Less than a decade ago, Israel’s economy was teetering on the edge of a cliff as drought threatened the country’s long-term viability. The situation became even more dystopian as news reports showcased data suggesting the Middle East was in the midst of its worst drought in 900 years. But as the news of climate change’s impact on the region became worse, Israel not only survived but thrived. Investments in water technology turned Israel around and averted what would have otherwise been an intractable crisis.
And this tiny country has now become the global water superpower.
The roots of Israel’s water technology sector lie in the country’s fight for independence. In 1948, for the first time in over 1,600 years, there was an independent Israel, albeit one surrounded by hostile neighbors while the rest of the world was still distracted with rebuilding after World War II. Much of the urbanizing world saw agriculture as a relic of the past, but this fledgling country’s leaders saw farming as the foundation of both Israel’s future economic strength and as a means toward resilience. Although many industrialized countries saw a decline in land devoted to agriculture over the years, Israel’s total amount of farmland actually surged.
But that agriculture boom, along with Israel’s continued population growth, imposed a huge strain on its water capacity. The Sea of Galilee, one of Israel’s few reliable sources of fresh water, dropped so low that by 2010 it threatened to reach the “black line” at which salt infiltration would have harmed this historic and critically important lake forever.
Although conservation efforts and water recycling are part of Israel’s rebuilding of its water infrastructure, desalination played a pivotal role in transforming the country from one burdened by drought into one that now creates more fresh water than it needs.
As writer Rowan Jacobsen recently highlighted, the linchpin of Israel’s water resurgence is the Sorek Desalination Plant, the largest reverse-osmosis (RO) desalination plant in the world. Desalination is one way to prevent groundwater depletion and keep economies afloat where water is scarce. Critics, however, have long assailed this technology for being energy intensive and expensive. The difference with the Sorek plant, however, is its advancement in design and materials to the point at which David Talbot of MIT Technology Review describes it as the “cheapest” desalination plant on record.
The result is not only a huge domestic success for IDE Technologies, the head contractor of the Sorek Plant, but it also presents huge business prospects worldwide for the company. A subsidiary of that firm, IDE America Inc., designed the Carlsbad Desalination Plant outside of San Diego. The plant, which delivers almost 50 million gallons of fresh water to the surrounding region daily, bills itself as the largest such facility in North America.
This is quite a turnaround for Israel; in 2004 the country depended on rainwater and aquifers for its water needs. Now, in addition to Sorek, three desalination plants and others scheduled to open soon will provide about half of Israel’s fresh water by the end of this year. Add to the mix Israel’s aggressive water recycling programs and what Haaretz calls the country’s “holy grail” — drip irrigation, the early development of which can be traced to this corner of the Levant and has had a key role in agriculture becoming far more water efficient across the world.
Israel’s advancements in desalination and water efficiency are case studies that policymakers across the world must consider as they evaluate how to provide enough fresh water for citizens and businesses. One Israeli company, Netafim, has arguably had a huge impact in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where farmers have confronted reductions in their water allotment after years of drought. And the country’s neighbors across the Middle East, if all sides can put aside politics, have desalination technology at an arm’s reach that can help them cope with relentless climate change trends that show no sign of receding.
Image credit: IDE Technologies