Entrepreneurs Aiming to Make Israel a Light Unto Arid Nations

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The technology that spearheaded Israel's entrance into the water conservation field: drip irrigation.Credit: Avishai Finkelstein

Will Israel be a light unto the arid nations? Visitors to WATEC Israel 2015 will learn why Israeli entrepreneurs think that very thing. The three-day exhibition and conference taking place in the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, ending on Thursday evening, features dozens if not hundreds of Israeli startups and established companies engaged in water-related technologies – from vast state-of-the-art systems for utilities to handle their sludge problems to personal water-treatment systems for households, suitable in principle, if not price, for far-flung villages.

About 70% of the planet’s use of non-saline water is for agriculture, 20% is for industry and the rest is for household use. It bears noting that climate change isn’t going to reduce the amount of water in the world: The effect is one of redistribution. Dry areas are getting drier, wet areas wetter. Not only California and Texas but the entire Levant are becoming drier, according to models that are supported by the reality. The “rainy season” of 2013-2014 was one of the driest in the recorded history of the Middle East, for instance, with not a single drop of rain falling on the border between Syria and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the global population continues to burgeon. As of July 2015, it was estimated at 7.3 billion and the United Nations is predicting a world population of 11.2 billion by the year 2100 – and water for agriculture and household use is already falling shorter by the day.

What can Israeli inventions do about all that? Plenty. Mainly, they can come up with innovative, low-cost, low-energy ways to produce clean water, economize water use in agriculture and irrigate more intelligently.

Going, going, half gone

“The world is not short of water,” asserted Oded Distel, director of Israel New Tech at the Economy Ministry in a previous conversation with Haaretz. What is it short of? Efficient systems, for one. For instance, about half the clean water wending its ways through the world’s pipelines is getting lost through leaks, not to mention theft.

Think about that – half! A number of Israeli companies are working on ways to simply save that water, including through by detecting leaking municipal pipelines from outer space. Others are working on clever sensors rather closer to home. The key words here are “real time.”

Now, where is that clean water coming from? Vast effort is being put into more efficient ways to treat wastewater, adequately for agriculture at least – with minimal use of energy. One problem with treatment technology is that most consumes a great deal of power.

Some companies are working on wastewater treatment systems at the level of utilities and whole cities, others at the level of solutions for individual farmers. Yet other companies are working on ways to best utilize treated wastewater, which has its advantages and disadvantages for crop cultivation compared with natural fresh water – it is richer in nutrients, for one thing. But that has its downside. And then there are the companies inventing fun new things to do with the sludge produced in the process. In Israel, a full 80% of wastewater is recycled for agricultural use.

Another whole set of companies is working on ever-smarter irrigation systems. Israel famously burst onto the world agriculture scene with its drip irrigation technology, the first genuine stab at stopping farmers from simply flooding their fields with the vague intent that their crops get enough water to flourish. Drip irrigation consists of running pipelines along each row of plants, from which irrigation water drips into the soil. It is considered highly efficient– but it’s old hat, to some.

One startup is making a sensor that you jam straight into the tree, to test its water stress. Another points out that some farmers grow tomatoes, not peaches, and has a clever system to gauge the state of water in the soil – you guessed it, from outer space.

One pool that seems intuitively natural for Israelis to dive into is water security.

It sounds silly for terrorists to sabotage water systems – they have to drink too. But it is conceivable even outside grade-B action flicks starring half-naked starlets. One Israeli startup’s solution is startling in its simplicity. Its smart sensors detect not only when water is leaving the system, for instance through leaks and breaks, but when water (bearing, for the sake of argument, a toxic agent) is being unnaturally introduced into the system, and more to the point, where. The city can then shut down the affected/infected area, isolating it from the rest of the system and preventing contamination of the whole city’s water supply.

And there are the solutions for us folks, not just utilities, cities and whole developing countries. Take the smart water heater. Right now, if you want a hot shower and don’t have a solar-powered water heater, you turn on the boiler and wait however much time you estimate you need to get a shower that will, almost always, be hotter than you need. People overheat their water and add cold. But how about a smart device that not only heats the water to the temperature you decide, and tells you when the water is expected to reach that temperature?

Not all these companies are in full operational mode: Some are still at the stage of raising money, and some may need to work on their business models. The startup making grid-free machines to treat water for far-flung villages, for instance, makes devices that look great from the perspective that they don’t require electricity to run and last about three years. Not much bigger than a briefcase, the device is easy to pick up with one hand, too, and is even easier to maintain. But at $150 a pop, that company admitted that its business model relies on philanthropists.

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