Israel using desalination to revolutionize its water economy
by Mary Burdman on 30 Mar 2014 4 Comments

Israel, which is two-thirds desert, is using the most advanced water-management technologies to transform itself into a water-surplus nation in less than a decade.. At the turn of the millennium, Israel faced the urgent requirement to either greatly expand its water supply, or curb its economic growth. The decision was to expand its water supply, and on Oct. 21, 2013, the country brought its fifth large-scale seawater desalination plant at Sorek on line. This development, in combination with use of advanced technology wastewater treatment (WWT) and recycling, by far the most extensive of any nation, and application of highly efficient and productive drip-irrigation in 95% of its agriculture, has made it possible for Israel to achieve a sea change in its national water economy.


Concentrated usage of advanced technology has changed that economy, from one determined by decades of shortages, exacerbated by severe, recurring regional drought. to create a nation with a secure, and even surplus, water supply, scientists and entrepreneurs told a one-day conference, “Israel and Water: Scarcity, Innovation, and Cooperation,” hosted by the American University Center for Israel Studies in Washington, D.C. March 4. In fact, Israel has moved so far ahead with effective water management, that it now has the potential to export water to its neighbors, especially Jordan and Palestine.

It could now be possible, as Prof. Alon Tal said in describing the “sea change” ongoing in Israel’s thinking about water, to finally solve such urgent water-shortage problems as the drying up of the Dead Sea, for the benefit of the entire region.

This man-created water surplus has even greater strategic significance. Jordanian Water Minister, Hazem Al-Nasir, who addressed the conference by video link, stressed the critical importance of regional water cooperation. He described the new three-way water-sharing agreement signed among Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority in Washington on Dec. 9, 2013, to build a desalination plant at Aqaba and complete a study to construct a pipeline to supply Red Sea water to the Dead Sea. The agreement includes increased water-sharing with
Palestine. Minister Al-Nasir also emphasized that, as he had told an Israeli delegation, their desalinated water could be of great help to Jordan, which now has to care for 1.2 million refugees from Syria.

This is the way to discredit all the “water wars” scenarios think tanks are putting out, as Dr. Eran Lerman, deputy chief of the Israeli National Security Council, said in a dialogue with the Minister. The opposite has happened; water can become an instrument of peace. Everyone needs water, and therefore cooperation is essential. By investing in water-management technology, it is possible to rid yourself of the whims of nature, Dr. Lerman said.

The new agreement will not help solve the terrible water crisis in Gaza, nor compensate for the injustice of the Oslo Accords allocation of water between Israel and Palestine. Yet the fundamental concept of Israel’s advanced-technology water revolution – that the only solution is to produce more water and use the most advanced water-management technologies – is the only one that will work for the entire region. In Gaza especially, where, due to inadequate supplies and extreme pollution of groundwater sources, families have to rely on exorbitantly expensive bottled water, Israeli-scale desalination, wastewater treatment and recycling, and efficient irrigation, are the only answers.

More than one Israeli conference participant expressed agreement with the concern stated by European Parliament President Martin Schulz to the Knesset Feb. 12, when he cited a Palestinian youth’s question about the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian water use in the West Bank. Schulz acknowledged that he was asking if the figures he had heard – 70 liters compared to just 17 – were correct. Although official estimates of the disparity vary between four times to twice as much water, the gulf is far too great. The Palestine Authority must get access to, and use, the most advanced-technology water management possible.

In Israel, the regional potential is clear. On Feb. 7, an article from Environment & Energy Publishing quoted Shlomo Wald, chief scientist at the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources, saying: “In my opinion, it’s a big future also for our neighbors. I think Israel is willing to assist Jordan, Egypt and even the Gaza Strip ... and hopefully in the future, Syria and Lebanon. Water is a crucial commodity in this area. I think all our neighbors should look to this huge technological effort to make water more available to the region.”

Advanced Technologies

Israel now has five big reverse osmosis desalination plants on its Mediterranean coast; three of them, those at Hadera, Ashkelon, and Sorek, are the largest of this type in the world. Israel has a long interest in desalination, and was also encouraged to launch its large-scale program by the success of a similar plant in its Mediterranean neighbor Cyprus. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion, about to become Israel’s first prime minister, said that the “purification of seawater by an inexpensive process is not only vital for Israel—it is a necessity for the world… [I]f Israel succeeds in desalting the water of the sea, it will bring great benefits to the entire human race.” Since the first of these plants began operating in 2005, Israel has gained an almost 50% increase in its water supply in less than a decade.

