Searing Drought Spurs California to Tap Israeli R&D

Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson
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The dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir, March 13, 2014, in Cupertino, Calif.Credit: AP
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson

California is having its driest year in recorded history. Ten percent of the state is experiencing “exceptional drought,” the highest possible level, according to the United States Drought Monitor. Most of the rest of the state is suffering “severe drought,” and since California produces much of the fruits, vegetables, dairy and wine that Americans eat, the crisis will affect the entire U.S. food economy.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California Governor Jerry Brown Jr. signed an agreement last month for Israel and California to collaborate on research and development, and joint projects in both countries – they were acknowledging how advanced Israel’s water technology has become.

“Israel has demonstrated how efficient a country can be,” Brown remarked at the signing ceremony. Indeed: How not to run out of water is apparently something California can learn from Israel.

Israel, too, has been experiencing one of the driest periods in its own history. Yet, as the nearly rain-less winter of 2013-2014 turns into balmy but arid spring, the country is not facing a water crisis.

Thanks to a government resolution made over a decade ago, Israel has put four desalination plants into operation since 2005, and a fifth is scheduled to go into service this year. According to a spokesman for Mekorot, Israel’s national water utility, about 80 percent of water used by households and public institutions comes from desalinization.

Not only has Israel avoided disaster at home. It’s become a world leader in water technology: In 2012, exports of such technology reached $2 billion out of a total of $90 billion in exports of all goods and services, according to the Israel Venture Capital Research Center.

“We really need this cooperation with Israel,” a source in the California governor’s office tells Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Not only does Israel have the know-how – Israelis have creativity, they solve problems, they make things happen. They come up with really interesting ideas. That’s what we need the most over here in California,” she adds.

The memorandum of understanding signed with California does not specify a dollar amount to be allocated to specific projects. It’s more of a statement of intent by the two parties, to create opportunities and encourage businesses “to build their respective strengths in research and technology to confront critical problems we both face, such as water scarcity, cyber security and climate change.”

The MoU stresses joint work in the areas of energy, storage technologies and so on, but water management is obviously key.

Cry me a river

Israel and California already engage in a large volume of trade. According to the Israeli Economic Mission to the West Coast – a business group that works closely with the government in Jerusalem and was closely involved in initiating the MoU – overall trade between the two sides totaled over $4 billion in 2013, making it one of the most significant two-way trade relationships between Israel and a U.S. state.

Israel has experience, technological excellence and practical know-how to offer others, says Prof. Moshe Gottlieb, of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Be'er Sheva.

“We’ve had no choice,” he tells Haaretz. “The Land of Israel is 60 percent desert. And we don’t have a Mississippi River ... To the credit of our earliest leaders, they made water a priority of the state. When we barely had anything to eat here, the state was already working on bold projects such as the national water carrier.”

These leaders prioritized water security, “crossing all sorts of disciplinary and even topographical boundaries, bringing water from places where there was plenty to places where there was none,” says Gottlieb.

How does Israel do it? “We cross academic and disciplinary boundaries, so we can be creative. And we also have a certain kind of courage and a ‘get it done’ way of doing things.”

Gottlieb notes that the reverse osmosis membrane, used in technology which revolutionized the desalination process now popular throughout the world, was invented by the late Sidney Loeb, a professor of chemical engineering who also taught at BGU.

How to stop the drip

The Israeli company Netafim (sold in 2011 to the European investment group Permira) invented smart drip and other micro-irrigation solutions for fostering green growth in challenging climates. Desalination company IDE Technologies developed computer systems to anticipate and prevent crises such as burst pipes, which are a huge problem in the global water economy.

For its part, the London-based International Water Association cites Israel as one of the world’s leaders in developing innovative methods to reduce “nonrevenue water” (i.e., water lost in the system before reaching the customer).

California is not the only state to use Israeli water technology. Mekorot and Mei Netanya, a municipal water cooperation, are working with the state of Ohio and the city of Akron on water economy. Massachusetts has also signed several deals in this field with Israeli companies.

Moreover, last year, the State of Illinois drew up a water technology cooperation agreement between BGU and the Argonne National Laboratory (managed by the University of Chicago) to develop projects using nanotechnology to improve water quality and supply. The two have jointly committed more than $1 million in seed money.

“One might think Chicago, which is on the shores of huge Lake Michigan, would not have water problems,” Gottlieb observes. “But they do, especially in terms of the quality and the amount of water they lose. We will help them overhaul their infrastructure. The project is particularly exciting, because it is truly multidisciplinary and involves basic as well as applied research.”

Desalination disadvantages

However, at home, Israel’s water policies are not without their critics, who are especially wary of over-dependence on desalination.

“We must rely on desalination to some extent,” says Gideon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the East Middle East, a regional environmental group that includes Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli chapters. “The population in the region has grown so much that we can’t depend on naturally existing sources.”

But desalination can have negative environmental effects, Bromberg warns, including high energy consumption, exploitation of valuable parts of the already-crowded coastline, and dumping of briny residues and chemicals into the ocean.

“Desalination should be a last option, not the first and certainly not the primary,” he says.

Bromberg acknowledges, however, that desalination makes life easier and is much more attractive than, say, recycling gray water from one's sinks and showers to be used in toilets or gardens. He also notes that politicians aren’t interested in programs like recycling water.

“Politicians would much rather be seen cutting a ribbon at a grandiose plant than be seen cutting a ribbon over a toilet that uses gray water,” he concludes.

Finally, warns Dr. Dan Zaslavsky of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, who served as the national water commissioner from 1991-93, no amount of derring-do can compensate for a lack of prudent policies.

“Israel definitely has the ability to intelligently and efficiently provide for its own water needs and to teach the world how to provide for theirs,” Zaslavsky tells Haaretz. “But historically, politicians have always given preference to short-term, superficial political benefits over long-term, strategic thinking. And this has led to repeated, unnecessary crises throughout Israel's brief history.”

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