How Israel became a water-surplus nation


Until a few years ago, it was one of Israel's scarcest resources. Today, the traditionally drought-fearing country has water in abundance, largely thanks to home-grown innovations in the field of desalination.

Israel has five major desalination plants producing around 600 million cubic metres a year. More than half of the water is for domestic use, and the rest goes towards giving Israel a water surplus.

The newest facility, Sorek, is the world's largest seawater desalination plant.

Around 70 per cent of homes get at least some of their water from desalination. If you drive down Highway Four, which runs along the coast, you can see crews laying huge pipes - the water equivalent of new high-speed internet cabling - to accommodate the unprecedented flow of desalinated water to different parts of the country.

Five large-scale seawater desalination plants have come online in the last 11 years, a project that has been made viable by clever technology.

Jack Gilron, the head of Israel's leading desalination research institute, said that the energy needed to produce a cubic metre of desalinated water has been reduced by more than 40 per cent over the last 15 years.

"When they were able to reduce the energy, water became more affordable and it opened the door to large-scale desalination," said Dr Gilron, the head of the desalination department at Ben Gurion University's Zuckerberg Institute of Water Research.

One of the most stunning innovations, he said, was a way of "recovering" enormous amounts of energy from water that is returned to the sea .

Desalination has also become possible without using up excessive amounts of coastal land - territory that is in high demand. Sorek, which only started producing at full capacity two years ago, is located near Tel Aviv, more than two miles inland. "They developed a novel way of getting the water from the sea, with pipes under the ocean, to the plant," said Dr Gilron.

Israel Desalination Engineering (IDE) designed and built the Sorek plant. The company made the units that carry out the most important part of the desalination process - known as membrane modules - unusually large. At 16 in long instead of a more typical 8 in, and mounted vertically, they are unusually efficient in terms of the space and the peripheral equipment they require.

IDE has also developed a way of treating the water without chemicals before it reaches the membranes which reduces the need to clean them. Edo Bar-Zeev, now at the Zuckerberg Institute, helped to devise the filtration system, which uses lava stone to stop a "bio-film" developing on membranes, which hinders the desalination process. Despite the major advances in desalination, there are some concerns being raised.

One comes from a public health perspective. "Desalinated water comes with no minerals. There is no sodium - which is actually positive - but it also comes without calcium, magnesium, fluoride and other minerals," said Bar Ilan University professor Yona Amitai, who has just conducted a study on desalination. Various minerals are added but magnesium is not, which, he said, is a negative when it comes to the functioning of hearts and other organs.

Some green activists also have worries. Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director of the EcoPeace Middle East EcoPeace organisation, said: "There's no question that on the technological side this is a real breakthrough. This needs to be matched, though, by a breakthrough on the energy side, as there is a problem as long as we continue to burn through fossil fuels for desalination."

Nevertheless, Mr Bromberg is optimistic, seeing desalination driven by green power as the next phase in Israel's water research. This, he said, can put Israel "in a very unique position of being a game changer to fight the impact of climate change globally."

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