Watering a thirsty planet

02/20/2011 10:07

From IMFA:

Israel may be a land of milk and honey, but it is not blessed with an abundance of fresh water resources. In fact, the Sea of Galilee is the country's only natural lake and the rivers in Israel are quite modest in scale. Much of the southern half of Israel is desert and receives a meager amount of rainfall. Thus, the need to preserve and develop water resources has accompanied Israel since its formation - and even predated the establishment of the state.

The need for water resources was already a subject of discussion in 1898 when the visionary of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, met with the German emperor in the Holy Land. And in 1937, more than a decade prior to statehood, the Mekorot national water company was created.

In the following decades, as part of Israel's efforts to address its water needs, Israeli companies have become world leaders in irrigation technology, water management and treatment, and desalination.

Today, the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor lists some 166 water tech enterprises, including 91 companies offering water efficiency solutions, 50 companies specializing in wastewater reuse and desalination, and another 25 offering water control and command systems.

In addition to serving the local market, Israel's water technologies can also be found throughout the world: Israeli water tech exports now total about $1.5 billion annually and the government is seeking to boost this number to $2.5 billion in 2011.

Smart irrigation solutions

Centuries ago, Middle East farmers planted unglazed pots adjacent to trees and periodically filled the pots with water, which gradually dripped through the pots to irrigate the trees.

Modern advances in plastics and micro-tubing led to a drip irrigation revolution spearheaded by Netafim, founded at Kibbutz Hatzerim in 1965. Modern drip irrigation systems offer 70 percent to 80% water efficiency, compared with 40% efficiency achieved with open irrigation.

Netafim is now a global company operating in more than 100 countries, with annual sales of more than $500 million. Another Israeli firm, Plastro Irrigation Systems, an early Netafim competitor, was acquired by John Deere in 2008.

Israeli R&D also contributed to subsequent improvements in irrigation technology, including sub-surface irrigation (delivering water directly to the plant's roots, thus further reducing evaporation), "fertigation" (distributing fertilizers through drip irrigation systems), methods to prevent salt accumulation at the plant's roots, and a new generation of drippers for hydroponics.

NaanDanJain Irrigation, for example, offers a smart irrigation management system that measures the crop root environment, calculates the crop's needs and automatically activates irrigation and fertilization in real time.

Other Israeli firms offering advanced irrigation solutions include:

• Galcon, established by Kibbutz Kfar Blum, is a leading manufacturer of computerized irrigation controllers and timers for a range of applications - from home gardens to agriculture and municipalities. Galcon's CityGal online smart irrigation system is installed in the new Olympic village under construction in London.

• Sadot Irrigation Systems offers the Shibolet irrigation and fertigation platforms for greenhouse applications. The company's résumé includes projects in Asia, Australia and Africa.

• Queengil has developed an advanced type of drip irrigation tape and connectors, special absorbent mulch film and other micro-irrigation products.

Israeli-developed products now account for about 50% of the global market for drip irrigation.

Water resource management

Israel has invested great efforts in managing its own limited water resources and Israeli companies have parlayed this experience to develop state-of-the-art water management systems for use throughout the world.

In 1953, the nascent state initiated an ambitious project - the National Water Carrier - to create a national water network. The project was designed by the Tahal engineering firm (then a government entity and now a private company) and was built and managed by Mekorot, the government-owned water company. Since its completion in 1964, this national pipeline has transported water from northern Israel, which enjoys relatively abundant rainfall and water sources, to the arid southern region, enabling the development of agriculture in the desert.

The National Water Carrier, which incorporates a network of aqueducts, tunnels, reservoirs and pumping stations, transports about 400 million cubic meters of water every year.

Tahal - the Hebrew acronym for "Water Planning for Israel" - continues to advise the government on water resource management, while also working in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The group's expertise includes the planning and development of regional and national water supply systems, water treatment and desalination plants, wastewater treatment and system optimization.

In addition to the National Water Carrier, Mekorot's flagship projects include the Central Filtration Plant - one of the largest and most complex in the world, with an annual capacity of more than 500 million cubic meters; and the Dan Region Wastewater Treatment Plant (Shafdan) - the largest and most advanced in the Middle East, processing about 130 million cubic meters of wastewater annually. Mekorot has commercialized some of the water technologies it has developed over the years and exports about $500 million in water systems annually.

