AIA ROUNDTABLE 2016 – Israeli water sector – a model for addressing global water issues?

A recent high-level event which took place at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Lancaster House last month could see the way forward to the possibilities of greater technology and water resource sharing in the water-stressed Middle East – with Israel serving as a model to address global water challenges.

Opened by the Acting Israeli Ambassador Eitan Na’eh, the Ambassadors’ Roundtable –organised by the Anglo- Israel Association – was attended by over 80 delegates from international academic, research, government, finance and business communities.

The thought-provoking and wide-ranging discussion during the day-long event covered a number of key issues related to water resources in the Middle East, including Israel’s surface and ground water resources and how scarcity is being addressed via water management and policy.

Water is treated as a national commodity and part of homeland security in Israel, as with oil and gas resources. In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region itself, which extends from Morocco to Iran, including all Middle Eastern and Maghreb countries, all major water resources are transboundary.

The country has made great efforts to secure its water supply, which is maintained by Mekorot, the national water authority, via the implementation of novel water technologies.

Irrigation efficiency plays a key role in Israel’s agricultural sector

Irrigation efficiency plays a key role in Israel’s agricultural sector, where levels of up to 92% water irrigation efficiency have been achieved via state-of-the-art response irrigation using sensors and detectors integrated into a single computer system. The sector also makes significant use of recycled wastewater – 85% of Israel’s sewage water is reclaimed and used for agricultural purposes.

Farmers in Israel pay for the water they use and they are incentivised to practice the most efficient water use. The more food produced per unit of water allows them to benefit from better tax rates, likewise the more food which is sent for export generates preferential exchange rates.

Naty Barak, Chief Sustainability Officer at irrigation specialists Netafim, drew attention to the fact that worldwide, 78% of global irrigation is flood irrigation – currently only about 5% is drip irrigation.

In contrast, Israel makes use of 75% drip irrigation. Netafim is a pioneer and global leader in drip irrigation solutions with a global presence across 110 countries – the group is currently working with strawberry growers in South East England.

Naty Barak made the key point that the technology irrigates the plant itself, not the soil, commenting that a shift to drip irrigation use by farmers in Africa and India could also provide significant time savings.

However, one of the delegates raised the issue of the long-term effectiveness of drip irrigation, referring to growing levels of organic pollutants like toluene and benzene as a result of using recycled wastewater and the fact that Israel has now banned the use of boron in detergents. He went on to caution that irrigation with water containing salts was beginning to change the soil physics of Israel.

Dr. Tim Hess, Associate Professor in Water Management at Cranfield University, said that less than 2% of total annual water use in the UK was for irrigation, commenting that sometimes that there was a danger of thinking that efficiency could be fixed simply by investing in technology – a view which has implications for the wider water sector.

He went on to point out that some work in the UK had found low levels of efficiencies had been generated by high-end technologies which were supposed to deliver well and that technology itself could not address drainage losses from a site.

He also made the interesting point that research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation had found no examples of mandatory use of technology by regulators to ensure greater takeup.

Regional water – “pace at which things change is pace at what is politically feasible”

Professor Tony Allan, head of the Water Research Group at Kings College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies kicked off a fascinating discussion on regional water management. Describing transboundary borders as “an unresearchable topic”, he commented;

“The pace at which things change is the pace at which they are politically feasible.”

Monther Hind from the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group which was set up in 2004 to support the Palestinian Water Authority spoke about the problems and challenges faced by the Authority. Palestine currently has more than 100 decentralised wastewater treatment plants which are off-grid. Only 30% of the population is connected to the wastewater network, with the remainder reliant on cesspits, open ditches and septic tanks and only about 15% of generated wastewater is properly treated.

Israel also currently extracts the majority of the groundwater of the Mountain aquifer under the West Bank, while Palestine has no access to the Jordan River which he described as “irreversibly damaged”.

In response to his question of how Israel cooperates with neighbouring countries, Professor Eilon M Adar, Director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev drew attention to the fact that a third of the peace treaty in place between Israel and Jordan specifically relates to water resources.

Suleiman Halasah from iGreens Environmental Consulting from Jordan, added that about 40% of Jordan’s water resources are transboundary and that each Syrian refugee in Jordan was costing its water sector around 500 Jordanian dinars each year. The total population of the country is now one third non-Jordanian and/or refugees. Jordan is now planning to construct a desalination plant at Aquaba – but this will only meet a small amount of the country’s water needs.

Dr. Clive Lipchin, director of the Arava Institute’s Centre for Transboundary Water Management from Israel, warned that the Middle East is now facing chronic water scarcity and said that desalination offered a key opportunity for the MENA countries. He also suggested that water should be considered in a regional, not a national context and that the real borders of significance are hydrological, not political borders, with water used to both underpin and drive peace agreement.s

Dr. David Johnstone from the University of Oxford said the solutions needed to address global water challenges were not simply technical. They were also political and financial, requiring innovative finance and new business models – and Israel could act as a key enabler to help address global issues.

Israel – looking to expand business clusters including water into global international markets

Oded Distel, Director of Foreign Investments and Eco Systems at Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry said Israel was now looking to take the Israeli global business cluster into global international markets.

Similar trends are now being seen across different sectors ranging from water to health services, medicine and energy, including:

  • Big Data
  • Speed and efficiency
  • Transparency
  • Personalisation

Israel is currently experiencing a boom in business growth, with around 1400 new start-ups in 2015 alone. The Israeli water technologies sector currently consists of around 200 companies – including Takadu and Amiad – a growing number of which are already selling their products and services into the UK and other countries.

Oded Distel commented:

“Israel has successfully addressed water challenges which are now being faced by countries across the globe – including the key issues of water security, resource scarcity, agricultural production and transboundary cooperation. As a country the need to develop our expertise in the water sector and innovative technologies has been an imperative – and knowledge sharing and technology transfer could make a significant contribution to help other countries successfully  tackle similar problems.”