Looking for Freshwater Solutions


With the Sea of Galilee – one of Israel’s main freshwater resources – at its lowest level in four years, it’s no secret that Israel is reeling from an ongoing drought and isn’t expecting relief anytime soon.


Public service announcements on the radio remind listeners to cut down on water usage in the garden and kitchen, and you may get some dirty looks at the gym if you stay in the shower for too long.

It isn’t that there aren’t some very practical solutions out there: Israel’s academic institutions have almost always been engaged in water research, seeking smart options to answer the lack of this critical resource.

But water technologies are taking a long time to reach the market that needs them.

“There’s an extraordinary amount of inertia in this industry,” explains Prof. Rafi Semiat, director of the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

“We’ve known for a long time, for example, that desalination is a solution. So we created the Israel Desalination Society back in 1997, with its main target to convince the government that desalination is an essential solution. Only in 2002 did the government decide that the water issue called for desalination; but two months later, we had good rain and the Kinneret [Hebrew for the Sea of Galilee] rose.

“Then the Finance Ministry said desalination plants cost too much and six years later, we only have two desalination plants.”

The desalination plants, both built by Israeli companies, are in Ashkelon and Palmahim.

Given Israel’s access to the waters of the Mediterranean, desalination – the process by which excess salt and other minerals are removed from water in order to provide fresh water that can be used by humans or for irrigation – has always been an obvious solution for the country’s water shortage, along with the necessary technologies that make the water drinkable.

For the scientists who have long been researching and discovering alternative water methodologies, the government’s tendency to drag out the decision-making process is frustrating, but it hasn’t stopped any of the local academic institutions from looking for — and proposing — solutions.

Israel has always used “marginal water,” since the establishment of the state, says Prof. Eilon Adar, who heads Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, down in the arid air of Sde Boker, the Negev desert region of southern Israel.

“We were the first nation to start to develop non-conventional water sources. One hundred years ago, people didn’t consider groundwater as a water source, although Abraham was already digging wells,” he points out.

At the same time, the country’s water experts were already making plans back in the 1960s, when they inaugurated the National Water Carrier to carry water from the Kinneret to the center and south. That was considered a project that would last 45 to 50 years, providing Israel with the time to come up with alternative and additional sources of water.

Down in Sde Boker, which was home to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and where dry desert air is a constant reminder of water scarcity, the focus is on investigating methods to improve water quality.

Scientists have been studying the biochemical evolution of contaminants in the water using biochemical reactors in order to come up with the most efficient model to get rid of the biochemicals.

By studying the so-called hydraulic connections between water bodies under the surface, they can see if the water is contaminated, where the chemicals go and how fast that can happen.

The Zuckerberg scientists also recently developed a special membrane to sieve organic poisons from waters at chemical complexes, which is now being used at Israeli agrochemicals giant Makhteshim Agan Industries, and are beta testing their methods for nano filtration and desalinating treated sewage water at the Shafdan water treatment plant in central Israel.

They’re also researching gray water — water from the kitchen — and looking at how to convince households to separate and treat this water, and use it to irrigate the garden without damaging the soil or humans.

“We’re trying to figure out why so many innovations at this stage are considered premature,” says Adar. “We can see very clearly that there are obvious ways for our innovations to be leveraged and implemented. But allocations need to be made to look at the innovations that have the clear potential to become a product and then find whatever funding necessary to move from alpha model to beta site.”

The motivation is certainly there, given the continual lack of rain in this arid corner of the earth. And consortiums are being formed all the time.

Zuckerberg was recently selected to be the national center for advanced water technologies, supported by the government for the first four to five years, and acting as a bridge between academia and entrepreneurs.

The institution, with Adar at the helm, isn’t the only academic body forming consortiums and looking carefully at water quality. At the Hebrew University campus in Rehovot, the verdant plain known for its citrus orchards, Prof. Avner Adin has spent years in the water business, moving from academia to government and back to academia.

So, when the recent water crisis hit in 2001, Adin felt very “frustrated” over the lack of good water management, and instituted the Israel Water Association, a non-governmental organization dedicated to working with the government and other water institutes to create better water management in Israel and to represent Israel internationally.

“I decided I had to do something,” he said. “Scientists have always been aware of the issues of water quality, or finding additional water sources that could be purified for human consumption,” says Adin, who divides his time between his university research, classes and consulting for the government and industry.

“We were thinking about seawater desalination back in the 1960s, and that’s the advantage of science for a country – allowing it to look forward.”

The process, however, has taken years. While Adin and others spent years in their laboratories, devising methods for purifying alternative water sources, the country staggered from one water crisis to another, never fully deciding which solutions to invest in for the long term.

