Making More, Using Less: How Israel Overcame Its Water Crisis

Israel is not only using fresh water more efficiently, it’s actually making more of it. But at what cost?

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole and Richard Banks

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

“In 2014, we had the driest year ever in Israel,” says former Israeli desalination chief Abraham Tenne. “In that year we received from nature only 62% of the average and,” he pauses for dramatic effect, “there was no problem of water supply whatsoever.”

Israel has survived multiple water crises by becoming a world-leader in managing, even making more, life-sustaining aqua

Israel has survived multiple water crises by becoming a world-leader in managing, even making more, life-sustaining aqua.

That record-setting drought was on the heals of other years nearly as dry. “There was a situation seven, eight years ago,” continues Tenne, who retired as head of Israel’s Desalination Division and chairman of the Water Desalination Administration in late June 2015, “that we were thinking to close water in the cities at least one day a week. This was the situation in Israel.”

Today, however, the country is not only meeting its own demand for water, says Tenne, “Israel is supplying water to Jordan, Palestinians,” and he continues, the Israeli “population is growing the same rate as it’s growing today. In 2050 … we are going to be in Israel about 15 million people.”

“At the same time the amount of precipitation that we are getting from nature—and I’m not talking about if it’s global warming or not, I’m talking about facts—today the amount of precipitation is about 12% less than average, less than what we had 30 years ago. In 2050, we are going to have about 10 to 12% less than we have today.”

To meet that new demand, says Tenne, “every few years we need to build another desalination plant in order to be able to supply the population with all its needs. This is what it’s going to be in Israel from now [on] until somebody will come with the technology that will not need water and we can live without water. Maybe something will happen,” he says, and pauses again, before adding, “I doubt it.”

The Secrets to Israel’s Success

Israel has survived multiple water crises by becoming a world-leader in managing, even making more, life-sustaining aqua. Solutions didn’t bear fruit, however, until decades after plans were put in place.

Officially beginning in the 1930s and gaining momentum some 20 years later, Israel began to build pipelines from its northern reaches—where some 80% of the country’s natural freshwater resources are located—to provide water to its drier central and southern regions. Also, desalination facilities were constructed, as were sewage treatment plants that eventually created water safe enough for agricultural use.

To help decrease waste throughout the population—including farming, as well as industrial and residential uses—the government launched a public advertising campaign in the mid-2000s. Featuring entertainers and thought leaders, it convinced Israelis to reduce water usage by as much as 18%. The campaign continues today, as many schools promote conservation in hopes of not only teaching students, but also the latters’ families and whole communities.

Innovations in agriculture also played a huge role in Israel’s fight against water shortages. According to Tenne, Israeli agriculture has doubled output over the past 30 years, while using the same amount of water. It’s a source of pride on many farms to produce more with less, and it’s a matter of protecting the pocket book, as prices for water, which are based on a national water tariff, have increased by as much as 25% since 2010.

Drip irrigation was pioneered in Israel, as was “fertigation,” the efficient application of nutrients through water delivery. In addition, Israelis developed new cultivars that required less water or could thrive on brackish water, and they produce many of their fruits and vegetables in large greenhouses, where a single planting can produce for as long as nine months and more.

Israeli Desalination

One of the big factors in Israel overcoming its water shortage, has been the country’s plunge into desalination. It’s considered a world leader in developing the technology, allowing it to produce drinkable water from the sea at a cost that is among the lowest worldwide. Check out these numbers:

4: Israel operates four desalination plants, with a fifth coming online later in 2015.

40%: Currently, the four plants supply some 40% of Israel’s drinking-quality water; that percentage is expected to increase to 70% by 2050.

2%: According to Tenne, Israel’s former desalination chief, the country’s desalination plants consume roughly 2% of its total electrical production. Including desalination, and wastewater collection and treatment, Tenne says, total electrical consumption is 5.5%. (An Israeli environmental group, Friends of the Earth Middle East, claim desalination, alone, uses 10% of Israel’s total electricity production.)

