The Israel Factor

Israel’s Water Solutions are Outside the Box

By James S. Galfund


In July, I arrived in Israel as a representative of Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds. My mission: to uncover the myriad ways in which David Ben-Gurion’s promise of “a much brighter future” – a promise made at the Israel Bonds founding conference – continues to achieve fruition.

Phase one of my journey of discovery took me 82 feet below street level, as I explored the subterranean tunnels of Tel Aviv’s Metropolitan Mass Transit System. For phase two, I cast my eye westward toward the Mediterranean Sea and Israel’s extraordinary achievements on the desalination front.

The Ashkelon desalination facility, one of the largest in the world, is one of five plants
along the Mediterranean Sea providing Israelis with 65 percent of their drinking water

For Israel, desalination has become more essential than ever. A September 17 Times of Israel article quotes Israel’s Water Authority as stating, “The aggregate (water) shortage over the past five years of drought is enormous.” 

Yet, the article also observed, “Israelis have not felt the current drought as acutely as past dry spells, or as sharply as Israel’s neighbors, because of the construction in recent years of five massive desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast.”

Israel is an undisputed global leader in desalination, having taken a quantum leap forward since Moses first attempted to solve the problematic issue of drinking water by striking a rock with his staff. 

Rani Meerovitch, CEO of the huge Ashkelon desalination plant, and senior management consultant for large scale projects and financing for IDE Technologies Ltd. - and whose father, it turns out, worked for Israel Bonds in the UK in the ‘80s – relates the country’s turn towards desalination began modestly. It all started with a small plant in Eilat built in the '60s to provide drinking water for a few thousand people. 

Today, over 6 million people get their drinking water through desalination via the five aforementioned plants spread along Israel’s Mediterranean coast. 

Desalination was not immediately embraced as the obvious solution to Israel’s arid environment, because, Meerovitch explains, “originally, desalination was expensive.” He says in the early years, the price of desalinated water ran a costly $7-$8 per cubic meter, whereas today it has dropped below $1.

Israel’s advances in desalination are a revolutionary answer to the nation’s water crisis

Israel’s approach to desalination ramped up in the ‘90s with the introduction of reverse osmosis, a natural phenomenon that Meerovitch, with a nod towards a higher power, says “was invented by G-d, but discovered, adopted and implemented by scientists and engineers.”

A multifaceted process entailing complex equipment, in basic terms reverse osmosis is a means of separating pure water from seawater through
pressure-driven membrane filtration.

Add a few minerals – “it’s like a recipe,” says Meerovitch - send it off to the reservoir of the national water grid, and from there it flows to taps throughout the country. It also flows to neighboring Jordan as part of a commitment to provide the Hashemite Kingdom with water, as stipulated by the peace treaty signed by the two nations in 1994.  

Meerovitch compares reverse osmosis to “producing raindrops,” and Israel’s government, embracing the technology as a revolutionary answer to the nation’s water crisis, published its first tender in the late ‘90s, which led to construction of the desalination plant in Ashkelon. 

At the time it went online, the Ashkelon plant was, according to Meerovitch, the largest reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world. It was subsequently surpassed by a plant in Hadera, which in turn was eclipsed by the Sorek plant that opened in 2013.

A sixth plant, projected to be built not far from the Sorek plant, and a seventh, along Israel’s northern coast near Nahariya, are in the developmental stages. 
Meerovitch says the ambitious building of huge reverse osmosis plants has resulted in the usage of desalinated tap water “going from 0 percent to 65 percent in just 15 years.” He proudly adds, “I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where desalination has been so successful so fast.”

Meerovitch emphasizes that in addition to ensuring water is suitable for drinking, desalination plants have “strict environmental controls, and comprehensive surveys are taken every year. As a result, there has been no change in the seawater, and flora and fauna have been unaffected.” 

As has been the case with so many of Israel’s innovations, the Jewish state is sharing its expertise with the world, with IDE assisting some 40 countries, including the United States, with desalination plants. The largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere was built by IDE in California. 

IDE Engineering Vice President Jacky Ben-Yaish points out that “the design for desalination plants is becoming more and more sophisticated.  We’re trying to take technology and push it to the edge.”

As part of that ongoing effort to break barriers through applying the latest technology, Ben-Yaish cites IDE’s world-leading efforts in green water treatment solutions, with a focus on reusable resources and chemical-free plants. The elimination of chemicals, he notes, ensures“nothing will go back into the sea that wasn’t there before.”

Outside the box solutions to scarce water resources have been a hallmark of Israeli ingenuity, from the National Water Carrier to drip irrigation to advanced desalination plants. The way these innovations have transformed Israel, and indeed, the world, can be seen as yet another fulfillment of Ben-Gurion’s promise to the Bonds delegates of “a much brighter future.”  

And with that, phase two of my Israel Bonds journey of discovery was complete. 

Photos courtesy of IDE