Scientists like Adin, Adar and Semiat never intended for the government to rely on one solution, such as desalination. Adin, for example, is constantly thinking about five different, parallel solutions, including desalinating seawater and brackish water, conserving water, purifying storm and drainage water and creating artificial rain.

His department is collaborating with BGU’s Zuckerberg on ways to treat sewage water – given that the water quality can be made decent and doesn’t require very different processes to treat it, the question is, rather, how to transfer and store it.

At Adin’s Water Treatment Technology laboratory in Rehovot, the current work also focuses on different filtration systems for water, using test tubes set with fine membranes that sift through particles, and bacteria that need to be filtered out of the water, which, however, can slow down the flow.

The Rehovot lab is used for department research, and is an active site for the consultation that the department offers to the government and local industry, from computer chipmaker Intel – which has several research and development centers in Israel – to giant Israeli generic drug producer, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

Adin has also focused on electroflocculation, in which one puts different elements into water in order to reduce the negative changes that can take place in the filtration process.

This process was created and patented by Adin, and is used by privately owned Israeli company, TreaTec21, which uses electroflocculation, dual biological treatment and advanced oxidation to treat all drinking water and most of the municipal and industrial wastewater, using a continuous, static process to remove suspended solids, dissolved organic contaminants, fats, emulsions, dyes and heavy metals.

Local industry has always benefited from Israeli academia, particularly in the water business.

Semiat points to two projects from the Technion that are currently being tested by local companies. One involves the introduction of magnesium (a mineral essential for plants and humans) into desalinated water, which hitherto had been added directly to crops using desalinated water, but now the trend is to add it earlier, to the water itself. A Technion researcher found a way to extract magnesium from seawater and transfer it to the desalinated water at a low cost.

Another recent Technion discovery involves recovering a larger amount of water from brackish water desalination plants. The current percentage of water that can be desalinated from brackish water is limited to 70 percent or 80 percent usable water.

The Technion discovery uses crystallization techniques to remove salts and make more, and cheaper, water. The solution is currently being piloted by two Israeli companies: Israel Desalination Enterprises (IDE) Technologies Ltd. and Global Environmental Solutions Ltd. (GES), the companies that built Israel’s desalination plants.

So, even when the Israeli government doesn’t move quickly enough to utilize the water solutions developed by its own researchers, Israeli industry is quick to capitalize on its local smarts.

IDE, based in Ra’anana, is now marketing its own snowmaker – and selling it to the Swiss ski slopes. The snow machine was originally created for desalinating salt water, but the company realized that the machine could create snow without adding any chemicals. And a new market was born.

“It’s like water,” said the Technion’s Semiat. “People think there is a single solution, but there isn’t. Companies are always looking for new directions, for new solutions; it’s just that it takes a long time.”

Adar, from BGU, takes a more academic approach to the Israeli attitude, pointing out that any water innovations are initiated by academics, but they are generally at too premature a stage to be presented to and utilized by entrepreneurs.

“There’s a huge gap between academic feasibility and industrial capability,” he says. “With water and clean air, it’s very clear that it’s something that everybody expects the national authority will provide.

“In Israel, we know that water doesn’t come from air and love; you have to pay for it. No one now expects to get it free, but they do expect that there will be an adequate supply and quality. Yet that’s what’s missing in Israel.”

Not every Israeli academic institution dealing with water focuses on water quality. In the desert, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, a kibbutz north of Eilat, promotes regional cooperation among Israelis, Palestinians and other neighboring Arab countries in environmental matters.

Clive Lipchin, research director at the Arava Institute, calls it “dealing with Israel’s environmental problems that often originate outside our borders, but reach our borders,” including issues of water, air quality, waste management and agriculture.

At the moment, the Arava Institute is involved in a couple of water projects: the Red Sea/Dead Sea project, which is a World Bank-funded study on connecting the Red Sea and Dead Sea via pipeline and open canal through the Arava Valley; a desalination plant at the Dead Sea and the largest water pumping station in the world between Aqaba and Eilat.

GLOA Jordan is an initiative funded by the German government to understand more effectively how climate change might affect water in the region. In working with Palestinians, Germans, Jordanians and Israelis, the project is “broad and ambitious,” says Lipchin, and the Arava Institute’s involvement will include getting the public and government sector involved.

“Water is a frustrating but extremely complex issue,” says Lipchin. “But you have to take a broad look and understand that there is no one solution, and that it’s a problem that’s never going to go away, because you always need water.

“At the same time, progress is being made. Nobody’s walking around blindfolded here. Everyone understands that there’s a real problem, and there has to be a real solution. We just have to be pragmatic.”