By Michele Chabin
The stench was at first overpowering at the Shafdan water treatment and reclamation plant located in Israel’s heavily populated and centrally located Dan region. “Don’t worry. In a minute or two you won’t even notice the smell,” Gal Shoham, a water engineer at the plant, assured a visiting delegation of water experts from South Africa, as he took them on a guided tour of the sprawling center.
Ten minutes later, the South Africans were still struggling with the unpleasant odor in this plant, south of Tel Aviv, as they watched used sink water and toilet effluents from homes in the heart of Israel wend their way through a series of pools and channels where filters had already removed feces, supposedly flushable tampons and baby wipes. The sticks floating in the water were the flushed remains of an Israeli brand of cotton swabs.
Standing next to one of the smellier water reclamation pools, Mthokozisi Pius Duze, chief executive officer of a South African regional water board, explained why he and his team, coping with historic droughts, had flown to Israel for an intensive tour of wastewater centers and desalination plants, as well as conservation and reuse projects. “Right now we are experiencing the worst drought ever in our country,” Duze said. “Israel has found a way to replenish its scant water resources and we want to learn from it. We’ve looked at our topography and climatic conditions and at Israel’s water technology, and we believe Israel is the nation that can help us best.”
Israel’s ability to transform itself from a nation with a severe, chronic water shortage to one with ample drinking water and a surplus of reclaimed wastewater has made it a model for states like California and nations like South Africa. San Diego’s new desalination plant was built by an Israeli company, and Israeli water technology is helping farmers the world over. Israeli innovation has also opened the door for cross-border cooperation in a region riven by conflict.
The transformation in Israel has been nothing less than miraculous. Less than a decade ago, the country, experiencing what Middle East water experts were calling the worst regional drought in 900 years, was seriously considering importing drinking water from Turkey. Today, thanks to water technology and conservation, “there is generally no water shortage in Israel,” said Yossi Yaacoby, director of the WaTech division of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.
Yaacoby emphasized that Israel, which pioneered water-saving methods decades ago, was well on its way to water self-sufficiency before the drought, but said it “added new urgency” to the goal of self-reliance.
Yossi Schreiber, director of the Jewish National Fund’s development and engineering division, noted that the scarcity of water in the region has preoccupied its residents for millennia. “Since the time of Abraham, you see biblical accounts of arguments over water,” Schreiber said. “And look at the prayers of the Jewish people. We pray that rain will come at the right time of year because the land of the Jewish people has never had enough water.”
From Ancient Times:
A Parched Land, and Little Rain
In biblical times, farmers made the most of limited rainfall by terracing and contouring the land to catch rainwater, a method of farming still employed in hilly parts of Israel and the West Bank. The crops they grew were indigenous to the region and required relatively little water; the rest would wither.
When Israel was established in 1948, Schreiber said, the country’s leaders “already understood that if they wanted a green country, they would have to do two things: look for underground water supplies and take the water from the north of the country and deliver it to the south.”
The government rushed to build water pipes to various municipalities, but it took almost two decades to build the national water carrier, which conveys fresh water from the relatively water-rich north to the desert in the south.
The carrier helped satisfy the demands of Israel’s fast-growing population and made it possible for people and farmers to thrive in the arid Negev.
Although piping water to the south enabled farmers to make the desert bloom, and tapping into fresh water aquifers provided much-needed fresh water for drinking and irrigation, “there was the realization, already 20 to 30 years ago, that we would need to find additional water sources,” Schreiber said.
As much as they wished they could, like Moses, get water from a stone, Israel’s water scientists took inspiration instead from the biblical passage in which Moses and the Israelites come upon the bitter waters of Marah and God turns the brackish water sweet.
Israel, blessed with a long coastline along the Mediterranean and a port on the Red Sea, opened its first sea water desalination plant in 1997 in Eilat. Today five such plants supply more than 600 million cubic meters of drinking water per year. Depending on the time of year, that represents 60 to 80 percent of Israel’s drinking water.