Combating leaky infrastructure

Once a water distribution system is in place, continual monitoring is critical to detect leaks and other faults. On a global basis, more than a third of the drinking water in municipal distribution systems (and up to 60% in some countries) is lost before it reaches the consumer. This translates into a loss of an estimated $15 billion in potential water revenues each year due to leaky infrastructure.

TaKaDu is an Israeli company whose mission is to address this problem by applying advanced mathematical algorithms and statistical models to analyze data that already exists in the water network and identify anomalies as early as possible. The company notes that its water-saving monitoring technology also cuts the large energy costs associated with transporting water. TaKaDu's software solution for water infrastructure monitoring has won broad international recognition as a 2010 Global Cleantech 100 Company, a 2010 Artemis Top 50 Water Company, a 2010 Red Herring 100 Europe Winner and a 2011 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer.

Miya, part of the Arison Group, is also devoted to improving the efficiency of urban water systems in order to save both water and energy. The company has assembled a team of international affiliates and partners to offer comprehensive water efficiency solutions that include an assessment of a city's water system, full project planning, execution and maintenance. Miya is also investing in R&D on next-generation technologies in this field. CEO Booky Oren serves as chairman of Israel's major water tech conference, the biennial WATEC event, which aims to promote Israel as the "Silicon Valley of water." The next WATEC will take place in November 2011.

The Arad Group has developed what may appear to be a "flighty" idea to help detect water leaks. But it is no fly-by-night company - Arad was established in 1941 and sold more than $100 million of water meters in 2009. Its Arad Technologies subsidiary has developed wireless systems for managing water, electricity and gas networks, including a drone that receives leak alarms transmitted from water meters. This airborne leak-detection system is already being deployed in the United States and is expected to reduce water loss by up to 20%.

Curapipe has adopted a different approach to tackling the problem of leaky infrastructure. Instead of reacting to detected leaks, the company's proactive solution effectively seals tiny leaks in pipe networks (water, oil or gas) before they become large enough to be detected, and without requiring pipeline shutdown and excavation. According to Curapipe, existing monitoring systems typically detect leaks that release at least 1% of the pipeline flow. If the leak originates as a pinhole leak, as in the case of corrosion-induced leaks, it can be repaired by Curapipe's solution even at leak rates as low as 0.01% of the flow.

Israeli firms have also developed water-saving technology for use in the home. Virtually all homes in Israel are equipped with dual-flush toilets pioneered by Plasson Industries, based in Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael. More recently, SmarTap began manufacturing a digital electro-mechanical faucet system, "e-cartridge," which provides real-time information on flow rates and cumulative water consumption. Faucets equipped with e-cartridge can be programmed by individual family members with their preferred showering settings and maximum flow rate. According to SmarTap, the e-cartridge can reduce water consumption by 30% without noticeable change in the shower experience.

Water treatment

Israel is the world's leader in wastewater recovery, with a water recycling rate of about 75%, according to Mekorot. (Spain is the next largest water recycler with a rate of only 12%.) The recovered wastewater is used primarily for agriculture. This effort to reuse water has helped to spawn a large number of Israeli companies specializing in water filtration and purification.

Aqwise has developed a scalable wastewater treatment solution using plastic beads and a special aeration technology to accelerate the breakdown of wastes and increase the capacity of treatment plants. Aqwise was named a Global Cleantech 100 company in 2009 and was also recognized that year as the fastest-growing Israeli technology company. Its most recent technology is a next-generation DANA (dynamic anaerobic and aerobic) solution for wastewater treatment and energy recovery.

Founded in 1962, Amiad Filtration Systems has helped to provide clean water for industrial, municipal and irrigation users in 70 countries around the world. The company's filtration systems employ clean technology - no chemicals or polymers are used, and only a minimal amount of backflush water and energy is required.

Arkal Filtration Systems, based in Kibbutz Beit Zera, has also been providing water filtration solutions for several decades. Its systems feature a specially designed disc filtration technology, with polypropylene discs diagonally grooved on both sides to a specific micron size. Arkal's systems are used worldwide in industrial, municipal, commercial and agricultural applications.