160,000,000: Israel operates the world’s largest reverse-osmosis desalination plant. Named Sorek, the Tel Aviv-area facility was completed in late 2013 and now treats approx. 600,000 cubic meters (approx. 160,000,000 gallons) of water per day.

133 billion: Total annual desalination production in gallons (500 million cubic meters per day) at Israel’s four existing plants. That capacity will increase to 159 billion gallons (600 million cubic meters) once a fifth desalination plant is fully operational as early as later this year.

$300: Sorek’s production cost is among the world’s lowest, reportedly providing a typical Israeli family’s water needs for about $300 to $500 per year.

292 billion: Total amount of water in gallons (1.1 billion cubic meters) Israel produces through desalination and wastewater treatment per year. That amount is approx. 50% of Israel’s total freshwater needs for an average year.

$.0022: Broken down to cost per gallon, Israel’s Sorek plant will, according to numbers derived from a report by MIT and confirmed by Tenne, “profitably sell” those 128 ounces of water for the equivalent of $.0022.

$.00613497: Compare that to the new $1 billion plant now being constructed in Carlsbad, CA, just north of San Diego, where a gallon of desalinated water will cost the local water authority $.00613497. This figure was confirmed by Bob Yamada, the Water Resources Manager at San Diego County Water Authority, the branch of government overseeing the construction and management of the Carlsbad plant.

$2,000: That’s the cost per acre-foot of desalinated water from the Carlsbad plant described above.

$1,000: That’s the of cost of water obtained from building a new reservoir or recycling wastewater, according to a 2013 study from the California Department of Water Resources.

The Downside to Desal

It’s important to note here that desalination isn’t without its drawbacks. While the the impact desalination has on the environment isn’t yet fully understood, consider the following:

  • It takes considerably more energy to pump and convert seawater to freshwater than it does to treat water from existing freshwater sources. As such, a desal plant’s carbon footprint is significant.
  • Many marine biologists warn that desalinization, especially if it gains widespread use, could take a heavy toll on the marine habitat. Powerful intake pipes vacuum up and inadvertently kill microbial organisms, fish eggs and larvae that make up the bottom layer of the marine food chain.
  • Also, consider that for every gallon of freshwater produced at least another gallon of seawater that is twice as salty as it was originally is produced. In addition, the discharge is often warmer than normal seawater. If it’s not disposed of carefully, this briny bath could harm sea life.
  • A variety of additives, including chlorine and other cleaning chemicals, are also added during the desalination process. These substances are often discharged back into the ocean.

Environmental concerns are, say both Yamada and Tenne, a major factor in the cost difference between Israeli and U.S. desalination costs.

Says Yamada: “The point about the permitting and development costs is real; California is known for its environmental regulations and permitting processes. Other areas and other places in the world have permitting, but California’s permitting is lengthy, and frankly is expensive. And because of that permitting process there’s a fairly significant difference, I would think, between the cost to permit and go through the environmental review in California versus Israel.

Says Tenne: “There is one difference between Israel and California in this matter. In Israel we know that we do not have all the answers today, but … if we will come up to face a problem, we deal with it when we face it. In California, the people were trying to get all the answers before building a desalination plant. They will never get all the answers, because so many things we don’t know yet.

“The most important thing,” Tenne continues, “is not keeping the sea or the environment clean. The most important thing is keeping the population alive. So people need to understand what are the priorities. They need to find what they call the golden spot between the population demand and the environment.”

Dirty Water Comes Clean: Wastewater Treatment

Gal Shoham, a process engineer at Shafdan, with bottles water showing the stages of treatment—from raw wastewater on the far left to that which is treated to the final, tertiary stage.

Gal Shoham, a process engineer at Shafdan, with bottles of water showing the stages of treatment—from raw wastewater on the far left to that which is treated to the final, tertiary stage.

