In spite of a Covid-induced hiatus for in-person visits, the Abraham Accords have heralded frenetic activity between the Gulf states and Israel, with a burgeoning of fruitful cooperation. One of the most exciting frontiers of that cooperation involves the technology of water — one of the region's most precious commodities, also called "the true staff of life".
Israel is a recognised leader in water technology, a field that encompasses various aspects of water treatment, planning, conservation, recycling and quality regulation. According to Mordechai Mordechai, Chairman of Mekorot, Israel's national water company, investment in startups have helped the company develop patented technologies, providing it with the ability to further improve on existing water technologies for the benefit of the Israeli economy and citizens.
In a region where every drop of water counts, water technology has naturally attracted the attention of governments across the board.
"Following the Abraham Accords, we were the very first company to sign a contract with Bahrain, and we've already begun intensive work in this regard," Mordechai revealed, adding that there have been high-level meetings in Dubai. Other countries, including Azerbaijan and lately, Morocco, are in various stages of discussions pending cooperation with Mekorot.
Founded in 1937, Mekorot is a government company listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that provides Israel with 80 per cent of its drinking water and 70 per cent of its overall water consumption. While in the past, consecutive years of drought in Israel had led to various surrealistic schemes, from building a water pipeline to Turkey to towing an iceberg, today, Israel gets most of its water from desalination and recycling.
According to Mekorot officials, thanks to desalination – there is no lack of seawater – the issue is no longer about water per se but rather, a question of economics – the cost of desalination and transporting the treated water. A key part of the process is the recycling of waste water.
"Currently, Israel has a central waste water management plant in the center of the country, where the waste water from 20 cities, with a population of 2.5 million, is treated and used for agriculture," Mordechai explained. "With smart water management, it takes only 48 hours from when water is pumped from the sea until people are drinking it at home and another 48 hours for that same water to be watering peppers and dates in the south of the country." In countries where water is of poor quality and in scarce supply, systems like these can be game-changing.
Clean, green energy
Mekorot is the largest civilian electricity consumer in Israel, holding five per cent of the national demand. Therefore, Mekorot has good reason to pursue more efficient, cost-effective alternative energy sources. But the recent innovation of covering Mekorot's water reservoirs with solar panels caught even cynics in a "why didn't I think of that?" moment.
In Israel, with land one of its most precious commodities, the advantage of solar farms for the production of clean energy is offset by the need for large tracts of land. That's where the sheer brilliance and simplicity of this innovation come in: The solar panels are placed on top of existing bodies of water, eliminating the need to buy land, but also covering the water surface, thereby preventing water from escaping due to evaporation. A prime example is Israel's national water carrier, Mekorot's flagship project built in the late 1950s as a system of canals and reservoirs that transports water 130 kilometres, from the Kineret, Israel's only freshwater lake, to the south of the country. Solar panels will cover the canal itself – stopping evaporation - as well as on the two embankments, significantly increasing surface area. After having already issued the first solar panel tender, Mekorot plans to issue a second tender by the beginning of 2022, for a combined potential production of over 1,600 megawatts – an increase of 60 per cent over the total amount of all solar energy production currently used in Israel. "Eventually, we hope to be able to cover all our energy costs, which will not only save a lot of money for the country, it will usher in a new era of clean energy in Israel," said Mordechai.
watery web solutions
The re-use and improvement of existing infrastructures is a recurring theme among the many technologies being pioneered by Mekorot. The most recent example is using the already existing water pipeline as the housing for fiber optic lines. This translates into bringing high-speed internet to every corner of the country — without having to build new infrastructures.
In the proverbial "accidental discovery," the company had been seeking a method for distance monitoring of its water pipes by inserting a fiber optic cable inside the pipeline. Not only were the cables unharmed by the water, they also left no adverse effects on the water. It didn't take long to realise that they'd stumbled upon a fantastic solution for the provision of high-speed internet to areas of the country that had previously been lacking internet service. "Mekorot is able to use fiber optics examine the status of its pipes and identify sources of leak and theft, while providing the infrastructure for high-speed internet to communities and towns that previously had been lacking decent communications services," explained Mordechai. By March 2022, Mekorot plans to have fiber optic lines installed throughout the country from the farthest reaches of northern Israel, across Judea and Samaria, and down to the southern tourist town of Eilat.
Water for all
When speaking of his vision for the future, Mordechai refers to the climate crisis that is affecting the entire world, Israel included, but maintains that he is optimistic. "In the 80 years of its work, Mekorot has overcome major crises. At first, there was no water in the south of the country and today everyone can see that the Negev is blooming."
Mordechai said that in the coming 20 years, with natural population growth and better quality of life, demand for water will grow but that Israel will continue to devise new technologies and innovations to meet those needs. "I believe that we will continue to be a light unto the nations, also with regard to water technology, for the benefit of Israel and of our neighbors and allies," he said. "We are continuing to build new infrastructures, place new pipes and connect all the outlying towns and communities to the national water system. I fully expect that we will continue to keep our promise: to provide low-cost, high-quality water for all places, for all people, at all times."
— Sharon Gelbach has been working for 25 years as a writer, editor and translator for various international publications, including The Jerusalem Post. She lives with her family in Jerusalem.