In Israel, water is the new oil

The earth is a thirsty place. More than half of the world’s countries need drinking water badly, and these countries are not just poor African nations landlocked by deserts. Among the list of 164 countries looking to secure potable water …

The earth is a thirsty place. More than half of the world’s countries need drinking water badly, and these countries are not just poor African nations landlocked by deserts. Among the list of 164 countries looking to secure potable water sources for the future include Spain, Greece and Portugal.

For more than 50 years, Israel has been trying to solve the country’s water shortage problem and has resorted to technological ingenuity to make it happen. As a result, Israel has emerged as a leader in developing water purification, irrigation and desalination technologies.

Just how far the country has come was showcased last week in a water symposium, The Tides of Change, an international conference and exhibition.

The event drew hundreds of people from around the world to Tel Aviv fairgrounds: the countries on the visitors’ name tags included the Ivory Coast, China, Holland, Spain and the United States.

As part of the country’s annual agricultural convention, Agritech, The Tides of Change attracted foreign companies, investors and governments who were keen to hear and see how Israel, a tiny, arid country has become one of the world’s most important suppliers of water technology.

From the largest desalination plant in the world to the famous Israeli drip irrigation system of Plastro Irrigation, Israel “is the Silicon Valley of water technologies.”

At least that what’s Ori Yogev, the chairmen of Waterfronts, the Israel Water Alliance, says. He addressed the crowd before inviting them to see some of the new start-up companies as well as the veteran water technology companies that Israel has developed.

In the business world, water is a hot new commodity and that heat is generating more than steam: it is a $400 billion industry growing at about 6 percent per year. But, besides the financial opportunities, water technology is clearly an attractive market for other more important reasons. New technology promises to quench the world’s thirst and to provide environmentally sound solutions to reducing water shortage and water contamination.

Only one percent of the earth’s water is drinkable. The rest is saline water or locked up in glaciers. The World Health Organization says that one billion people have no access to renewable water sources; 1.6 million people a year die from contaminated water; ninety percent of those people are under the age of 5.

To maintain a supply of clean water, Israelis have for many years had to optimize their liquid assets. As a result, the country has developed ways to recycle sewage water for agriculture, produced the world’s largest desalination facility to tap into the sea, and developed state-of-the-art water security and purification systems.

“As we say in America, if the water is good – dive in!” noted Joseph E. Zuback, VP for Siemens Water Technologies who raved about new Israeli technology to a room of potential investors and buyers. German-based Siemens is one of the world’s largest electrical engineering and electronics companies and over the last few years, the multi-national conglomerate has been investing millions in new water technologies. One of its important acquisitions was US company, USFilter and a couple of months ago Siemens started working with Israel’s government-owned water company Mekorot.

Siemens already employs about 500 people in Israel and sees itself as a strategic partner to developing further the Israeli water industry.

“We tip our hat to Israel as a world leader for setting an example to the rest of the world [on how to treat water shortage issues],” said Zuback, an American who previously worked for USFilter before the buyout.

Some of the connections made between Siemens/USFilter and Israel are already established. In 2002, USFilter made a distribution agreement with Israeli company Aqwise, a hybrid low and high-tech water treatment system.

Aqwise builds homes for bacteria. If given optimal space and conditions, the bacteria that devour organic matter in sewage treatment plants can work better.

About the size of a peanut, small honey-combed plastic knobs in quantities of hundred of thousands are sent churning with pumps and turbines inside vats of water being treated and cleaned. Coupled with fancy aeration systems, Aqwise says it can significantly increase the amount of water salvaged at treatment plants.

“We get the maximum capacity out of waste water treatment,” boasted Jean Weill, VP sales for the company. The company is already doing business in America and Canada at waste water treatment plants. “We offer the bacteria a house, a villa or whatever you want to call it, to allow up to 600 square meters of surface area per cubic meter,” notes Weill, pulling one of the colorful plastic homes out of an aquarium used as a display.

Aqwise clients run the gamut from municipal plants to lagoons, from fish-farms to food industries, from pulp and paper plants to chemical plants.

Other young water technology companies at the conference were recently hatched from the technological incubator, Kinarot, the Jordan Valley technology incubator. A few days before the symposium, the incubator was happy to boast a buy-out of $25 million by the SPI Group, owned by Canadian businessman Ronald Stern. Kinarot will be Israel’s first incubator dedicated to supporting and growing advanced water technologies. Among the companies at the conference that originated there were Magsens and Veracon Metal.

Magsens, in real-time, can monitor water passing through water pipes. Using magnetic fields coupled with conductors it can check for chemical substances that may be being carried in the water. Demand for in line and online monitoring equipment continues to rise year-by-year reports the company.

Originally, says Uri Rapoport, the company’s CEO, this technology was developed for the food industry. Magsens is already working with US tomato-products giant ConAgra in a different application of its technology.

Another company which got its start in the same incubator is Veracon, which has developed a unique process for the rapid treatment of industrial effluents containing heavy metals. Hooked up to factories, Veracon can help significantly reduce the amount of industrial heavy metals such as cadmium, copper and nickel flowing into our environment. Using iron and through a chemical process, the company has found a way to make nasty chemical by-products inert and make them precipitate into solids which can be easily separated from the water. Normally, such by-products are gelatin-like, poisonous and difficult to contain.

Other companies showcasing their wares included Blue I Water Technologies, which has developed electro-optic technology for monitoring water sources; Atlantium, a water disinfection company using UV radiation; Vorganic, a waste water treatment and desalination company; and Biomor, which is developing a filtration system for removing organic pollutants such as pesticides and hormones from water; PML Particles Monitoring Technology, a company which uses lasers to check for microbes and viruses in water.

The conference clearly showed that much of the world is looking to Israel for water technology. The water commissioner from Murcia Spain, Amalio Garrido, gave a presentation on how studying Israel’s tactics to curb water shortage has helped him concoct a plan for his region and country.

Faced with a similar arid climate and political constraints imposed on Spain by the EU, Garrido says Israel has helped him understand how a country should “behave as an island”. He concluded, “We are looking at the model of Israel to help fulfill our demands.”

 

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About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.