Emefcy was formed in 2008 with the vision of fundamentally changing the economics of wastewater treatment by offering the added value of energy production. The company's innovative Megawatter system, based on microbial fuel cell technology, enables direct electricity generation or hydrogen production from wastewater. It also provides a unique treatment solution for organic wastewater with high salinity. Emefcy was recognized as a 2010 Cleantech 100 company and a 2010 Artemis top 50 water company.

Nitron, Israel's second largest water company after Mekorot, focuses on developing and implementing energy-efficient and environment-friendly SED (selective electro-dialysis) technology to remove nitrates from drinking water. The company has built 15 SED plants for municipalities and industries in Israel, with a total capacity of more than 2.5 billion gallons a year. Nitron is a subsidiary of Israel's biggest construction company, the Arison Group's Shikun Binui (Housing and Construction).


Some 70% of the earth's surface is covered by water, but 97.5% of it is saltwater. The idea of removing the salt from seawater is not new - the proponents of desalination included Aristotle, Francis Bacon and Thomas Jefferson. There is even a biblical precedent for desalination: The book of Exodus tells how Moses was able to turn the "bitter" water at Marah into potable water.

The founding father of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, also recognized the potential of desalination and encouraged R&D investment in this field. By the mid-1950s, desalination was already being used to provide drinking water in Eilat. In the 1960s, Israel began exporting various desalination technologies, including the vacuum freezing vapor compression (VFVC) process devised by Prof. Alexander Zarchin's R&D group. This group of scientists became the nucleus of the government-owned Israel Desalination Engineering (Zarchin Process) company, which is now privately held as IDE Technologies.

IDE Technologies has certainly proved to be worth its salt in the field of desalination: The company has deployed some 400 plants in 40 countries, with a total output of 2 million cubic meters of potable water per day. In Israel, IDE launched the world's largest sea water reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant in Ashkelon in 2005 and inaugurated an even bigger SWRO facility in Hadera in 2010. The company has also won a tender to build a 150 million cubic meter SWRO plant in Soreq. IDE's overseas activity includes a project to build China's largest desalination facility. .

Desalitech aims to take SWRO desalination to the next level with its patented hydrostatic closed circuit desalination (CCD) technology. The company says its modular and scalable system can cut water production costs by more than 25% through energy savings and lower outlays for equipment and maintenance. Desalitech completed a successful pilot project in 2010 and is conducting joint research with General Electric, funded by the U.S.-Israel BIRD Foundation.

ROTEC (Reverse Osmosis Technologies) is a water treatment company developing novel technologies for improving desalination of brackish groundwater. The company's patented flow reversal (FR) technology is used to prevent scaling and bio-fouling (unwanted build-up of algae, microorganisms, etc.) in membrane desalination systems. Based on research originally conducted at Ben-Gurion University, the technology was chosen for two pilot desalination plants in Israel and Jordan under a NATO grant.

Water Security

Whitewater Security draws from Israel's expertise in two fields - security and water technologies - to help governments, municipalities, water utilities and high-risk facilities secure their water against accidental and intentional contamination threats.

The company's WaterWall water security management system offers a holistic range of solutions, tailored for each customer. Whitewater Security says its mission "is to become the world's foremost source for water security solutions by combining cutting-edge technologies with unrivalled expertise in water security issues facing the world in the 21st century." The company is playing an active role in formulating new international water security guidelines and serves as a consultant to the United Nations.

According to the UN, some 20% of the planet's population faces water shortages and this scarcity is expected to become even more acute during the coming decades. In fact, water is the world's most rapidly depleting resource and some analysts are calling water the "new oil" of the 21st century: The international water market is estimated at $450 billion and is growing at 7%-8% annually.

In light of the country's long experience in contending with water scarcity and its broad base of water tech know-how, Israel is well positioned to tap into this global market.

Water Technology

Dozens of Israeli companies are active in water technology. The Ashkelon Technological Incubator nurtures water startups, and the government's NEWTech (Novel Efficient Water Technologies) initiative is promoting Israel's water tech companies by providing R&D funding and marketing tools.

The Israeli water tech industry also benefits from innovative research conducted at Israeli universities, including Ben-Gurion University's Zuckerman Institute for Water Research, Hebrew University's Department of Soil and Water Sciences (departments.agri.huji.ac.il/soils) and the Technion's Grand Water Research Institute (gwri-ic.technion.ac.il).



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