When it comes to water scarcity, Israel has found itself center stage on a global platform for the last two decades. Drought and agricultural collapse across the Middle East in not news to most of us, but how Israel has managed to rise above its water shortages is unprecedented. As the rest of the Middle East continues to dry up, a robust combination of wastewater recycling and desalination technology has turned Israel into a stable water consumer and water producer. The country’s success highlights the remarkable solution that lies in desalination technology and the potential for the developing world to make water scarcity a problem of the past.
Water in Israel
If you know where Israel is located, it shouldn’t surprise you that the country was destined for water shortages. Given the geography of the Middle East, and its naturally dry climate that global warming promises to exacerbate, Israel consistently finds itself in a tight spot when it comes to water security. Traditionally, Israel sourced most of its water from the Sea of Galilee and other underground aquifers. Rain only falls seasonally and regionally in the northern part of the country each winter, so reliance on these natural reservoirs to provide drinkable water throughout the year is heavy.
Since 80 percent of water resources are in the north, the government built the National Water Carrier in 1964, a series of pipes and tunnels that carries water from the Sea of Galilee to the bone-dry Negev desert in the south. But the National Water Carrier only does its job if there is enough freshwater to distribute, and water shortage has historically been no stranger to the arid region.
Water shortage hits the region
In the decades leading up to the 2000s, the problem of water shortage in Israel grew tremendously. Likely as a result of climate change, annual rainfall in Israel has been on the decline. The surface water of the Jordan River is disputed among Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, and as a result of river diversion the Dead Sea at the end of the river is drying up. Other rivers and springs that feed into the Dead Sea have become polluted and depleted, leaving Israel with few options from which to extract freshwater. Even much of the groundwater has become undrinkable due to encroaching seawater and sewage pollutants.
So when the worst drought in over 900 years hit in 1998, Israeli leaders were forced to explore solutions to the region’s water scarcity. The worst of the drought took place between 1998 and 2002, and finally ended in 2008. But after 10 years of drought, the country’s largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, had dried up and other smaller aquifers were depleted as well.
Desalination comes to the rescue
Israeli leaders addressed the drought by making water production and recycling a national priority–something no other country has done. National campaigns to reuse and conserve regional water sources took off, but it was no secret that water recycling alone couldn’t quench the nation’s thirst. The installation of desalination plants was the real hero for Israel.
In 2002 the government approved the construction of new reverse osmosis plants along the Mediterranean. The plan was to build 5 new water-producing plants as fast as possible. The first two plants were completed and operating by 2008, the first of which won the Global Water Award’s Desalination Plant of the Year in 2006. By 2013 a total of four plants were turning seawater into freshwater with the fifth (but certainly not final) Ashdod plant completed in 2015.
This army of 5 drought-inspired plants wasn’t the first of desalination plants in Israel. Israel began employing commercial desalination plants along the Dead Sea in the 1970s, and the first reverse osmosis desalination plant opened on the Red Sea in 1970, decades before the worst of the drought hit. But the decision to deploy a new army of 5 plants along the Mediterranean meant the government was putting its trust in desalination technology to pull Israel out of drought and toward a future without water scarcity. In an arid country bordering an abundant water source like the Mediterranean, desalination seemed to be a great fit.
Desalination in Israel today
Today, Israel gets a whopping 55 percent of its domestic water supply from desalinated seawater and brackish groundwater. Producing 150 million cubic meters each year, Israel’s Sorek desalination plant is the largest in the world! It alone provides 20 percent of the potable water that Israel consumes. In addition the army of 5 large desalination plants along the Mediterranean Sea, close to 30 smaller desalination plants filter brackish groundwater throughout the country, mostly in Negev desert in the south.
To supplement (and even partially replace) the National Water Carrier, the government has begun building a new National Water System. The new system uses pipelines to connect the new desalination plants with consumers, making it possible for such a significant portion of the Israeli population to get its water supply from desalination technology.
The future of desalination in Israel
While Israel’s desalination technology already produces 600 million cubic meters of water a year, more desalination plants are on the way. The government has a goal of reaching a desalinated water capacity of 750 million cubic meters each year by 2020. Given its current trajectory, experts expect that desalination plants will provide 70 percent of Israel’s drinking water by 2050. As the country moves forward as a global leader in recycled wastewater treatment and reverse-osmosis desalination, the future implications of its success are threefold.
First, Israel will need to rethink its approach to water policy. The future of the country is now characterized by water production and potential water abundance, making the new challenge a question of what do with a water surplus. Israel now finds itself considering opportunities to export water.
Second, Israel has now stepped onto the world stage as a leader in water production. The country is the first to really pioneer the concept of the developed world embracing desalination as solution to water scarcity. Israel now serves as a model for other developed countries pursuing desalination. In fact, as part of the effort to provide drought relief in California, an Israeli company recently built the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere just north of San Diego.
Finally, Israel’s success with desalination has introduced a potential path to peace in a region historically plagued with harsh geography and political strife in response to water shortage. Going into the details about how water scarcity has led to social and political unrest in the Middle East would require a whole separate article to cover. But long story short, removing water scarcity as a source of conflict in the Middle East would be a total game-changer, and Israel’s steps toward doing so are certainly something to applaud.
Thanks to reverse osmosis desalination technology, one of the driest countries on Earth now produces more freshwater than it needs. Today, the Sea of Galilee is fuller, Israeli farms are flourishing, and Negev desert communities have access to enough freshwater—a sharp contrast to their status following a decade of drought in the early 2000s. Israel now has years of desalination experience under its belt and proves a practical example of how other water-scarce regions of the world can successfully invest in desalination to combat water scarcity.
If your organization or municipality is ready for an industrial desalination system, contact ISI Water today.