Crisis to Opportunity in the Israeli Water Economy

Author: Yossi Yaacoby Director of the Technological Innovation division at Mekorot and Chairman of the Watec© 2015 Conference and Exhibition Steering Committee

Development of the Israeli water sector is closely intertwined with the development and growth of the State of Israel, which itself is still a fast growing nation.

Throughout the years the Israeli water sector has had to adapt to great surges in the countrys population and changes in its distribution. These required transmitting water to newly populated areas usually for agricultural and domestic uses.

For many years the water sector has been coping with a fundamental water shortage attendant by a negative recharge balance, and often associated with inefficient use of water. Despite these challenges, by applying long-term planning and flexibility in operations, Israel has successfully utilized the Water Authority and Mekorot, its respective administrative and main executive arms in the water sector, to maintain a constant high-quality water supply.


The National Water Carrier completed in 1964 is one of the Israels ambitious undertakings; its chief significance lay in the resulting ability to transmit water from the relatively water-rich north of the country to the arid south, making it possible to live there and establish a thriving agriculture.
This concept of bridging has been repeatedly applied since then, as we continually strive to make the most of the countrys limited water resources.

Our extraordinary ability to drill to depths of up to 1500m and install pumping equipment at depths of 500m has made large quantities of high-quality water available from the Mountain Aquifer and at far greater depths.
The state has also greatly improved its wastewater treatment processes. Starting in the 1970s and to a greater extent in the 1990s, Israel built dozens of regional wastewater treatment plants that were required to produce improved-quality treated effluent. Once the new regulations are implemented, further improvement can be expected.

Alongside these changes, desalination developed and branched out. Early beginnings saw the Zarchin process introduced in Eilat, followed later by multistage flash distillation, and finally membrane-based reverse osmosis (RO). Introduced by Mekorot, RO was initially applied to desalinating brackish water in the Arava and Central Negev. The method was later applied in the first-ever sea-water desalination plant in Eilat, built by IDE for Mekorot. The same method with the required modifications and innovative solutions is currently applied at five sea-water desalination plants that were built between 2003-2015 jointly by privately-held companies and Mekorot. Built on the Mediterranean coast, these plants supply 500-600 million cubic meters annually to the east, north and south of the country over the same supply lines.
Israel uses water for industry, agriculture, and domestically, although agriculture accounts for more than 50% of the states total water consumption. As we constantly strain to improve water management efficiency and bridge gaps, we have also resorted to dramatically modifying agricultural irrigation practices.
Between 1950 and 2000, water consumption in Israel has grown a mere 4-fold while at the same time agricultural yields have grown 20-fold. This clearly demonstrates to what extent Israeli agriculture has improved its water efficiency. Over the years there has been a distinct downward trend in amounts of potable water used in irrigation. For example, in 1980 1200 million cubic meters of potable water were used in irrigation, but by 2006 this amount had dropped by more than 50% to just over 500 million cubic meters. Conversely, marginal water and treated waste-water use is on the rise. These trends are the largely due to improved efficiency, advanced irrigation methods, localized nutrient dosing, and newly-bred adapted crop varieties.

In-step with water sector development, an emerging satellite industry is diligently producing advanced pumping treatment , supply and monitoring equipment, for the municipal, industrial, and agricultural water networks. Manufacturing companies, design and engineering companies, entrepreneurs, integration companies, and most recently, also hi-tech companies are all members of this growing field. Many projects in the Israeli water sector integrate solutions produced by local industries; this has allowed these companies to gain national-scale experience and has prepared them for offering their solutions on the global market. To this day, members of this industry are the driving force mobilizing Israeli water know-how export to the rest of the world.

Another key contribution to improved water efficiency has been the Water Authoritys public education campaigns which brought about a further reduction in consumption.
The overall result of these manifold efforts is that as of 2014, Israel has officially emerged from a severe water crisis. In other words, Israel now has the capacity to readily supply water of any quality and for any use, irrespective of precipitation quantities and changes in climate.
This, however, is hardly the end of the story.
We still face the localized challenge of climate change, projected droughts, changes is precipitation regime, a growing demand for potable water and high-quality treated water, as well as the need to create a sustainable water-supply and maintain the diversity of water sources for everyday and emergencies. We must be ready to take meaningful steps and proactively seek solutions to be able to meet these challenges head on.


We are looking at saving our aquifers from dwindling water levels and contamination, and optimizing management of the Sea of Galilee drainage basin (which is the principal operational reservoir of surface water). On the desalination front, we must find ways to increase desalination efficiency by reducing quantities of brine, and explore the impact of these activities on the sea. Further action is also needed to effectively deal surface runoff. And last but not least, impelling improvement in treated wastewater quality to achieve compliance with the expected changed in standards.
Internationally, it would be pure folly to miss the opportunity to leverage our local achievements to gain ground in international markets.

The Israeli water sector will be required to step up operations and create additional growth engines for the sector, so that export can be greatly expanded. To succeed, water technology export must be based on implementing Israeli experience, deploying advanced technology, and collaboratively reaching out to markets around the globe.
Three-way collaboration between academia, government agencies, and the private sector must be promoted, specifically to:
a. Identify principal areas of growth in the global water economy which fully overlap capabilities already developed in Israel. For example Israel can claim wide experience and excellence in treating brackish water so that it can be used for irrigation and drinking.
b. Identify emerging water-consuming industry segments and develop tailored solutions for them. Industry is better able to implement technologies rapidly than the domestic and agricultural sectors.
c. Combine technological spear-heading with performance capabilities. Demand in the global water economy is enormous, but the market is also pretty crowded which means that Israeli companies vie with thousands of competitors for global market-share. Their competitive edge will suffer if they cannot offer technological added-value. It is therefore important to adopt M & A models that are common in similar industries.
d. Reaching out collaboratively. The current situation, in which Israeli companies compete against each other in the global markets instead of cooperating, has a negative effect on the Israeli water sector. Manufacturing companies should be collaborating with the project-based companies.
e. Developing technologies, seed companies, and nurturing them is our Achilles heel. At present, the Israeli water sector is stagnating; relatively few startups survive to maturity and the industry is currently incapable of generating a company capable of selling for $50 million or even 50 million Shekels. There are many good reasons for this but they should not be accepted as our inescapable fate. The State of Israel offers many tools to support proposals and early-stage initiatives, but few exist once development stages have been completed and the product is ready to market. Filling this gap is critical as it has an acute impact on number of new initiatives generated (New dwalflow). Implementing an integrative program combining government participation, demonstration skills, and applying innovative investment models for the private and financial sectors, is critical as it has an acute impact on the number of new initiatives generated.
f. Adopting military industry and hi-tech technologies by the water sector, which itself is defined as critical infrastructure, would add motive force to the water sector and, subsequently also catalyze export activities.
g. Regional collaboration based on Israels capabilities, our neighbors needs, and the ability to produce excess water without resorting to large investments.
Israel has been called a start-up nation largely thanks to its hi-tech industry, and we are bound by duty and vision to ensure that the water industry becomes part of this success story

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