Advances in reverse osmosis technology has made it possible to reduce the cost of producing one cubic meter of desalinated water from $1 to less than 50 cents in the modern Israeli plants. Advanced reverse osmosis technology was first developed at the University of California at LA in 1958-59, by Prof. Samuel Yuster and two of his students, Sidney Loeb and Srinivasa Sourirajan. Professor Loeb moved to Israel in 1967, where he developed special-purpose membranes at the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research, which became a part of Ben Gurion University. Abraham Tenne, a student of Loeb, has become head of the Israel Water Authority Desalination Division and chairman of the Water Desalination Authority. Modern membranes are 20 times more efficient than the early ones.

IDE is now developing new membranes which would be especially useful to developing nations, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. These are “special nanofiltration membranes that churn out high-value irrigation water and allow the individual farmer or plant manager to decide which minerals should stay in the water and which should be removed. Normally, non-specific desalination filters remove all minerals, which must then be replenished depending on the end need…. The special membrane enables them to save energy in the pumping, while allowing the water to retain the right essential minerals.”

The new Israeli plants are also far more energy efficient than the thermal distillation technology being used in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, although Israel’s IDE Technologies also provides advanced thermal distillation technology to other nations, specifically to Tianjin, China, where the source seawater is so polluted that membrane osmosis would be far too costly. The Israeli plants produce a cubic meter of desalinated water with about 3.5 kilowatt hours of electricity, the amount needed, as Israeli scientists and engineers emphasize, to run an air-conditioner for an hour. Thermal distillation plants require some 6-7 kilowatt hours per cubic meter. The design of the new plants enhance energy efficiency – they are built with “in-house” energy plants, which also supply excess electricity to the national grid.

IDE Technologies has developed means to expand energy recovery and reduce the number of pumps, E&E publishing reported. “At Israel’s Ashkelon desalination plant, IDE spearheaded a method of generating power by using high-pressure brine to help rotate the pump motor. A standard turbine can recover about 80% of input energy; this process boosts energy recovery to 96%.” The high-pressure energy that remains in the brine is “harnessed” by an energy-saving piston system, Abraham Tenne told the {Jerusalem Report} in an interview published Oct. 25. It is used to partially pressurize the incoming sea water, and as a result, only a small motor is required to get the water to the pressure required for reverse osmosis.

Wastewater treatment is also state-of-the art, rivaled only by that in Singapore, another international leader in water management and technology. Israel has over 30 large wastewater treatment plants, and uses them to process 80% of its urban and rural wastewater, providing the main source of water for agricultural use. As in Singapore, treated Israeli water is potable. Such extensive use of WWT not only expands the water supply; it also prevents pollution of natural surface and ground water and of the land. Spain, the biggest recycler in Europe, only processes 18% of its wastewater, while Australia, despite years of drought, has just begun to use this technology and recycles about 10%.

Israel also has highly efficient water distribution, enhanced by new technologies to detect any leak in water pipelines: it loses only 12% of its processed water, the lowest rate in the world. Losing processed water to leakage and other waste is extremely expensive, due to the energy and other costs for purifying and transporting the water to consumers. The U.S., in contrast, wastes 7 billion gallons (26.5 million cubic meters) of water every day due to pipe leakage, inefficient irrigation, and other ways, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers 2009 “report card” on U.S. infrastructure. In Israel, water usage has remained at the same level as that of 1964, although the population has grown from 2.5 million to almost 8 million, agricultural production expanded enormously, and living standards are now much higher.

Almost universal use of drip irrigation for agriculture is the third key part of Israel’s water revolution. This unique technology, developed in the 1960s by the kibbutz company Netafim, transformed Israeli agriculture and played a key role in the Green Revolution, especially in India. Drip technology supplies water and nutrients so efficiently to the plant roots, that it both greatly decreases water use and increases crop yields by 50% to 100%. In India and other developing nations, use of drip irrigation has brought millions of subsistence farmers out of extreme poverty.

Israel has achieved water security, despite the severe drought which has afflicted the region since 2004. At the beginning of 2014, after two wet winters, the Israeli Water Authority, the government body responsible for Israel’s water economy, had cut production from the desalination plants to 70% capacity, but an extremely dry January and February followed this year. On March 10, the Water Authority reported that the drought is now the most extreme ever documented for this time of year. Despite this, the Water Authority statement confirmed
that “the State of Israel is quite different” from other areas of the world now afflicted by drought, such as California. “Despite the rare climatic situation in which we find ourselves, the country is not drying up,” the Water Authority said. Due to preparation of natural reservoirs and desalination, water supplies to Israel’s household, agricultural, and industrial sectors are ensured.

