Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

How Low-Tech Solutions Turned an Israeli City Into a Smart Water Leader

By Leon Kaye

Sally Levy is the CEO of Meniv Rishon, the water utility in the city of Rishon LeZion. Israel’s fourth-largest city -- home to 250,000 residents -- suffered from water stress only a few years ago, along with the rest of the country. But the utility has since launched an ambitious water infrastructure investment plan with the goal to curtail its water loss.

Levy set a goal to cap water loss at 5 percent by this year. In 2011, Rishon LeZion lost about 8.3 percent of its water to leakages and other problems – not bad considering Israel’s national average of 10 percent, but still some room for improvement. This year, the utility reduced its water losses to only 2.9 percent of the city’s overall supply -- blowing past its target.

A large driver was the emphasis Israel has long placed on water – going so far as to make it a matter of national security. “Israel treats water as a national asset,” Levy insisted during TriplePundit’s visit to her utility’s offices last week.

It goes without saying that Israel is one of the most politicized nations on the planet, and the same goes for how the country approaches its water security. Israel is now seen as a global leader in water technologies such as desalination. And as Israel boosted its water capacity over the past decade, all municipalities were required to get on board and purchase desalinated water, whether they needed it or not.

Levy was tactful about this decision, though it was clear she felt the city’s water supplies were safe – it just needed to be more efficient. “Do you know what the best innovation in water is?” she asked rhetorically. “Wells!” Rishon LeZion, unlike most of the country, is self-reliant when it comes to water, with 16 live wells supplying the city.

But as all cities in Israel are required to do, Meniv Rishon must purchase some of its water -- the bulk of which is desalinated -- from Mekorot, the country’s national water company. Any fees paid for this water do not go to municipal water investment; such funds must be provided for locally.

Levy’s challenges surged as the utility had to make up for the fact that Israel’s national government no longer subsidizes water costs and, in fact, charges for it even though the country is now a net water exporter. Meanwhile, the cost of water for residents surged from 2 shekels (50 U.S. cents) to 10 shekels (US$2.50) per cubic meter. That huge difference in price, however, hardly benefits Meniv Rishon, which operates on thin margins.

Nevertheless, Levy somehow found the means to invest around US$17.8 million in improved infrastructure in recent years. And no, these projects were not high-tech solutions such as sensors or other next-gen tools to detect water leakage. The utility runs a lean machine, as its employees are trained to respond quickly to any reported leaks.

Rishon LeZion receives about 571 millimeters (22.4 inches) of rain a year – a significant amount in a region with such a dry climate. Nevertheless, for years too much of that was lost to runoff.

Much of the problem is the fact that for years that water had no where to go. Like much of Israel, Rishon LeZion is built largely on sand. Over the years, sand was taken from a large pit in the western part of the city in order to build residences and offices. Eventually that pit became surrounded by the city – and over time it morphed into a pond that attracted garbage and mosquitoes.

Levy decided this pond had to become part of the city’s infrastructure, so it became a repository of the city’s effluent from wastewater treatment.

This new lake also collected some rainwater, and it eventually became a wildlife habitat that now anchors a new shopping center and an amusement park called Superland. But the lake could not hold all of the city’s rain runoff, so the decision was made to build a nearby “fjord” to capture the excess rain.

The fjord’s water is used for local landscaping in order to secure potable water for the city’s residences and businesses. Meanwhile, the city’s improved water storage makes it possible for about 5 million cubic meters of water to recharge the local aquifers annually.

Levy also estimates that the city saves about 5 million shekels (US$1.25 million) in costs as a result of these improvements. “Forget about all these fancy technologies,” Levy said. “The most important thing, fundamentally, is to manage the water correctly in the first place.”

Levy’s leadership has not only resulted in a huge boost in water security for Rishon LeZion, but also an improved quality of life in the city. Although it was raining during our visit, it was clear how the new reservoirs improved the city’s ambiance. Trees have soared high over these new wetlands; water birds could be spotted everywhere; and families were clearly enjoying the scenery atypical in what is mostly Israel’s dry desert landscape.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Levy’s leadership, it is a relatively simple one: Take pride in what you do, and put your customers first.

The enthusiasm Levy has for her city’s water system is infectious: During our tour of the city, she was beaming and was even quick to point out that the power station was clean and immaculate. Every little detail was pointed out, and Levy loved having it documented – she even photobombed a picture that our group was taking during last week’s press tour.

One reason why many nations’ water infrastructure is crumbling is because some things as dull as pipes and water mains don’t grasp our leaders’ and citizens’ attention. But Levy proves that emphasizing the importance of water has purpose. And incorporating facilities that have a vital role while offering tangible value, such as recreation, has turned Rishon LeZion’s water security to a focal point of civic pride – and a destination for leaders from across the world who want to learn from its success.

Image credits: 1) Meniv Rishon; 2) Gal Joss

Editor’s note: Vibe Israel is funding Leon Kaye’s trip. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye