Israel has a plan for avoiding climate calamity

A desalination plant in Hadera, north of Tel Aviv
A desalination plant in Hadera, north of Tel Aviv
Image: Reuters/Nir Elias
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The hope is that it will never actually happen—and certainly there are geologists and political theorists who think the idea is far-fetched. But still, the threat of water scarcity does remain, a distant and creeping thunderhead as time marches forward.

“When people talk about the next war, it will be because of water,” says Daniel Zloczower.

Zloczower works for a company called Watergen, which has made a name for itself manufacturing an ingenious piece of technology that vacuums up humid outside air and, in a matter of minutes, can spit out hyper-clean drinking water. Two of these machines are situated on the roof of the building we’re in, and Zloczower is now ascending several flights of concrete stairs to get to them.

At the top, he unlatches a door. A billow of summer air rushes in, tumbling past him and into the stairwell. Just beyond the door sit two big machines. Both are emitting a steady hum.

Zloczower reaches for a stack of paper cups and approaches one of the machines. He presses a button and, within seconds, one of the cups is filled with chilled water. Behind him, Herzliya reaches outward, a coastal town just north of Tel Aviv. Beyond even it, a sandy-beige landscape stretches further into the Israeli horizon.

It’s hot. And it’s dry.

It’s also a place that stands out internationally for having the foresight to invent its way out of the coming climate crisis. The earth is warming, and about one-third of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being drained faster than they are being replenished. In many areas across the globe, scientists have determined that the use of water is unsustainable. They’ve estimated that by 2030 the world’s demand for water will exceed supplies by as much as 40%. The implications of that reality are intense, as water shortages could eventually stoke political and economic instability.

But the story in Israel is slightly different. Work here to addressing water-scarcity problems began long before Israel was officially even a place. But in the last seven decades, the Middle Eastern state has managed to use taxes, rationing, new technology, and public-private partnerships not only to stave off water crises, but to transform water technologies into a $4 billion industry.

More than half of Israel’s water is artificially produced, which is to say giant desalination plants pull most of it from the salty Mediterranean Sea and make it potable. That water, once it’s flushed or run down residential and commercial drains, is treated and ultimately recycled—part of a so-called closed-loop system that cuts back on water waste and maximizes use. According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the nation generates close to 500 million cubic meters of household water waste every year. Of that, 428 million cubic meters is filtered and used on agricultural operations, often via a highly-efficient drip irrigation system that was invented and pioneered in Israel. That’s an 86% recycling rate. The country has become so efficient with the natural resource that it now produces 20% more than it consumes, and exports surpluses to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

This is made possible through a complex and nuanced system of innovative technology and public-policy initiatives. The country still grapples with future water shortage threats, but it has more tools now than ever to weather them. And with its home-grown success stories in hand, Israel is looking to export its good water ideas abroad, with eyes fixed on one US state, in particular.

“California’s economy is huge,” says Steven Zecher, of the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem. Milken has served as a conduit of sorts between California and Israel, helping to shepherd better water-management ideas by connecting people and ideas. “There’s an opportunity here. We’re a laboratory and they’re a proof of concept. South America and Africa are the markets.”

In other words, if Israeli water-tech companies can recast California’s relationship with water, then there’s a good chance these startups can market to other places around the world, pointing to the US state as a major success story. This means spreading the gospel of desalination; drip irrigation; data-leak prevention technology developed in the military and now being applied to water; membrane water filtration systems; and even Watergen’s machines that can turn air into water.

And both California and Israel have a lot in common. They share similar climates, they both are big agricultural producers, and they’ve both experienced a constantly-changing climate that’s ushering in dryer, harsher conditions. As a 2016 report by the Milken Innovation Center put it: “California will discover, as did Israel, that there is no magic to ending the water crisis. Substantial and urgent change is required.”

But there is a frustration in working in the water technology sector, which is that no matter how incredible an idea or solution might be, it’s still extremely difficult to export that idea to other places. In a world where the climate crisis is reshaping the lands on which we source our water and grow our foods, more efficient water tech may seem like an easy sell. The reality, though, is that it’s anything but. California not only is a laboratory to test Israeli water tech, it’s also a case study in just how difficult implementation can be for nimble young startups halfway around the world.

Many startups die during a phase that’s known in the venture-capital community as “the Valley of Death.”

“Typically startups can get initial funding to do some proof-of-concept work and get it to that level,” explains Roy Wiesner, of aMoon Fund, a venture capitalist firm that invests in life sciences tech. “But then if you want to sell it abroad, like in the US, you will need to pilot in the US.”

And piloting means facing all manner challenges that a foreign place can pose. For water technology companies, this often means working with slow-moving government entities that don’t necessarily have a clear or immediate incentive to spend money to revamp the status quo. It means navigating complex public policies that are very, very different from what exists in Israel. It means figuring out a way to deliver not just the idea, but also the hardware and all the troubleshooting expertise that comes with it. And particularly in the case of California, it has meant grappling with the very philosophy water access.

All that just to achieve proof-of-concept for a pilot project. That can be expensive, and for water technology companies the pool of investors eager to help fund these lofty projects—important as they are—is rather shallow.

“It’s not just about demonstrating that the technology works, you need more than that,” Wiesner explains. “A lot of things need to go right for the technology to succeed and only a few things need to go wrong. You don’t get a lot of second chances. It’s unlike software, where you update it to fix bugs. You cannot really afford for these kinds of glitches to happen.”

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The philosophical challenge

In 2014, California governor Jerry Brown sat down with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign an agreement that would introduce more of Israel’s water and agricultural technology into the state. It was an official foray into a difficult issue that starts by attempting to answer one fundamental question: What is water worth?

It’s a question that environmental economists have mulled over for some time, and it’s interesting because, in America, water as a product is considered differently than other products. Take buying a car as an example. When a person goes to a car dealer and sees the sticker price, that price includes everything. It accounts for the cost of the actual car plus all the markups imposed by the dealer to cover making a profit, transporting the car to the lot, marketing, and more.

Now consider a glass of tap water at a restaurant. It doesn’t show up on the bill, in spite of the enormous cost of delivering the water to a person. It is seemingly free, even though miles of pipes must be maintained, treatment must be conducted, and a significant burden can be placed on the natural resources from which it is derived.

In a 2015 article published by The Atlantic, water expert Robert Glennon put it bluntly: “We Americans are spoiled, we wake up in the morning and we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television. So we take water for granted.”

The overarching public philosophy has long ignored the true cost of water in favor of the idea that water is a public right and—no matter the realities of the climate crisis and dwindling supplies—it should basically be free. And that mindset is systemic in California, where there is no centralized water authority that monitors the use of the world’s most important natural resource. Instead, every small town and municipality has its own water authority, its own rules, its own pricing policies. In many cases, these authorities have no clue how much water its residents are using. In the Sacramento area, it wasn’t until 2015 that the city mandated homes actually be outfitted with water meters, and it will take until 2020 before every home has one.

“If you can’t monitor and you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it,” Zecher says.

His Milken Innovation Center colleague, Glenn Yago, echoed that sentiment, adding that California officials don’t have much substantive information on water usage across the state.

“They don’t have a clue,” Yago said. “They’ll tell you they have more than they do.”

And that’s a problem. Consider water-use habits when comparing Israel to California. Israelis use six times less water per capita than Californians. For agricultural operations, in particular, on a per capita basis, Californians used six-and-a-half times more than Israelis. Whereas Israel recycles 86% of its water, California recycles just 10%. And while Israel directs close to a quarter of its wastewater to farms, California does so with less than 1% of its water. At the same time, Israel uses about 10% of its total energy production to conserve, treat, and deliver water to people. In California, 20% of its total energy production goes toward the same tasks.

In other words, there’s a hell of a lot of waste in California. And it’s such an unregulated space that no one knows just how much water is being wasted—all while the state is staring down droughts, increased water shortage events, and more arid landscapes.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the cost of retrieving, cleaning, delivering, recycling, and treating water has been calculated and spread across the population. In 2017, that came out to about $2.59 per cubic meter of water, Zecher says. Money has been poured into public-education campaigns that address the preciousness of water. The nation even has a tiered system for residents that increases the cost of water once certain thresholds of use have been met.

Still, there has been some progress in California. A year after Brown and Netanyahu signed their agreement, the Israeli water desalination company IDE Technologies opened a desalination plant just north of San Diego, in Carlsbad, that produces some 50 million gallons of water each day, or about 7% of San Diego County’s drinking water needs.

Currently, five desalination plants are operating in Israel, most of them dotting the Mediterranean coastline. A sixth is under construction and a seventh is being planned. Together, once complete, the plants will provide the country’s more than 9 million people with 85% of their drinking water, according to Reuters.

And it isn’t just tap water where Israel is lending a helping hand to California. Many farmers, including the state’s top almond producer, have switched from inefficient flood irrigation systems to Israeli drip irrigation technology. It’s taken literal decades to make headway, though.

“The fact is, if you’re going to sell precision irrigation, you’re going to need to have pumps, measurement and monitoring, Internet of Things-stem-based sensors that report back to a server the condition of the plant,” Zecher says. “All of those things have to be sold as a solution.”

And some companies have broken through the hurdles.

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Getting more with less

A last-minute scheduling snafu meant meeting with Naty Barak would have to be through a live video stream rather than in person. Barak is the co-founder of Netafim, a $1.5 billion Israeli company that started on a socialist kibbutz near the center of Israel, in the Negev desert. Barak was being patched through to a conference room in Tel Aviv from Kibbutz Hatzerim, where he appeared, smiling, in a yellow t-shirt and denim overalls—not the typical uniform one might expect from an executive of a successful, multinational company.

“I left the city,” he says, describing his decision in 1964 to join the rural kibbutz. “I was motivated by ideals. I wanted to turn the desert green, and you do this by working in the field.”

He helped to grow a host of crops: dates, apricots, peaches, potatoes, alfalfa, and more. It was hard work—growing anything in the desert can be a formidable challenge. But then the leaders of the kibbutz stumbled into a new technology.

The popular retelling of the story goes something like this: A man was out walking when he noticed four trees growing along the side of the road. The first three were small but sturdy. The fourth was lush and comparatively much bigger. The difference was that a leaky pipe was dripping water onto the base of the fourth. So that got the man thinking, if you could use dripping to deliver water and nutrients to the roots of plants in a more precise way, perhaps they’d grow better.

He was right, and a system was developed that wound up using half the water to get double the crop yields. For a while, the kibbutz eagerly sold its agricultural goods all while keeping word of their drip irrigation system quiet. Then they realized they could sell the technology. Netafim was formed and now it’s a global company that’s making a particularly big mark within the agricultural sphere in California.

Barak said he realized back in the 1980s that California was a natural first market for Netafim. So he moved there, working directly with farmers to try and communicate the potential benefits of switching irrigation systems to one that uses water more efficiently. It took time, but today about 40% of California farmers are using drip irrigation. Now Netafim is turning its attention to the developing world, places like India. In the last couple of years, the company has started working with 6,700 farmers in 22 villages who farm on two to four acres

“The challenge is that 500 million small farmers in the developing world produce 80% of the food in the developing world,” he explains. “These are the farmers that we want to reach.”

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Five steps for water security

Efficient and impressive new technologies are only part of the answer for places staring down future water-scarcity problems. With Israel as a model and California as a working example, the steps to achieving better security can be broken into five parts, according to the Milken Innovation Center:

  1. Water must be valued, literally. Without assigning a real-world market value to water, Earth’s most precious commodity will continue to be thought of amorphously and realities about water supply will continue to be ignored. To assign value, places such as California have to actually measure how much is being used. Without real data, the price of water cannot be determined.
  2. Consolidate water authority. A fragmented system of water ownership, management, pricing, treatment, and waste creates a confusing system that’s next-to-impossible to manage.
  3. Consumption control. This step is two-pronged. First, the state should establish a base price for water up to a certain amount. For water used beyond that amount, the cost per cubic meter should increase. Not only does this imbue a sense of value around water, it also conveys an appropriate urgency around the need to conserve and protect the natural resource. Second, the state should invest in a marketing campaign designed to educate people about the preciousness of water as a commodity.
  4. Innovate! This is where the introduction of Israeli technology can be particularly helpful. Once water is valued and managed, a state can more easily implement new technology into their water system to maximize the ability to use it wisely.
  5. Rinse and repeat. Invest in water recycling, treatment, and using wastewater in agriculture. The more humans try to mimic nature’s own circular water cycle, the more water people will save.

“Those local conditions in the growth of Israel’s story for the last 71 years have become global challenges,” Yago says, adding that by the mid-century, global population is expected to balloon to 10 billion people. “That’s a range of demographic change that Israel has already seen.”

And it’s for that reason that the tiny Middle Eastern state just might hold the answers to some of the the planets more pressing climate-related problems.