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Water for a Thirsty Planet

Beth Perkel

From drip irrigation to desalination to water recycling, Israeli innovation in water technologies is being sought out to save lives all over our desiccating planet

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

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WATER WORKS Does water collaboration have the potential to bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians? “Already, Israel provides water to the Palestinians and the Kingdom of Jordan every day,” says Seth Siegel, author of the New York Times bestseller, Let There Be Water. “Israel also trains water professionals throughout the region. Everyone can build on this quiet but important cooperation”

D rip. Drip. BEEP! 

In deepest Africa, an alert sounds at the desk of a local engineer. There’s a leak in the plumbing system of a school or a medical center or an orphanage — a minor nuisance in most of the world but of life-saving importance in the water-starved continent.

The system that brings water to these villages, and allows the engineers to receive alerts in real time, was developed a continent away in Herzliya Pituach, by the Israeli non-profit, Innovation: Africa. The technology even allows staff members in Israel and interested donors in New York to monitor their philanthropy a world away.

Innovation: Africa’s contribution to the field of water technology is but a small example of what is becoming a major export for the State of Israel. Drip irrigation, desalination plants, and apps that monitor common leaks are all in a day’s work for the Israeli water engineer. And just in the nick of time: With a world water crisis predicted within the next two decades, Israeli technology can address a global crisis one step ahead of the rest of the desiccating planet.

As the saying goes, innovation is born of necessity. For decades, Israel was in water crisis, struggling to find a solution for its annual shortages. Naty Barak, the chief sustainability officer at Israel’s giant drip-irrigation powerhouse Netafim, confesses that ten years ago, the state was on the edge of catastrophe. “The Israeli government was going to import water from Turkey,” Barak remembers. “But through really good practices in government, regulation, incentives, technology, management, and proper pricing, the issue was solved.”

And so, the tides have turned. In the past decade Israel has gone from perpetual water shortages to a water surplus. Israel’s groundbreaking efforts to maximize crop production, purify and recycle sewage water, and hone and harness the power of desalination, has allowed the state to irrigate its fields and slake the thirst of its citizens. With the crisis now under control within its own borders, Israel is exporting its technology to help the world’s water-starved nations, writing the latest chapter in the heroic story of the tiny land surrounded by enemies and salty seas.

Water Wars When it comes to water, what you see is most certainly not what you get. Most of the world’s water comes from underground aquifers, filled over time by rainwater and melting ice. By drilling deep into the ground, modern societies have accessed this water for use in agriculture, industry, and the family kitchen. (Some aquifers are giant. For example, the Ogallala Aquifer starts in South Dakota and runs under eight states to Texas.)

In 2015, NASA’s satellite data revealed that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers were severely water stressed. Alarmingly, our global society is drawing water at a rate faster than can be naturally replenished. With a world population explosion, and increased demands from agriculture and technology, experts predict a world water shortage within the next two decades. Some areas of the United States — such as Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, New Jersey, and California (the state that produces most of the US’s crops) — are already facing water shortages.

Given some context, it’s easy to understand why. For example, it takes 74.1 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, 1,847 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, and 381 gallons of water to produce a pound of butter or cheese. The agriculture industry alone uses seven times more water than the population requires for drinking use. Maybe that’s why the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicts freshwater shortages in 40 out of 50 states within the next 10 years.

The world’s two most populous countries, India and China, are also facing water crises. In India, reckless overuse is to blame. Farmers there pump groundwater on the dime of subsidies, drawing more annually than China and America combined. China, with a larger population than India, uses 28 percent less freshwater.

Israel has built the biggest desalination plant in the US, right outside of San Diego, and a number of Israeli firms are working in California to address issues caused by the state’s long drought

Rajendra Singh, known as the “Water Man of India,” and winner of the Stockholm Water Prize — the Nobel Prize of Water — suggested in a recent interview that water scarcity amounts to more than just thirsty citizens. “The Third World War is at our gate, and it will be about water if we don’t do something about this crisis. Where terrorism is active, there is usually a scarcity of water.”

Seth Siegel, author of the New York Times bestseller, Let There Be Water, noted in an interview with Mishpacha that where there are water problems, instability follows. “When water becomes scarce, social disorder begins to break down.”

The fact is that worldwide, some 700 million people already don’t have access to clean water and by 2025 an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity; another two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions. Lack of water doesn’t only translate into brown lawns, wilted flowers, and thirst. Lack of clean water also leads to power outages, food scarcity, and disease. As a result, experts warn that with half of the world’s hospital beds already filled with people suffering from water-related diseases, the impending water crisis is the number-one global risk based on impact to society.

Salt-Free Israel has produced several technologies that help address the looming water crisis. The first, and arguably the most famous, is drip irrigation. Israeli water engineer Simcha Blass discovered the essence of drip irrigation virtually by chance when he began his experiments in the late 1950s. Having come across a large tree fed by a leaky pipe, he invented a device that changed the course of irrigation — a drip-based tube that slowly released water at the plant’s roots. Later, energy, water, and fertilizer costs were minimized to further improve profitability. He partnered with Kibbutz Hatzerim in the Negev desert to start what eventually became “Netafim,” one of the largest irrigation companies in the world today. Active in 110 countries, Netafim has subsidiaries in 28 nations and 17 manufacturing plants all over the world — including in many countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. With minimal loss of water to runoff and evaporation (as well as uniform application to plants), drip irrigation offers a world of benefits. Still, while drip irrigation is used for 75 percent of the irrigation in Israel, just 5 percent of fields globally are watered using the technology. (excerpted)

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