from the July 2011 issue

Rosy prospects for Israel's water industry

Today, the global water industry is worth $500 billion (?354 billion) a year, with water technologies valued at $100 billion alone. But despite the big numbers, it's a conservative sector dominated by utility companies that shy away from innovation. Not so in Israel, however. A world leader, the Israeli water tech sector is valued at $2 billion, a figure that the government wants to increase to $10 billion over the next five years.

Proving that necessity really is the mother of invention, we wandered between rows of jojoba trees on a patch of land south west of the Negev desert. About 95 per cent of Israel is classed as arid or semi-arid, but companies such as Netafim are clawing back the land and making it fit for agriculture. Its drip irrigation techniques increase crop yields by 50 per cent while using 40 per cent less water than alternative methods.

Igal Aisenberg, chief executive of Netafim, pointed to a hole in the earth and a small underground pipe that runs the length of the field. This is the company's product at work. Intermittently spaced drippers release water into the ground beneath the trees, a patented piece of technology that made the company a global success story and drip irrigation viable.

While it remains more expensive than sprinklers and flood irrigation, drip technology is a lot more efficient, releasing water with pinpoint accuracy, an important consideration with such a scarce commodity. "It's not just a hole in a pipe," says Aisenberg. "It is pressure compensated so every dripper gives out exactly the same amount of water regardless of location."

Just south of Tel Aviv we see the source of the water and more cutting-edge technology. Vast man-made basins dominate the landscape, part of an industrial recharge-recovery system that reclaims waste water for use in irrigation. Run by Mekorot, Israel's national water company, the Shafdan plant is the most advanced in the Middle East - 75 per cent of household wastewater is recycled in Israel and reused for irrigation.

According to Amiad, another Israeli firm and one of the world's leading water-filtration companies, the only obstacle to drinking recycled wastewater is psychological. Filtration techniques have become so sophisticated that quality is not an issue.

People are already drinking seawater. On the Mediterranean coast, Israel has the two largest reverse osmosis desalination plants in the world, run by a joint venture between indigenous firm IDE Technologies and French company Veolia Water.

Pressurized seawater is pumped through thousands of polymer membranes that extract the brine and discharge it back to the ocean. Two cubic meters of seawater make one cubic meter of drinking water in industrial facilities that already supply 50 per cent of the country's household water, a figure that will increase to 70 per cent with the completion of a third desalination plant.

Part of Israel's agenda is to export its expertise and even wet countries such as Ireland are in its cross hairs. "You had a drought last winter because you couldn't find the leaks in your infrastructure," says Benjamin Levy, director of marketing at Miltel, a company that specializes in automatic metering and water management systems.

He said 17,000 liters of water can be lost in a month through a 3mm leak. Again, Israel is leading the world in tackling the problem. Only 12 per cent of water leaks out in the country's infrastructure compared to 25 per cent in Europe, and 35 per cent to 40 per cent in underdeveloped countries.

Miltel has a partnership with IBM, highlighting how water tech is becoming a credible sector in the wider world. Its monitoring systems are integrated with IBM middleware to deliver smart water management and metering solutions. Miltel claims that houses with automatic reading systems encourage people to use water carefully and lead to a 15 per cent drop in consumption.

Whitewater Security is another export success, selling sensors and systems for tracing water contaminants to more than 30 countries. Sales manager Rani Weinberg plays down the terrorist threat as a principal reason for deploying its technology but admits that interest in its products spiked in the United States after 9/11. Whatever the drivers, the company's technology solves a problem. "Traditionally, laboratories are used to test water and it can take 24 to 48 hours to get the results," said Weinberg. "With our sensors in the pipes, it's a matter of minutes."

Booky Oren, a former chairman of Mekorot, spells out the sum total of all this innovation.

"By 2015, the target for Israel is to be independent of natural water resources. We won't care if it rains or not," he said. As chairman of Watec, an international water technology exhibition that shows off indigenous expertise to the world, he was quick to point out that water scarcity is not just Israel's problem. There will be a 50 per cent increase in global water demand in the next 20 years, and he is concerned that an inherently conservative industry will struggle to keep up. "Countries can't rely on natural resources; they need to implement new technology," he warns.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report July 2011

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