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How Israel defies drought

Israel ended its driest year on record with a water surplus. Lessons from a desert nation on how to get more out of the spigot. 

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    A child plays at dusk in a fountain in Teddy Park near the Old City in Jerusalem.
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Even at night, the ground of Israel’s Arava desert pulsates with heat. For decades, the vast expanse of bleached hills looked like a mountain biker’s paradise and a farmer’s torment. With only about an inch of precipitation per year, not even Israeli vegetation had the chutzpah to grow here. 

But that slowly began to change when Israeli pioneers came here in the mid-1960s. True, they didn’t come for the soil or the weather. But farming was vital to staking out the young state of Israel’s claim to this land along the Jordanian border. In between fending off attacks from Palestinian militants, the settlers worked the unforgiving soil. 

They grew roses when others said it was impossible. They created naturally air-conditioned greenhouses by setting up “wet curtains” – honeycombed walls that allowed water to seep through slowly. They planted flowers in trenches of volcanic ash instead of the sandy soil. Later they switched to dates and peppers, using an Israeli-invented drip irrigation system.

Today this former moonscape, though still barren, has become an agricultural Eden: Rows of greenhouses stretch across the land, harboring everything from apricots to mangoes, avocados to pomegranates. Other crops are grown outside with plastic stretched over them to reduce evaporation. This narrow strip of land along the Jordanian border produces 65 percent of Israel’s vegetable exports – mainly tomatoes and peppers – and helps feed the Jewish state itself. It’s one of the most productive salad bowls in the Middle East. 

More than anything, the transformation of the desert here is a testament to Israel’s innovative approach to water. Driven by a combination of necessity and inventiveness, the country has become one of the world’s leaders in how to wring the most out of parsimonious amounts of rainfall and turn a parched landscape into a productive garden. 

The Israelis are turning seawater into tap water, pioneering new types of irrigation, and reusing wastewater at the highest rate of any country in the world. Last year, despite having the driest year on record, the country recorded a surplus of water. As climate change creates more severe patterns of weather – including, notably, devastating droughts – Israeli technology and ideas are increasingly being adopted around the world. 

To be sure, Israel is a far smaller country than most of those with the most pressing water needs. But proponents say many of its practices can still be used elsewhere. Already, Israelis have big water projects under way in China, India, and drought-stricken California. 

“Israel is very much a beta test site for solving these problems in a small country,” says Glenn Yago, founder of the Financial Innovation Lab at the California-based Milken Institute, who is fostering increased Israeli investment in water projects in California. “Drip irrigation, desalination, [wastewater] recycling, and aquifer remediation – those are problems that can be tested in the global laboratory that Israel is and then scaled elsewhere.”

As with everything in this part of the world, however, politics intrudes on the narrative here, too: Palestinians claim that Israel is taking more than its prescribed allotment of water from shared aquifers, and environmental concerns swirl about the effect of the country operating so many desalination plants along the eastern Mediterranean. But Israel’s surplus of water has also opened new opportunities for water cooperation with its Arab neighbors – and, perhaps, more flexibility. 

•     •     •

The story of making the desert bloom here begins with a man in a top hat.  

Back in the 1960s Simcha Blass, an immigrant from Poland, was traveling around the torrid Israeli desert in a three-piece suit, white gloves up to his elbows, and that imposing lid, looking like a European duke. He was, in fact, a water engineer, one of the foremost in Israel, who had helped to establish its first aqueducts and pipelines. (One of those plumbing systems was made from salvaged pipes from postwar London, which had been used to put out fires during the German blitz.)

Now he was tinkering with an idea to help make things grow where they shouldn’t: drip irrigation. But none of the young kibbutzniks working the dusty clods of the Negev desert were interested.

Until one day in 1965 Uri Werber knocked on Mr. Blass’s door in Tel Aviv. Before Mr. Werber even had a chance to introduce himself, the eccentric water engineer said, “You know what you are? You are an idiot.... No one is listening to me. Why are you coming here?”

