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Israeli water experience in Australia  

By Eyal Halamish  

 

Water is the basic building block of life, but in Australia, up until recently, it has been largely taken for granted.

In Israel, by contrast, water scarcity has been a harsh reality from its inception. Situated in the arid climate of the Middle East, the Jewish state relies primarily on the Jordan River, which dries down to the width of a pencil along some of its course.

Israel is an example of how to survive in a dry environment, according to University of Melbourne Hydrology Professor John Langford. “They’re building and have built desalination plants along the coast to feed a national water grid and they’re using the recycled water from cities to supply water for agriculture, for irrigation.” Given Australia’s increasingly dry climate, he believes, “you always look to someone who is closer to the crisis than you are.”

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent and the highest per capita user of water. The Murray-Darling river system, the nation’s largest, has hit rock-bottom with inflows at 40 percent of its annual average, while Melbourne’s dam storage levels have dropped to a low of 28.4 percent capacity. Even Perth’s new desalination plant will not be able to compensate completely for reservoir inflows that have halved during the last 30 years and dropped by a third in the last 10.

“The public and government concern about the future of the Murray-Darling is now such that solutions are being vigorously sought,” says Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Chair Don Henry after returning from his recent trip to Israel. “Compared to Israel, where more than 72 percent of sewerage is reclaimed for re-use, our practices are predominantly highly wasteful of water.”

The Shafdan Waste Water Treatment Plant, which serves a population of over 2 million people in the most crowded and densely populated area in Israel, contributes 12 percent of Israel’s water resources. Nationally, Australia recycles an average of 9.1 percent of its treated wastewater with Victoria recycling only six percent. Increasing Australian recycling standards by three percent would increase water availability by more than 53 gigalitres, well over the amount of water desalinated by the Perth seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant each year.

French-company Degremont Ltd. operates Perth’s plant, which turns 140,000m3 of seawater into fresh-water. But it doesn’t compare to the world’s largest desalination plant in Israel using technology devised by Israeli Desalination Enterprise (IDE) to pump 320,000m3 per day at a price of US$0.52 per kilolitre, half the price of Perth’s desalinated water. Sydney, too, is preparing a desalination plant but surprisingly, given these qualities, IDE is not on the shortlist. It is still undecided what technology will be used in the newly announced Victorian plant to be built near Wonthaggi.

Nevertheless, Israeli nanotechnology expert Prof. Rafi Semiat of the Technion University believes Australia’s decision to adapt desalination is premature. “In Australia people are still using water hoses to wash their cars.” He recommends Australians “learn to save water first, and accept the reuse of recycled water before desalinating.”

Paul Sinclair, director of Environment Victoria’s Healthy Rivers campaign, agrees. He told the Age newspaper that desalination was an expensive, energy-intensive way of producing water and he therefore does not support Premier Steve Bracks’ proposal for a desalination plant in Victoria. Overall, $3.1 billion alone is dedicated to desalination from the $4.9 billion water strategy package.

Australia is only beginning to absorb Prof. Semiat’s recommendations. The Federal Government’s most recent publicity pamphlet on recycled water is still trying to persuade Australians that recycled water used by farmers on agriculture is safe, even though this is already an accepted norm in Israeli society.

Adva Zach-Maor, an Israeli civic engineering and nanotechnology researcher at Victoria University in Australia, explains that Israelis “have been using treated wastewater for longer than Australians and have the skills and experience to deal with it.” Semiat claims, “Saving water is inbred in Israeli society. The Israeli psyche is that water is a resource we are lacking.”

 

Israel’s limited fresh water sources make it an ideal testing ground for water innovation. “If a process doesn’t function or a pipe breaks, researchers have to go out into the field and fix it,” Zach-Maor says. “Israeli scientists turn improvisation into a new technique,” she adds.

Jewish National Fund Victoria Director Joe Krycer sees Israel as "a test-tube country,” where water technology discoveries are tested in the field and presented to the global market.

Israel’s most significant breakthrough in water technology is the famous drip irrigation system. In response to Israel’s 1958 drought, Simcha Blass developed an irrigation system that applies water directly to the root of plants to minimise water and fertiliser use.

ACF head Don Henry: visit to Israel

According to ACF’s Don Henry, Israeli government-sponsored shifts from oranges to specialty vegetables, fruits, and flowers for export combined with drip irrigation resulted in a “60 percent cut in waste water use and a 100 percent increase in high value products over the last few years.”

In 1996, Israeli company Netafim saw a commercial opportunity following a drought in Australia that year and opened an office in Laverton, Victoria. Netafim has developed into Australia’s largest manufacturer, supplier, wholesaler, designer, and project manager of micro-irrigation systems.

But Department of Primary Industries spokesman Allan Everett says, “Drip irrigation is the kind of technology that is just now beginning to grow in Australia” and still has a long way to expand.

For instance, drip irrigation could be the answer to recycling water for Melbourne’s local vegetable farmers. Werribee growers currently rely solely on recycled water yet still struggle to grow crops. Last year Werribee growers lost over $1 million when lettuce and cauliflower crops were yellowed due to excessively high levels of salts in recycled water. “Most of Victoria is using overhead sprinklers or flood irrigation,” says president of the Ratepayers of Werribee South Nik Tsardarkis.

Yet Zach-Maor says drip irrigation is the only logical way to water crops with recycled water. “Sprinkler and flood irrigation encapsulate the crops with dirty water and hurt sensitive plants,” she explains. “Drip irrigation is the ideal technology for irrigating with recycled water, water directed to the plants’ root systems could results in natural filtration and healthy crop growth, which is why all Israeli irrigation is with drippers.”