Quiet Revolution

Except for some rather brief reports in the Israeli press last year, this revolution in Israel’s water situation has been kept rather quiet. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did go public during his visit to California on March 5, when he told Governor Brown that Israel could help for the drought-ridden state. “Israel does not have a water problem.” “California, I hear, has a big water problem. We in Israel don’t have a water problem,” Netanyahu told Brown. “We use technology to solve it, in recycling, in desalination, in deep drip irrigation and so on. And these technologies could be used by the state of California to eliminate its chronic drought problem.”

IDE Techologies is building the new desalination plant which will come on line at Carlsbad, near San Diego, in 2016. Yet although this plant will be the largest in North America, every one of the large plants IDE built in Israel produce twice as much desalinated water as Carlsbad will.

Israel had decided it had to “beat the water shortage,” Alexander Kushnir, head of the Israeli Water Authority, said in an interview with the {Times of Israel} published in February 2013. By the 1980s, the growing population and economy made action necessary, he said, “So we experimented with a small desalination plant in Eilat. And we began recycling purified sewage…. By 2000, our balance was really strained. We would have had to cut back drastically in agriculture or industry or home use and we weren’t prepared to do that.”

The solution was desalination on a major scale. Israel uses 2 billion cubic meters of water per year, including 700 million for agriculture. Of that 2 billion, already half was “artificially” manufactured by the end of 2013: over 600 million cubic meters from the desalination plants, and 400 from purified sewage and brackish water. “We’re not the world’s biggest desalinators,” Kushnir told the {Times}, “but no one has made the shift so fast to a situation where half of its water needs are filled from ‘artificial’ sources. And it means we are now ready for the next decade, without dramatic dependence on rainfall fluctuations.”

Kushnir expressed his personal doubts that “global warming” is responsible for the changes in rainfall. “I’m a bit skeptical that global warming is a consequence of human activity,” he said. “There is partial proof that human activity has exacerbated it. [But] it might be normal

On its 75th anniversary in February 2012, Mekorot, Israel’s national water company and leading water management agency told the Knesset’s Economics Committee that the growing seawater desalination capacity will give Israel a water surplus, reported, enabling Israel to rehabilitate its fresh water reservoirs, and have 75% of Israeli households using desalinated water. Reduced groundwater pumping would help rehabilitate the Coastal Aquifer, critical for Gaza as well as Israel. Another long-term goal is to build a second National Water Carrier, Mekorot Chairman Alex Wiznitzer said, this time dedicated to transporting desalinated water.


The original National Water Carrier was built between 1953 to 1964, to transport water from the north to the south, including the Negev desert. The Carrier diverts water from Lake Kinneret and the Jordan, Yarmuk and Litani rivers to supply central Israel and irrigate the Negev, but it has also created serious conflict with Jordan and Syria, drained Lake Kinneret, and has come close to turning the Dead Sea into another Aral Sea disaster. Now, as Assaf Barnea, former CEO of Kinrot Ventures said at American University March 4, the flow of Israel’s water map is being totally changed – its north-to-south flow is being changed to flowing from the west, from the Mediterranean Sea, to the east and south.

The Past

Since its beginning as a nation, Israel has dealt with water as an essential national resource. The National Water Authority and the national water company Mekorot regulate and set prices and usage, and manage the national water resources.

For centuries, the shortage of water in the Middle East has been a crucial feature determining the region’s history and economic development, as well as generating strife between Jews and Arabs. “Technology has changed all this,” prominent journalist and editor Yuval Elizur wrote in {Haaretz} on Jan. 24. “Now, the ability to produce all the water that’s needed, whether for human consumption or for agriculture, may soon change our way of life and perhaps even, if our neighbors agree, bring peace closer.”

The shortage of water remained a critical issue between Israel and Palestine and Jordan. Under the Oslo Accords and the 1994 Israel-Jordan treaty, Israel undertook to transfer 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan every year from the tributaries of Lake Kinneret (also
called Lake Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee). Now, there is real potential for change. “The amount was increased in 2013, when it emerged that Israel’s water supply exceeded expectations,” Elizur wrote. “Under Article 6 of the peace treaty with Jordan, the two countries are obliged to cooperate in developing water sources.” Mekorot also sent its own
delegation to Amman to propose building the future Aqaba desalination plant, Elizur wrote, but Jordan decided work with other water experts and the World Bank.

