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Will Israel’s new water technology yield political gain in the arid Middle East?

April 26, 2015 at 12:08 PM EDT
Over the past few years in Israel, the country's water shortage has become a surplus. Through a combination of conservation, reuse and desalination, the country now has more water than it needs. And that could translate to political progress for the country in the Middle East, one of the most water-stressed regions in the world. NewsHour's Martin Fletcher reports.

Editor’s note: The original version of this segment incorrectly stated that under a 1994 agreement, Israel supplies some water to Jordan at no cost. However, Israel does charge Jordan for the operating costs of supplying that water. 

MARTIN FLETCHER: The biblical River Jordan — a rare freshwater resource in the Middle East. It forms the border between Israel and the West Bank and Jordan.

At this bend, about six miles from Jericho, it is believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth.

These pilgrims hail from Ballston Spa, upstate New York.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “How’s the water?”

KRISTIN MCCABE: “It’s cold!”

MARTIN FLETCHER: And shallow too.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “In the ’60s, the water level of the Jordan River was actually where we’re standing now.”

GIDON BROMBERG, ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST: “In wintertime it was this high.”

Gidon Bromberg is Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East, an environmental group.

GIDON BROMBERG, ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST: “Pilgrims, when they came here were under threat of being drowned by the strength, by the power of this river. Today, a mouse wheel will hardly turn with what’s left of this river.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: For decades, Israel and its neighbors diverted the Jordan’s flow to supply drinking water and water for crops. While the river is down 95 percent from its historical flow, there’s hope that someday, it could return to its former glory.

That’s because Israel today has more water than it needs — it’s gone from drought to water surplus in just a few years – impressive anywhere, but especially in the arid Middle East, one of the driest regions in the world.

For years, Israel’s water authority ran public service TV ads like this one.

Israel’s drying up, she says, as her face begins to crack. Save water!

Now the ads have been discontinued. Not needed anymore.

Through a combination of recycling, conservation, and most recently desalination technology — removing salt from salt water — Israel not only has plenty to drink, but potentially plenty to share. And that could be good news for easing tensions in a region where water is often the source of conflict.

Israel is already easily the world leader in water reuse — far outpacing the rest of the world, including the United States.

Across Israel, plants like this one in the desert town of Rahat treat wastewater instead of letting it go to waste. So-called grey water from the kitchen and bathroom as well as black water from sewage is filtered, cleaned, and reused for irrigation.

“Its a perfect little recycling ecosystem. The waste from the people of Rahat over there is treated here and then used to irrigate the fields nearby.”

But the real leap forward has been in desalination technology, vastly improving Israel’s ability to turn salty water into fresh drinking water.

In ten years, Israel has built five desalination plants along its Mediterranean coast. In Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sorek, Palmachim and Hadera.
Each cost around $4 hundred million dollars.

They’re privately owned and sell their water to the government, which sells it on to the people. Together the desalination plants provide up to 50% of Israel’s drinking water.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “The Israelis have achieved something extraordinary.

Five, six, seven years ago it was all about save water and bathe together, and now they’ve got more water than they need.”

GIDON BROMBERG, ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST: “It is remarkable. It’s been a slow process. So Israel’s leadership in treating sewage has taken place over the last fifteen years, but the breakthrough has been in the development of membrane technology for desalination because that breakthrough in technology dramatically reduced the costs of desalinating seawater.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: “From about one dollar a cubic meter to about forty cents.”

GIDON BROMBERG, ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST: “Exactly. To less than half the cost.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Ten miles south of Tel Aviv, the Sorek plant, open only eighteen months, calls itself the world’s biggest seawater desalination plant of its kind. It can produce more than six hundred thousand cubic meters of drinking water a day — enough for one and a half million people, almost a fifth of Israel’s population.

Avshalom Felber is CEO of IDE Technologies which built the Sorek desalination plant.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “This is where the water from the Mediterranean enters the plant.”

AVSHALOM FELBER, IDE TECHNOLOGIES: “Exactly, underneath here is a deep pit, about 70 meters down where all this water is collected and it comes by gravity from the sea; it’s under sea level. The pumps here lift it here from this pit to the pretreatment area.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: From pre-treatment, the water moves through a series of smaller and smaller screens and filters. Then the water is piped into this complex of buildings where a fine membrane is used to remove the last bits of salt and other minerals.

MARTIN FLETCHER: “There’s about two thousand pressure vessels here that shoot water down through the membranes at a pressure of seventy atmospheres. Halfway down the water becomes drinking water.”

The desalinated water finally passes through these pipes to enter Israel’s water grid.

This tap is always open to check at every instant the quality of the water that Israelis will drink.

AVSHALOM FELBER, IDE TECHNOLOGIES: “Forty-five minutes ago this was seawater and now drink it and see how tasty it is.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Still there are questions about its environmental impact — very salty water is a byproduct of the process, and it gets dumped back into the Mediterranean. Environmentalists say there’s not enough information to know the long-term impacts that might have on sea life.

And the process uses a lot of energy, around three percent of all of Israel’s annual electricity output.

As everything here is politics, Israel’s new water independence could yield political progress — though historically that progress has been slow.

GIDON BROMBERG, ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST: “The biggest problem is the mindset. It’s been all or nothing for the last twenty years. The negotiations in the peace process have either been we agree on all five final status issues of the peace process, water being one of them, but also Jerusalem, settlements, border, or we agree on nothing.

And therefore for twenty years we’ve agreed on nothing.”

Water’s often caught up in wider political debates. For example, we visited the planned West Bank Palestinian city of Rawabi, where construction stopped for a year and a half over disputes about water.

The Israeli prime minister cut through the red tape this year and promised to open the tap this spring.

Still, in the past, the Israelis have used water to prevent conflict.

In their 1994 peace accord, Israel agreed to provide Jordan with five percent of its annual water needs at cost — and that’s been increased to about seven percent just because Israel can.

And water experts like Bromberg hope Israel’s government will use its current water surplus to extend the same generosity to the Palestinian living in the West Bank.

GIDON BROMBERG, ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST: “We can move forward today, and every Palestinian can turn on the tap and have water flowing.”

In fact, the Israeli government has agreed in principle to sell the Palestinians 20 to 30 million cubic meters of its desalinated water, enough to supply drinking water to the West Bank for about eight months.

Water officials from both sides say they are eager to work together.

The head of the Israeli water authority’s desalination division, Avraham Tenne.

AVRAHAM TENNE, ISRAEL WATER AUTHORITY: “We, as the water people, we do speak together. We don’t have to wait to have committees to meet together. We meet many times, even during all kinds of wars, all kinds of conflicts that we have with them, water people are talking all the time. Meeting all the time. And sharing information all the time.”

Palestinian water minister Mazen Ghoneim.

MAZEN GHONEIM, PALESTINIAN WATER MINISTER: “We have nothing against the Israeli side. What we want exactly, just to help our people.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Today Israel’s challenge is to do all it can to secure its water independence — and to use that independence to build bridges with its neighbors.