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Leon Kaye headshot

Water Woman: How Leadership Turned An Israeli City Into a Global Model for Water Efficiency

By Leon Kaye

Rishon LeZion, five miles south of Tel Aviv, was founded in the 1880s by Jewish immigrants who fled the poverty and pogroms of Russia. Now the fourth-largest city in Israel, what was once a small farming community has become one of the most prosperous cities in the country.

Drive along the city’s wide thoroughfares, and except for the Hebrew on store fronts and office buildings, you could just as well be in suburban Houston, Northern Virginia or the Inland Empire. But Rishon LeZion has also become a world leader in water efficiency -- and without the reliance on expensive technologies.

Its water utility, Meniv Rishon, is a compelling study of how strong leadership can transform a water company into a dynamic force that becomes central to people’s lives.

In much of the world, water services are very much engineering- and process-driven. (And in the U.S., as I’ve been told a few times off the record, the industry is one dominated by stodgy middle-aged white men.) Delivering fresh water and hauling away sewage is really not that complicated – hence anyone who is trying to shake up a water company will often be told, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

But many water companies worldwide are beginning to realize that doing things “the way we’ve always done it” has become the fast track to a failure in delivering this vital resource. The onslaught of droughts, surging populations, weak pricing strategies and decaying infrastructure means that water utilities are under even more pressure to deliver clean water.

On that last point, much of the world’s water infrastructure is in a sorry state. Statistics on water loss are all over the map. One NGO suggests that aging infrastructure causes approximately 6 billion gallons of water to be lost through broken water mains and leaky pipes in the U.S. – totaling anywhere from 14 to 18 percent of the nation’s water supply. An estimated 240,000 water mains broke in 2013 alone.

In developing countries, that percentage is even higher. Water-rich Brazil, for example, suffers water leakage rates of as high as 35 percent. The results are more damage to the local infrastructure, increased water scarcity, and lost revenues for water utilities as they cannot charge citizens for a resource that was never received.

“But it’s important to keep in mind those figures are averages, and the real impact is at the municipal level,” said Kate Zerrenner, manager of energy-water initiatives for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Energy Program. “The average city in the U.S. loses up to 30 percent ... There are some cities that are doing really well, keeping losses to under 10 percent. But others like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, Texas, range from 15 to 20 percent water loss.”

In Israel, however, water loss is only an estimated 10 percent nationwide. But there's still room for improvement.

Enter Sally Levy, CEO of Meniv Rishon. She seems unassuming at first – when I first met her in the company break room, where she was restocking a cabinet, I figured she was one of the utility’s rank-and-file employees. After all, the glass ceiling in this nation of 8 million is still way too high for many women. (“It’s rare to see a female CEO in Israel,” grumbled a woman executive at a panel during my time in Tel Aviv.) But as Levy spoke about her company during our afternoon visit, it was clear she was a force to be reckoned with – and serves as an example of how strong leaders can get things done and earn the trust of its customers and stakeholders.

It is not easy for a woman to work in a high-level executive position in Israel’s patriarchal society, but Levy makes it look like a breeze. A large part of her success lies in her indefatigable confidence. She also displays a deft personal touch, as she knows when to play the woman card – and does so in a subtle and brilliant way. One thing we noticed while touring Meniv Rishon’s facilities is that they are practically spotless and hyper-organized. “The men may not like it sometimes because I make them clean,” she boasted, “but I take good care of them and treat them with respect.” That respect was mutual: The burly men we saw in various offices and workshops clearly held her in high esteem and without any condescension.

Levy’s personal touch goes beyond her employees. While she is hardly a micro-manager, she treats customer service as if it is one of her key performance indicators. From her point of view, she really had no choice.

In the wake of Israel’s massive drought at the end of the last decade, the country embarked on a massive water infrastructure spending binge that was heavy on desalination investment. As a result, the average water bill for a Rishon LeZion household spiked from 60 shekels to 300 shekels every two months (US$12 to $75).

That may seem like a reasonable price within a water-stressed nation, but Levy’s customers were furious. In turn, she reached out to many of them, sometimes to the detriment of her personal life. “Recently, I got a call from a customer at 12:45 in the morning one Friday about a burst pipe,” she said, half laughing. “And that was the end of my weekend!”

But it is because of this personal approach that Meniv Rishon has a proactive culture that has led to minimal water losses while grooming the utility as a model of water efficiency.

So, what did this company do to minimize its water losses? Read about it tomorrow on TriplePundit.

Image credit: 1) Meniv Rishon; 2) Kate Zerrenner

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