An Inadequate Initial Step

“A milestone regional cooperation agreement was signed today at the World Bank Headquarters by senior Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian representatives,” the World Bank announced Dec. 9 in Washington. “This agreement will support the management of scarce water resources and the joint development and use of new water resources through sea water desalination.” Jordanian Water and Agriculture Minister Hazem Al-Nasir, Shaddad Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, and Israeli Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom signed the MoU after 11 years of negotiations.


The water-producing and water-sharing initiatives include building a desalination plant at Aqaba to produce 200 million cubic meters of water a year, of which Jordan will share 50 million with Israel, while Israel undertakes to increase releases of water from Lake Tiberias to Jordan and for Mekorot to sell another some 20-30 million cubic meters of desalinated water to the Palestinian Water Authority for the West Bank. Finally, the MoU envisages constructing a pipeline to convey the brine from the Aqaba plant to the Dead Sea. This plan is far more limited in scope than the initial Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project, but represents, at least between Israel and Jordan, the potential for expanded cooperation. The crucial problem remains financing. PA Minister Attili also told Agence France Presse: “We showed that we can work together despite the political problems.”

Applying similar policies to Gaza would be critical. Water quality as well as quantity have deteriorated in Gaza, Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority said in July 2013. The United Nations has warned that the coastal aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with some 90% of Gazan groundwater dangerously polluted. The PWA already has a number of small desalination plants, but they are inadequate, and is planning a larger facility to produce 55 million cubic meters of water a year, but does not have the funding. According to Ynetnews, Israeli security officials are trying to garner international funding for the Gaza plant, and is also training Gazans in the latest water technology, which the PWA confirmed.

The Future

Israel’s target is to produce 750 MCM of desalinated water by 2020, Abraham Tenne wrote in his 2010 report, {Sea Water Desalination in Israel}. Tenne is co-author of a 2012 study which emphasizes the overall increase in economic activity generated by large-scale desalination, despite its cost. “You have to take into account the difference of the cost of water minus the benefits you are gaining from the water,” Tenne said in an interview with the {International Business Times} published July 14, 2012. “Historically, water has always been a reason for war or fights. We think that water is a bridge to peace and this is why we need to deal with water to try to build up confidence between us and our neighbors, to let them share in what we have already succeeded in doing, and let them step ahead with this water sector,” The Water Authority’s Master Plan for Water Sector Development calls for continued expansion of desalination, Tenne wrote in 2010.


The plan provides for “by the years 2015, 2025, and 2050 respectively, the construction of additional desalination facilities are expected to increase desalinated supplies to approximately 22.5%, 28.5%, and 41% of all national potable water demands (62.5%, 70%, and 100% of the domestic water demands). Any supplementary desalinated water that becomes available during these years will be used to aid in replenishing Israel’s natural water systems.” The national planning program for desalination (TAMA) is currently preparing for production of 750 MCM/year of desalinated water, Tenne wrote. “In addition, a new planning scheme has been initiated (TAMA 34 / B / 2 / 2), with the goal to increase total annual production of desalinated water to 1.75 billion cubic meters (BCM/year) by 2040.”

International Innovation

Israeli enterprises are also developing desalination technologies to deal with conditions in other nations, such as the extreme pollution which many developing sector nations face in their water – including seawater – supplies. PriceWaterhouse’s publication {Gridlines} reported in its spring 2013 edition about the new plant opened in Tianjin, China. The Chinese government plans to increase desalination capacity from about 680,000 cubic meters per day to 3 million cubic meters by 2020.

Tianjin has two plants, which now provide about a third of China’s capacity. IDE built the Tianjin Beijiang Power and Desalination Plant, both the largest and most advanced. Here, IDE decided not to use reverse osmosis, and instead developed a special version of its thermal distillation technology, due to the severe industrial chemical pollution of the water in Tianjin’s bay. IDE head Avshalom Felber told Guildlines that “It would be very expensive and energy intensive to treat this water with membrane technology.” The facility includes its own electricity plant, which generates the heat for distillation, and recycles the brine to make table salt.

In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy stated: “If we could ever competitively — at a cheap rate — get fresh water from salt water, that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.” Israel is now making a big contribution to that accomplishment, one that has the potential to help bring peace and cooperation to the Middle East and other parts of the world.


The author is a journalist

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top