In addition to desalination, Israel remains a step ahead of the world in treating sewage … and turning it into water that many officials say is safe enough to drink. The country has begun to replace its older method of treatment that uses water stabilization ponds. That older method requires some three months to achieve what’s called the secondary level of treatment. According to Gal Shoham, a process engineer at Shafdan, Israel’s largest treatment facility, the new method only takes 15 hours to do the same amount of disinfecting, which is safe enough for use on non-edible crops, such as cotton.

The treatment, however, doesn’t end at plants, such as Shafdan. Much of the water at that stage—which, again, has only been treated to the secondary level—is then piped to various infiltration fields around the region, which consist of above-ground and sub-surface reservoirs.

There, the water is treated to the “tertiary” level as it seeps through the ground and undergoes physical, chemical and biological processes, which makes it safe, according to Israeli regulations, for unlimited use by agriculture or discharge into streams.

Shafdan, says Shoham, is also undergoing a significant expansion and upgrade. (In 2012, the U.N. recognized the plant as a model means of dealing with environmental challenges.) “We’re going to change our whole process,” he says.

One aspect of the expansion will be to increase daily capacity by almost 20% to 400,000 cubic meters. In addition, says Shoham, the facility will add three anaerobic digesters that will be among the world’s largest such facilities that turn waste into energy. Together, they will provide approximately 80% of the power Shafdan needs to treat water. The sludge leftover from the digestion process will be used as fertilizer on area farms.

“It means that we [expand] this plant to help the population prepare for the next generation,” Shoham says. “No longer will the extra sludge [be dumped] in the sea. Not anymore. We got these digesters, and we’ll get class A fertilizer that we can supply straight to the farm fields.”

First, a Few More Numbers

In addition to desalination plants, Israel has also built an innovative system of treating wastewater, aka, sewer effluent. They had to do so—for environmental reasons and because the country needs the water, even if it previously did time alongside the likes of poo and pee.

  • Today, it’s estimated that more than 86% of all municipal sewage is reclaimed in Israel. That may put the country in the lead worldwide and certainly far ahead of the U.S., which reportedly only recycles 2 to 3% of its municipal wastewater.
  • About 80% of treated wastewater in Israel is used for agriculture. This “cleansed” water, in turn, makes up 50% of the water farmers now use for irrigation. Eventually, national policy calls for reclaimed effluents to be 100% utilized by agriculture.
  • The country’s newest wastewater treatment plant, the Dan Wastewater Treatment and Reclamation Plant—aka “Shafdan”—serves an area with a population of about 2.5 million and treats 340,000 cubic meters (almost 90 million gallons) of wastewater per day. Virtually all of the recycled water, and most of the resultant sludge by-product, is reused.
  • By comparison, the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant—aka “Regional San”—serves about 1.4 million people and treats some 150 million gallons per day, about 3 million of which is used to irrigate school lawns and city parks. (There is an upgrade underway, however, that could allow the plant to sell all of its “output” for a variety of uses, including farm irrigation.)

Second, Even More Numbers

  • Consider that Israel’s population, which now stands at slightly more than 8 million, has increased from approximately 2.1 million—280%—since 1960. Compare that to a population increase of 76.4% in the States for the same period.
  • Now, let’s cogitate on Israel’s water resources, which could barely accommodate the population in 1960, much less an additional 6 million thirsty people. In an average year, folks in the semi-arid north receive about 680 mm of precipitation (almost 27 inches or slightly less than Omaha, NE, receives in an average year). However, Israel is about 60% desert. Rainfall in these southern reaches, aka the Negev Desert, range from about 205 mm (8 inches) near Be’er Sheva to a paltry 20 to 30 mm (about 1 inch) in the far south, in and around Eilat.
  • One more set of numbers help illustrate Israel’s seemingly perilous situation when it comes to freshwater: According to the World Bank, Israel had, in 2014, 93 cubic meters of renewable freshwater resources per capita. Compare that to Canada, which has a whopping 81,071 cubic meters and the States with 8,914.

“Without This Water … There’s No Farming”

“Now you have to remember that south Israel, has almost no rain. It’s desert,” says Yossi Schreiber, the director of engineering and development for the Jewish National Fund, which helped build portions of Israel’s water reclamation system, including Shafdan. “Without this water, there’s no agriculture, there’s no farming.”