Even that would not have been enough, Shoham said, without the government’s decision to greatly expand Israel’s waste water reclamation facilities. Thanks to the 47-year-old Shafdan, the largest such plant in Israel, and several smaller ones, Israel now reclaims a whopping 85 percent of its wastewater. That number is expected to jump to 90 percent within five years.
Once cleaned to a high international standard, this water is used by nearly every farmer in the country.
A Cultural Shift
“At first, the farmers were reluctant to use the reclaimed wastewater,” Yuval Sela, chief engineer of Shafdan, acknowledged. “There was a psychological barrier until they realized just how clean the water is. Now the fruits and vegetables they grow with reclaimed water are exported to Europe.”
Because farmers no longer need to use fresh water to grow crops, there is more drinking water available for people, Sela said.
In the sweltering Negev in southern Israel, where orchards and green fields of growing crops stand in sharp contrast to the parched brown land that surrounds them, farmers said it is a relief to no longer compete with municipalities for fresh water.
Although most of the water used in the south arrives there from the Shafdan in purple pipes that are distinguishable from fresh-water pipes, some farming communities now run their own small wastewater reclamation centers.
Moshvei HaNegev, a farming conglomerate representing 34 moshavim (communal farms) in the Negev, runs one such facility. The water it cleans and later stores in a reservoir largely funded—like the country’s other reservoirs—by the Jewish National Fund, is used to grow much of the potatoes, peanuts, wheat, chickpeas, almonds, pomegranates, citrus fruit and cotton in the region.
Standing at the edge of the reservoir at the Tifrach Water Reclamation Facility and gazing out at the dry land interspersed with human-engineered greenery, Oz Ben-David, the consortium’s research and development manager, said that “before the moshavim arrived here, it was all desert. The water from the Shafdan, and now our own plant, has made it possible for us to grow produce here. We’ve changed the entire landscape of the Negev.”
A short drive away, Ben-David provided a tour of one of the consortium’s orchards, where ruby-red pomegranates hung from row upon row of mature trees.
“This fruit is grown with the highest quality of reclaimed waste water,” the agronomist said as he picked up a pomegranate from a plastic cart overflowing with produce picked that morning.
“We’re shipping these to Europe, which has very high standards for wastewater reuse.”
Kneeling down at the base of one of the trees, Ben-David lifted up a piece of tarp that covered the tree’s roots and drip irrigation hoses.
In drip irrigation, carefully placed holes in hoses deliver water precisely to the roots of the plant, a process that vastly reduces water wastage and evaporation.
Ben-David said the region receives less than 10 inches of annual rainfall on average, and it is concentrated between October and March.
Seated on a small tractor in the orchard was Ibrahim Ziyadneh, the orchard’s Bedouin field manager, took in the fields around him. It was sizzling hot and the other workers were taking a break.
“I especially like the fact that water that’s been used and flushed down a drain can be used to grow crops,” said Ziyadneh, who comes from a community of shepherds and farmers. “It’s good for farmers, but it’s also good for the environment.”
Water and War…Or Peace
Noam Weisbrod, who directs the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, believes Israel’s continued water innovation is based on the understanding—shared by the government, the private sector and academia—that water resources are fundamental to peace and security.
“When regions lack water, people flee and become refugees. Countries battle each other over water usage. It can lead to war. They’re all related and Israel recognizes this more than many other countries,” Weisbrod said.
Not surprisingly, he said, Israel invests a great deal in water research and “recruits the best people” to water engineers and scientists.
Some of the most intriguing water-related research is being carried out by the experts at the Zuckerberg Institute.
Some of that work aims to improve the process of reverse osmosis, the technology employed by Israel’s desalination plants. Other researchers are examining the impact of climate change on evaporation and the process of increasing the salt content in soil.
