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Israel not only has a water surplus, it also exports water and has now become a global leader in many water technologies.
This is surprising, given that Israel is 60 per cent desert and experiences rain only in winter. Since its independence in 1948, Israel’s yearly rainfall has fallen by more than 50 per cent while its population has grown tenfold, increasing the pressure on its water resources.
Annual rainfall varies across the country and extreme variations in precipitation between years are normal.
So, what has made Israel a “water superpower”?
The answer lies in a combination of smart planning and innovative thinking and includes moves to desalinate seawater, reuse treated sewage for agriculture, make optimal use of groundwater, embrace drip irrigation techniques and account for every drop of water.
It all starts before the state of Israel was established, when the British government used the water scarcity in Palestine to justify capping Jewish immigration to the region. Seth Siegel, the author of Let There Be Water and an expert on Israel’s water issues, explains that this spurred “new thinking” and a search for new ways to bring water security to a land of deserts.
One huge step was to build a national water carrier. Completed 25 years after Israel’s establishment, it consists of 130 km of giant pipes, open canals, tunnels, reservoirs and pumping stations, which efficiently transfer water from the Sea of Galilee in Israel’s north to its highly populated centre and arid south.
Over the years, the Israeli government has also implemented centralised water planning and created what Siegel calls a “water-respecting” culture among its people. The slogan “Don’t waste a drop” is known in every Israeli home.
All water in Israel has been metered since 1955 and thanks to advancements in metering and monitoring technology, Israel’s water authorities can now detect leaks, often before users are aware of them.
The country has also treated water according to its intended use. Desalinated seawater, which is more expensive to produce, is directed from large coastal desalinations plants for domestic use and human consumption. In contrast, almost 87 per cent of Israel’s wastewater is recycled for use in irrigation and for non-drinking purposes.
Israel has five desalination plants providing about 600 million cubic meters of desalinated water each year. Israeli company, IDE Technologies, pioneered the building of these plants and has since built 400 plants in at least 40 countries.
Growing interest in recycled water has created many opportunities worldwide for Israeli companies. Aqwise, for example, is a leader in wastewater treatment solutions and has installed in over 300 municipal and industrial plants in more than 35 countries.
Netafim helps farmers, cooperatives and governments in 110 countries to conserve water. Its technology was invented by Polish-born water engineer, Simcha Blass, after testing a dripper device at a kibbutz in 1965.
Using big data analytics and its automated cloud-based service, another company, Takadu, helps utilities to detect incidents such as leaks, bursts and operational failures, saving millions of litres of water. Its solutions are used in more than 12 countries and are helping Brisbane Airport to improve the efficiency of its water operations.
Israeli companies have also developed new crop strains that provide 10 times higher yield with the same amount of water and are pioneering work in drilling exceptionally deep wells. Promising new start-ups keep popping up.
Shimon Tal, a former Water Commissioner of Israel and now a consultant, says Israel’s prosperous water sector has been largely driven by crisis. “It took several major droughts to strengthen the political will to undertake ambitious water reforms.”
The country also corporatised service providers and established a strong national regulator responsible for the whole water chain and setting tariffs for all water users.
Tal says this has allowed Israel to move to full cost recovery through tariffs for most of Israel’s water infrastructure and services.
“What is so remarkable about Israel’s approach to water isn’t that it focused its efforts on doing one thing well, but on doing everything well,” adds Siegel.
“From public education to conservation to use of market forces and to the widespread application of technology, Israel’s ‘All of the Above’ philosophy is the reason the country is as water abundant as New York or London, even though it is in the driest region in the world.”
About the author: Zilla Efrat writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world.