Echoing Ami Brochin in a previous story, Schreiber notes, “The water crisis in Israel … the first time we really faced it in a very, very painful way, was in the eighties. We then understood that we have to think upside down and to find new resources of water for agriculture. Otherwise, we don’t have any agriculture in south Israel, and almost don’t have any agriculture in north of Israel.”

Notably, Schreiber says that just the treatment system itself was only a part of the solution. “It was a long-term process. It was a multidisciplinary process. You have the engineering side. You have the regulation side,” and he explains, even cultivars had to be found or developed that could work with reclaimed water.

“It was a very long process,” he continues, “but you see the results here. You see the result all around. You see agriculture. You see people make food here, which has never been like this before.”

One Last Word … for Now

Compare Schreiber’s and Brochin’s sense of doom over water shortages felt by many Israelis in decades past with the concern many Americans now feel in states like California and Arizona. Even in many places in the Midwest and Eastern U.S., water issues have grabbed headlines and attention.

Israel's former Minister of Agriculture says the country has no shortage of water.

Israel’s former Minister of Agriculture says the country has no shortage of water.

Now, contrast that despair with this statement by Israel’s previous Minister of Agriculture, Yair Shamir: “Today, we don’t have a shortage of water.”

Shamir, who left his post at the Ministry of Agriculture in May 2015, made that claim during a press conference in Tel Aviv the month before. The statement was in response to a question about what advice Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered California Governor Jerry Brown during the former’s visit to the Golden State in 2014. The two leaders signed a memorandum of understanding for research and development cooperation in various technological fields, including water conservation.

“I can show the state of California what we have done,” said Shamir, who is the son of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. “About 30 to 40% of the water that we have, that we are using, is from desalination. The other issue, which is more related to agriculture, is recycling water. We are taking all the water from the cities—nothing is going to the sea … and this water is relatively cheap.”

As for the advice Netanyahu offered Brown: “Israel has no water problems because we are the number one recyclers of wastewater, we stop water leaks, we use drip irrigation and desalination.” Those technologies, the Prime Minister reportedly added, meant that neither California nor any other U.S. state needs to have a water problem.

Sure, California and the rest of the U.S. face their own unique challenges, including geographical expanse, that aren’t directly applicable to Israel’s experience. Yet the lesson learned is that even some of the most dire water shortages and other related issues can be resolved with careful planning, as well as efficient use on the part of farmers and everyone else.

Successful planning is long-term planning, says former Israeli desalination chief Abraham Tenne. “It’s very difficult to get a decision from the politicians, and usually politicians like to [work on programs] they will benefit from in their term. In the water sector it’s a long-term investment and a long-term design whatsoever.”

Take, for instance, he says, “the way the federal government is dealing with water issues in the United States. There are no conversations that deals with water issues. The EPA is dealing with water quality, that’s it. You don’t see any federal government dealing with water issues.

“You don’t see too much in the states themselves. You see things that are done in the counties, in the cities, local things, but usually local things is not an answer. You have to look into a larger scale of design, of operation, of planning the water sector in order to be able to highlight the problem.

Furthermore, says Tenne, expressing much the same opinion as the JNF’s Schreiber, “You cannot do one thing. You have to look into a holistic approach, to look at everything, and try to see whatever should be done. And, it’s not to copy what is done in Israel. You have to analyze exactly the situation in each and every state and look between states. And, of course, all of this should start with a master plan.

“And this master plan should be analyzed and should be checked every few years to be sure that you’re going in the right direction or that you need to change the master plan … and you should know what to do, because the water sector you are not investing things for a few years. Usually, when you do something in the water sector it should last at least 40, 50, 60 years, if not more.

Broach the topic of water with Israelis today and most may very well say, the well may run dry, but only for the short term, because hope springs eternal. Is it too arrogant to ask, “If Israel can do it, why can’t the rest of us?”

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>