.
“Increasing efficiency in water use and energy,” he explains, “will help us become less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That’s why it is crucial to implement technologies, develop new ones, and create water sectors that can incorporate technology. The Israeli water sector and Mekorot are investing a great deal of money in this area. We need to keep in mind that technology is a means, not a goal.”
Regarding desalination, Berger says that by 2050, 40% of the water in Israel will be desalinated, 28.5% will be taken from natural sources, 26% will be reused effluent, 3.5% will be brackish water, and 2% will be brackish desalinated water.
Desalination is the future, but the reuse of effluent water for potable water has great potential. While, currently, effluent water is being used for agricultural purposes, in the future it will be treated and used for drinking water as well.
Berger says that Mekorot’s thriving water culture dates to the company’s founding in 1937.
“In 1947,” says Berger, “Ben-Gurion held a meeting with the Mekorot engineers. He had a clear vision and told them that he required enough water to maintain 5,000 square kilometers for agricultural purposes in Israel.”
This was an example of combining the needs of the country’s political leaders with the water engineers’ practical skills to do what was needed.
“When things are centralized and not dependent on money from the national budget, you can concentrate on what is needed to be done.”
“In Israel,” says Berger, “we have built a culture around the scarcity of water.”
If the rest of the world can emulate this culture and manage its resources, the world will be a better – and wetter – place.
This article was written in cooperation with Mekorot.