Werber represented Kibbutz Hatzerim, one of 11 farming settlements set up overnight in the Negev in 1947, the year before Israel declared independence. It was so desolate that one knoll was known then, and still is today, as the “hill of the only tree.” The only water for growing vegetables was the runoff from a primitive shower house.

Two decades later, the kibbutz had grown to about 100 people, and Werber was looking for a small business to employ about a dozen of its members. He’d suggested manufacturing everything from traffic lights to chandeliers, but drip irrigation was closer to their farming roots.

So there on Blass’s doorstep, Werber insisted he wanted to hear more about his invention. Blass had developed it after a farmer friend pointed out a tree that was far larger than those around it. The reason, they discovered, was a small leak in a hose that spritzed water on the tree’s roots. 

Werber went back to Hatzerim with the proposal – to build a system of perforated pipes that would water crops with judicious regularity. The kibbutz approved it. Initially, the group’s farm manager was so impressed with the results – drip irrigation both reduces water usage and increases crop yield, resulting in as much as four times more produce for the same amount of water – that he wanted to keep it as the kibbutz’s secret weapon. 

Instead, the kibbutz founded Netafim, whose technology was piloted first on dusty Israeli farms and then exported around the world. Today, from its lush campus on Kibbutz Hatzerim, the company commands more than 30 percent of the global market for drip irrigation systems, with customers in 110 countries.

“To me there’s no question that drip irrigation made the desert bloom,” says Naty Barak, Netafim’s chief sustainability officer, who sees special potential for the company’s technology in California, where he opened Netafim’s first subsidiary back in 1981. “Israel has an answer to California’s drought.”

While drip irrigation is now a well-established technique, Netafim is always working to refine its technology, using the Arava as a prime laboratory, just as it has for decades.

“We are under tough and extreme conditions – soil, water, weather,” says Effi Tripler, a soil and water scientist from the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Center in Hatzeva. “They know if it works here, it will work in any place in the world.”

The R&D center, one of several in Israeli agricultural areas, experiments with everything from sophisticated new drip irrigation techniques to aquaculture. The center also tests different varieties of mangoes, apricots, and other fruits and vegetables to determine which ones can best endure the harsh conditions of the Arava, where temperatures range from freezing to more than 100 degrees F. in the summer, and the parched soil receives only about an inch of precipitation per year.

“Plants are very smart,” says Dr. Tripler, who has beads of sweat collecting on his face despite the early hour. In cooperation with Netafim and other researchers, he’s refining a sophisticated drip irrigation system that waters plants only when they’re thirsty. The system, which is installed here in a small plot of sorghum, includes four solar-powered sensors that connect wirelessly to a control panel at the edge of the plot and measures the suction of the plants’ roots to gauge their thirst. A similar system will be installed at the University of California, Davis in the fall. By reading the signals of the plants, the system helps farmers maximize their water use. 

“For the growers, this is their GPS,” says Tripler, who spent 15 years overseeing a date-palm plantation near the Dead Sea. 

Decreasing water usage in agriculture holds some of the most potential to help the world husband a precious resource, since agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of water usage globally. The most common method of watering fields is flood irrigation, which pumps or otherwise channels water into fields and lets it flow among the crops. The problem with the technique is that it requires flat land and uses vast amounts of water, much of which is lost. 

Drip irrigation could reduce water usage dramatically and make it possible to utilize hillier land as well, says Mr. Barak of Netafim. Yet global adoption of drip irrigation remains below 5 percent, compared with 75 percent in Israel. That’s largely because of the cost of installing such a system. Water is still free in many places, which makes it financially hard to justify such an investment.

Barak says sometimes he wakes up in the morning and feels “so proud” that what has been done out in the Israeli desert is now gaining awareness around the world. “[But] sometimes I wake up in the morning and say, ‘What’s happening? We have a solution to the most pressing issues and it’s not picking up.’ ” 

•     •     • 

About the time that Blass was peddling his drip irrigation technology around the Negev, American chemical engineer Sidney Loeb was devising a new way to turn seawater into drinking water.