Yet drippers are only one aspect of profitable Israeli water technology. Israeli water engineer Eytan Levy, the CEO of Aqwise, recently devised an intricate polymer cylinder that purifies wastewater ponds. The cylinders halve the cost of traditional pond water filtration. Aqwise has already sold over $US13 million in orders and installed systems in Italy, Spain, Mexico, Chile, and the United States.

Similarly, Atlantium CEO Ilan Wilf developed a quartz tube that uses beams of ultraviolet light to remove billions more microbes compared to conventional water contaminant removal techniques. And according to Haaretz, Hebrew University Prof. Alex Levine and doctoral student Yehoram Leshem recently published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Sciences that reported their research into the thale cress plants’ ability to remove excess salt from water. Improving plant survival in highly saline soil could be the solution to one of the main threats to agriculture worldwide.

 

Australian government officials are keen to implement Israeli water technology in Australia. In October 2006, the Victorian Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Technion, Israel’s leading, technology-focused university, to develop an $8.1 million Victoria-Israel Science and Technology R&D Fund (VISTECH). This is designed to spur company investment in information communication technology development. While water research has received the lowest number of applicants in the past two Victorian application periods, companies like Atlantium and Aqwise are still looking for Australian commercial partners.

Dr. Malcolm Chaikin, the University of New South Wales’ former vice-chancellor and a noted water expert, is leading efforts to utilise Israeli water expertise via the Institute of Sustainability and Innovation (ISI). This is an Australian-based international research hub uniting Israelis and Australians dedicated to cutting-edge developments in water technology. Zach-Maor, a researcher at the ISI, is working on accelerated boron removal. Boron treatment in desalination plants currently costs 6-8 US cents/cubic metre. This involves multiple stages of polishing and removing salts. Zach-Maor’s project would avoid two stages of salt removal and save US$900,000 a year in Perth and up to US$2 million a year in the Israeli Ashkelon plant.

Don Henry argues that, alongside developed research and technology, “Perhaps the most we have to gain is to understand government policy suites [that] have created the incentives and disincentives in Israel.”

Israel’s Water Ministry has been capping usage and holding farmers, industry owners, and domestic households accountable for water allocation since 1959. Australia has placed a preliminary cap on the Murray Darling for over a decade now, but Henry claims, “there needs to be far more work on that, the cap has to be lowered…it’s not at sustainable levels.” Furthermore, allocations from the basin are aggregate and not tracked adequately.

Unlike Israel’s unitary government system, Australia’s federal system allows state and federal policies to persist in following independent agendas. Few water infrastructure developments have taken place due to years of debating and little water policy making over the Murray Darling Basin. For example, the Victorian Government’s reluctance to sign up to the Federal Government’s $10 billion Murray Darling Plan has delayed the implementation of that program.

Meanwhile, although welcomed by many, critics have alleged that the Victorian Government’s recent water infrastructure announcements, including a desalination plant and a pipeline of freshwater from the Goulburn region, (the first major water infrastructure developments in Victoria since the 22-year old Thomson Dam) appear to have been made on the run. Victorian Farmers Federation President Simon Ramsay told the Age (June 20) “It seems somewhat hypocritical that they continually ask the Commonwealth for details on the National Water Plan but are more than happy to announce a funding proposal without providing any detail to us.”

Victorian Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu (Age, June 21) also criticised Bracks’ plan as hasty, comparing Melbourne’s $3.1 billion plant to be built in four years with “Israel’s Ashkelon desalination plant, recognised last year as the best of its kind in the world, built in two years and at a cost of only $300 million.” He claims, “Only this week the government for the first time consulted farmers and residents whose lives will be dramatically affected by the projects.”

By contrast, building Israel’s water infrastructure required the gathering of “independent voices of water experts, progressive farmers and businesses, and environmentalists,” according to Henry.

 

Water pricing is Israel’s key state water management policy. A federal government adviser recently returned from Israel explains, “Israeli water pricing is set at a level where supply meets demand, something [Australian] state governments have not been able to do.” As a percentage of national average income, Israel’s government charges domestic users over six times more for water than Australian authorities do. According to the same adviser, water pricing should not solely fund the water infrastructure investment, which is the Bracks’ government approach; they must set a rate that encourages reduced water consumption. Water hotlines combined with severe bans on specific uses of water have seen Australians looking over fences and informing on neighbours. But in Israel such behaviour is nowhere to be found. With pricing set at the right level, once water is sold in Israel it can be used at the users’ discretion.

Henry sees Australia’s future water policy and infrastructure development enriched through multi-disciplinary exchanges with Israel. “We want to see farmers meeting with farmers, scientists with scientists, and NGOs with NGOs…this will provide many opportunities for both countries to achieve greater efficiency with their water use,” Henry emphasises.

Last March’s information exchange agreement between Australian Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer spurred the Chairman of Mekorot (Israel’s government water body), Buchy Oren, and Melbourne Water CEO Rob Skinner to formalise a similar agreement. Sydney Water Corporation is also joining in. And, at Ben-Eliezer’s request, a delegation of Australian federal and state members of parliament, academics, and CEOs is due to travel to Tel Aviv for the Water Technologies and Environmental Conference (WATEC) in late October.

As state and federal governments are moving forward on high-cost water plans, Dr. Chaikin claims Australia is “not all that far behind,” the survival driven water culture of Israel. But it is clear that the latter still has many drops of experience to share.

 

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