(January 9, 2019 / The Tower) As people everywhere turn on their taps, most are not aware that by 2025, at least half the globe’s population of 7.6 billion is expected to be living in water-stressed areas. And according to the World Health Organization, as of 2017, more than 2 billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water.
What is the reason for this looming water crisis? According to the World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit that focuses on sustainable development, the crisis is the result seven problems: climate change and its effects on a region’s aridity, water demand, depleted groundwater, water waste, poor water infrastructure, lack of healthy ecosystems, and the price of water for investors and the general public.
But there is one country that has solved its own water problem and has expertise to share with others. That country is Israel, and it is today what is perhaps the world’s only water superpower.
The road to hydrological independence
Israel is no longer reliant on the weather or its neighbors for its water needs. It achieved this by combining all available technologies to save as much water as possible. While the country is 60 percent desert, in 2013 it announced it had achieved water independence through smart planning and innovative thinking: desalinizing seawater, reusing treated sewage for agriculture, creating software that warns authorities about leaks, implementing drip irrigation techniques and accounting for every drop of water. Some of the techniques Israel uses today were developed at home, others abroad.
Desalination: In 2018, Israel’s fifth desalinization plant went online. Collectively, the country’s desalinization plants provide about 600 million cubic meters of water annually, which represents approximately 55 percent of Israel’s domestic water supply. Experts expect that desalination plants will provide 70 percent of Israel’s drinking water by 2050. Much of the credit for the plants goes to IDE Technologies, an Israeli desalinization company established in 1965, which has built 400 plants in 40 countries over the last four decades. This technology was originally developed in the United States by Sidney Loeb in the early 1960s and perfected after Loeb moved to Israel in 1967.
Waste Water Recycling: Israel purified almost 90 percent of its wastewater and uses it in irrigation—four times more than any other country. Spain, which ranks second in the world, recycles only about 20 percent, while the United States recycles less than 10 percent. In other words, human waste is now potentially extraordinarily valuable. Israel’s recycled wastewater is predominantly used for agricultural irrigation. Approximately 10 percent is used for environmental purposes, such as increasing river flow volume and fire suppression, and only 5 percent is discharged into the ocean. The emerging field of reclaimed water has created vast new business and economic opportunities for Israel. For example, Aqwise, which is active in more than 20 countries, has become a global leader in the field with more than 150 installations around the world.
Drip Irrigation: In the mid-1960s, Israel’s Netafim invented the world’s first modern drip irrigator, which helps farmers, cooperatives and governments conserve more water. Netafim is a global powerhouse, with more than 30 percent of the global drip-irrigation market, and sells its products in more than 110 countries. Irrigation is crucial to the global food supply: Only 18 percent of the world’s farmland is irrigated, and that yields 40 percent of the global food supply. It is estimated that less than 4 percent of the world’s irrigated land is equipped with drip irrigation, so clearly, this revolution has a long way to go.
Big Data: In 2008, Amir Peleg created Takadu, a robust platform that marries big data and the cloud to monitor water networks to prevent leaks. Takadu gives cities, municipalities and countries the ability to check water infrastructure and detect leaks and burst pipes, saving millions of gallons of water. This groundbreaking technology is now being adopted by major cities around the world.
Dual-flush toilet: This toilet has two buttons or handles to flush different amounts of water, cutting water usage in half. Originally proposed in 1976 by American industrial designer Victor Papanek, the dual-flush toilet has since become almost universally adopted in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Israel.
Pricing: Perhaps above all, the secret of Israel’s success in becoming a water superpower is directly tied to charging users the real cost of water and mandating that authorities spend 100 percent of all water and sewage fees on water-related infrastructure maintenance.
An expanding challenge
Global policymakers are beginning to wake up to the reality that Israel isn’t the only country to have faced a water challenge. The entire Middle East is headed towards massive water shortages, which in some places will likely lead to disasters of biblical proportions. The United Nations predicts that by 2025, Egypt will approach a state of “absolute water crisis.” Jordan is also set to run out of potable water in the coming decades. Iranian government officials predict that in less than 25 years, over half the population of Iran will need to be relocated and become effectively water refugees. In Iraq, engineers are warning that the Mosul Dam could collapse at any minute, killing 1.5 million people. The picture looks especially bleak.
Many will be surprised to learn that this trend holds true for the United States as well. Experts predict that by 2022, 42 million Americans will be unable to pay their water bills, as the cost of water increases because of poor infrastructure and an expectation that this resource will be free—or at least, heavily subsidized. In fact, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, over the next 10 years, 40 out of 50 states will have at least one region with a water shortage because of a lack of fresh water in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers. Over the course of the next four years, at least a third of U.S. households will lack potable water.
Americans are also generally unaware that most of their water utility companies either lose money or just break even. Between government subsidies and household water bills, water providers collect just enough revenue to conduct their business and handle ongoing infrastructure projects. But this reality is changing fast. According to Elizabeth Mack, assistant professor at Michigan State University and author of a recent, forward-thinking study on water, utility companies are now spending approximately 80 percent of their revenue to maintain the infrastructure that was built primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. Mack believes that updating aging infrastructure will cost more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years, and that water prices will increase to four times their current levels over the next few decades.
U.S. policymakers are already looking to Israel to help solve their domestic problems. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to cooperate on a number of challenges, including water. Two years later, California signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel to help fight drought. Israel’s IDE has now designed and built the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalinization plant in Carlsbad, Calif.—a facility capable of producing 54 million gallons of fresh water daily. That same year, Chicago signed a water research agreement with Ben Gurion University to develop solutions for improving water quality in surface and below-surface water, groundwater, streams, ponds and lakes. Massachusetts is another state that has embraced Israeli water technology, and hundreds of Israeli water-technology startups are domiciled there.
U.S. lawmakers are not the only ones taking note. According to water experts, Israel’s water technology is being used in more than 150 countries, including some that have no formal ties with the Jewish state. For example, IDE has built the largest desalinization plants in China and India. “Water is one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing,” says Oded Distel, director of the Israel NewTech program at the Ministry of Economy and Industry. “Israel’s holistic approach can serve as a model to overcome the global water crisis.”
By 2050, the world’s population will balloon to roughly 9 billion. The result will likely be a surge in demand for food. In addition, in 15 years, experts say, half of the world’s inhabitants could be living in areas where there isn’t enough safe water to drink. Both these things mean that the world will need to grow more food with less water.
To meet this need, humanity will have to find innovative ways to use existing land and water resources, which are already under heavy stress. “Water isn’t just water,” says Seth M. Siegel, water expert and author of Let There Be Water. “In the case of Israel, it’s also an inspiring example of how vision and leadership can change a nation and transform the world.”
Israel has figured out a way to leverage technology to improve the lives of billions of people. If the world can put current politics aside and turn over a new leaf, it will certainly look to Israel and its innovators to help effectively address this emerging challenge.