One of Weisbrod’s teams has developed what he called “unique tools” to monitor the “unsaturated zone,” the area between the land’s surface and the water table.
“It’s important because everything we dump on the ground—from industrial waste, pesticides and fertilizers for agriculture—go into this zone,” Weisbrod said. “Let’s say there’s radioactive waste going toward an aquifer. How long will it take to get there? What percentage of it will move? What will go into the soil and what is the rate of decay? This is one of our largest projects, and it’s funded by the Israel Water Authority,” a government agency with broad responsibilities for the county’s water economy.
On a more user-friendly level, Weisbrod and his team have developed a kind of backyard waste water reclamation system that treats a household’s sink and shower water so it can be safely used in a garden.
Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace-Middle East, which brings together Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmentalists, said his country’s success in water management will remain incomplete unless that success—and more water—is shared with its Palestinian neighbors.
While Israel signed water-sharing treaties with the Palestinians and Jordanians years ago, Bromberg said, Israel can afford to be more generous now that its water shortfall has been addressed.
The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian water agreement the two sides signed as part of the interim Oslo Peace Plan “gave the bulk of the shared water sources to Israel,” Bromberg said. “Now, technology provides Israel with the opportunity to move forward with an agreement with the Palestinians that would provide them with more water while not depriving a single Israeli.”
While Israelis don’t have to think twice about taking a shower, Bromberg said, “every summer we see Palestinian shortages. In West Bank cities including Bethlehem, the municipality delivers water once a month and water is rationed. The situation in Gaza is worse,” he said.
Ninety-five percent of Gaza’s water isn’t drinkable, according to Bromberg. “They’re consuming the coastal aquifer at three times its renewable rate,” he said. “Sewage water is going into the groundwater and the Mediterranean, and that affects Israel.”
While the Israeli government blames Hamas for the squalid conditions in Gaza, that won’t protect Israel’s water supply, Bromberg asserted.
“The Ashkelon desalination plant [on Israel’s southern coast] was forced to close twice this year because of Gaza sewage water” pouring into the Mediterranean, said Bromberg. A Water Authority spokeswoman confirmed the plant closing “because of the quality of the raw water,” according to an Associated Press report.
Unless Israel, which this year cut a substantial amount of electricity to Gaza after the Palestinians failed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity bills, abides by a September agreement with the Palestinians to ensure power keeps flowing there, Gaza’s small desalination plants and the large waste water reclamation plant funded by the World Bank will not be able to function, Bromberg said.
“Gaza is a ticking time bomb of disease. There’s the risk of cholera and typhus breaking out and being carried through the sea or groundwater into Israel.”
Israel, Bromberg said, “has an urgent interest in preventing this from happening.” The Israel Water Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
In a sign that regional players actually want to cooperate in the water sphere, Israel and Jordan signed an agreement in August to build a canal that will link the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, which has been shrinking for decades because the Jordan River’s water is being diverted for other use.
Under that agreement, Jordan will desalinate the sea water and send 30 million to 50 million cubic meters of it to southern Israel while Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will each receive 30 million cubic meters.
According to The Times of Israel, 100 million cubic meters of the highly saline byproduct of the process will be piped north to the Dead Sea, (which could become a dry lake bed by 2050, because of the diversion of Jordan River waters), which would flow into it, elsewhere, according to water experts. The erosion of the Dead Sea is causing dangerous sinkholes to develop around the lake and is hurting tourism.
Back at the Shaftan plant, water engineer Shoham had lined up five glass bottles in the conference room. The first bottle contained mucky brown water fresh from the enormous pipe that delivers wastewater to the plant. The last contained sparklingly clear water that, Sela said, could be used to irrigate crops. The South Africans were impressed. Mthokozisi Pius Duze from the South African water board took one final look at the sprawling reclamation pools before heading to one of Israel’s water desalination plants.
“We’ve set up a lot of different meetings at a lot of different water sites,” Duze said. “We need to be able to provide water to our citizens.”