In those early days of desalination, there were two main methods of separating out the salt: freezing or distillation. But Mr. Loeb, along with another graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), developed reverse osmosis (RO) desalination, in which seawater is forced through membranes that block the salt but allow the water to pass through.

In 1965, the first commercially viable RO plant was established in Coalinga, Calif.; it was run by firemen in between putting out blazes. Its output was small – 5,000 gallons of water per day – but it supplied a third of the town’s fresh water. The next year, a second commercial plant was established in the Israeli kibbutz of Yotvata in the Arava desert, along Jordan’s border. According to Loeb, who moved to Israel in 1966, women brought buckets to the plant to wash their hair in the soft water, but skeptical residents initially refused to drink it.

Experts didn’t think much of the technology at first, either. Indeed, it took decades for RO to be used on a large scale, even though Israel was suffering periodic water shortages. In the mid-1980s, the problem became so severe that Israel’s minister of agriculture recommended that everyone shower in pairs to save water.

Then in 1999, the Israeli water commissioner came up with a master plan for 2000 to 2010 that called for wide-scale desalination to help close a water gap of 400 million cubic meters a year. The Israeli government agreed to produce 50 mcm of desalinated water – an important, if small, first step, says Abraham Tenne, head of the desalination division at the Israel Water Authority. “Usually the first decision is the most important because you crossed the line.”

In 2003, IDE won a contract with the French firm Veolia to build a seawater RO plant in Ashkelon that would produce 100 mcm per year, making it the largest such plant of its kind in the world. The government agreed to a plan that would guarantee the plant enough financial support to survive regardless of actual water demands.

“Ashkelon changed everything,” says Tom Pankratz, editor of the Water Desalination Report and an independent desalination consultant. Up until then, bankers had been skittish about underwriting a large-scale plant for a technology that had yet to be proved on such a scale.

In 2006, Ashkelon was named “desalination plant of the year” at the Global Water Awards ceremony in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where it was hailed as “a milestone in reverse osmosis desalination.”

“The guys in Dubai don’t like us too much, but even they were impressed,” says Mr. Tenne, who has become one of Israel’s leading desalination experts almost by accident: He signed up for Loeb’s first university class on RO because he figured an American professor would go easy on the students.

After Ashkelon, RO grew exponentially. From 2004 to 2014, some 74 percent of contracted desalination plants were RO. Three of those were built in Israel – Palmachim, Hadera, and Sorek.

Sorek, also built by IDE, has a capacity of 150 mcm per year and came on line in 2013 as the largest such plant in the world. Every two minutes, enough seawater to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool is pumped nearly a mile and a half from the ocean through massive underground pipes, which are roughly twice the height of an average person. The water gurgles up into huge vats that screen out jellyfish and other elements that could clog the pumps, and then goes into an array of pretreatment pools with sand filters.

Once all solids have been removed, the water is pumped into a phalanx of 11,200 cylinders at high pressure. Inside the cylinders, membranes screen out the salt. Within an hour, that Olympic-size pool of drinkable water is delivered into Israel’s national water system and ready to come out of people’s taps.

Not everyone is enamored of the technology, though. Environmentalists worry about the rerouting of nature’s resources on such a massive scale. The brine discharged back into the sea could harm the wildlife, especially with so many plants along the Mediterranean – not just in Israel but also Cyprus, Egypt, and Algeria.

“Desalination should always be a last resort,” says Karin Kloosterman, founder of Green Prophet, which covers sustainability issues in the Middle East. “Desalination is an energy-intensive process that consumes an unbalanced amount of electricity while removing the salts from the water. The byproducts and brine of desalination are harmful to the waterways around the desalination plant.”

Another concern is the price. Desalinated water here costs 2.8 shekels per cubic meter ($0.66) versus as much as four times that in Australia. Part of that is due to IDE’s innovative plant design and operations, such as arranging the cylinders vertically instead of horizontally to save on concrete and other structural support materials. But in Israel the vast majority of the population, with the exception of Jerusalem, is located within just a few miles of the coast.

California, by contrast, is far wider and has high mountains that could add significant cost to the price of desalinated water. A stronger environmental movement also exists there, and significant regulatory hurdles. In addition, California has a far more fragmented system of water control, so it can’t easily set a price for water, and few people want to pay for desalinated water if they’re getting it from the ground, lakes, or rivers free of charge. So, ironically, the state where Loeb first developed RO desalination lags far behind Israel today in that field.

IDE is building a $1 billion plant in Carlsbad, Calif., which will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere. But it is still relatively small and the project has faced many complications.

“In the time it took Carlsbad to materialize from plan to operations, we’ve built plants that together produce daily seven times more water than Carlsbad is going to produce,” says Hamutal Ben Bassat, IDE’s business development manager, on a tour of the Sorek plant.

In early May, Santa Barbara gave IDE the nod for another desalination plant, and Ms. Ben Bassat says other projects in California are under discussion. She says IDE also expects to see “quite a lot of activity in the US, China, and India” in the next two years.

In China, coastal cities that account for 40 percent of the population and 60 percent of the total gross domestic product already face “extreme” water scarcity, according to a report by WaterWorld, a trade publication. Last fall, Israel heralded a “Water City” project in Shouguang, a city of 1 million where Israeli water companies will implement their technology with the hope of winning over the Chinese government and expanding to other cities.

Limits exist to how far the Israeli technology can spread, however. The Arab Middle East and North Africa represent more than 40 percent of the global market for desalination, but so far they have been untappable by IDE for political reasons. Nevertheless, from 2004 to 2014, the company ranked as the fourth largest desalination plant supplier in the world.

“Basically we build the largest plants for the lowest costs,” says Ben Bassat.

•     •     • 

Israel has also been able to wring more water out of the resources it has because, in essence, it has only one hand on the spigot. It has one water authority that sets both policy and pricing for the whole country.

Many other nations – including, notably, the United States – have a tangle of federal, state, and local jurisdictions that control water issues. “Much of the issue in the US is not so much technology, it’s governance,” says Prof. Yoram Cohen, a chemical and biomolecular engineer at UCLA. 

Indeed, hundreds of water agencies exist in California alone. In the US, many farmers have rights to the water and don’t pay for it, and in some places governments don’t even have a system in place to measure water usage, making it impossible to charge for it.

In addition to key decisions regarding measurement and cost of water, Israel’s government has been able to enforce national policies, such as widespread wastewater treatment and recycling. Israel recycles more than 80 percent of its wastewater for reuse in agriculture and other industrial processes, which is quadruple the amount of the second largest wastewater recycler, Spain. In California, there’s still strong public distrust of such recycling, even after rigorous treatment. 

“When you say ‘reuse’ in California, it means something different ... most of the implication there is toilet to tap,” says Mr. Pankratz. “And there has been a real stigma with that.”

Israel also has taken a lead in reducing water loss, with innovative companies like TaKaDu. Its monitoring system costs about $150,000 for a big city like New York – a relatively small price tag given that global water loss amounts to as much as $15 billion. Among Israel’s Arab neighbors, as much as half of their water is lost to leaks, while in London it’s about 35 percent. In Israel it’s down to 10 percent, and the country is aiming for 8 percent, says Tenne of the Israel Water Authority, which requires the country’s water utilities to spend a certain percentage on maintenance each year. 

He says, however, that the answer to improving global water efficiency is not in any one step, but rather in a long-term, comprehensive approach. “There is no one single step and there won’t be one single step in China, California, or India,” says Tenne. “People are trying to solve problems from today to tomorrow, and it doesn’t work. But it can be done, and Israel is a great example that it can be done.”

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