Technology could ease water crisis in Israel, West Bank
ATHENS, Ohio, March 18 -- For Lauren Costello, the severity of the Israeli-Palestinian water shortage is illustrated by one thing: an ordinary bucket.
Adel Handal, whose family hosted Costello, an American, for a two-month service trip to Bethlehem, places the bucket in the bottom of the family's shower to catch water. Like many people in the West Bank, the Handals must save and reuse every drop.
“Water is never guaranteed here,” Costello said in a phone interview. “Whenever it rains, people are like ‘Oh, thank God! We needed this so badly.’”
The Handals have running water courtesy of Mekerot, the national water company of Israel. But Mekerot shuts off the pipes to Bethlehem when water is scarce.
“They control the water,” Handal said in a phone interview. “In the summer, they cut it. Sometimes a month, no water.”
When the water runs, it is often only for two to three days, Handal said. After that, residents must struggle through another dry month.
Handal has a well, but some of his neighbors are not so lucky. Many Bethlehem residents keep large water tanks on top of their homes to store water shipped in from outside the city. Others rely on the local spring, which Costello said is often polluted with sewage because the city lacks a reliable sewer system.
Handal and many others have been forced to live with less water as the crisis in Israel and the West Bank has worsened. The Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures said nine years ago that Israel’s water economy was on the brink of a crisis, and that rising demand is draining the country’s supplies. Not much has changed since then. The Israeli government has made wastewater reclamation and sea water desalination top priorities, but water is still scarce.
Politics and regional instability have limited progress on the issue, but there still might be hope for Handal and others like him. A partial solution to the problem could come from new, homegrown technologies that make it easier to reuse water.
In Nesher, about 60 miles north of Tel Aviv, Mapal Green Energy has developed a simple way to treat water without heavy equipment or moving parts.
The system uses dissolved air, which is pumped into basins filled with wastewater. The air, which enters the water as tiny bubbles, promotes the growth of natural bacteria. Those bacteria clean the water by digesting the human waste. The clean water can then be skimmed off the top and further treated for use in irrigation.
While aerating wastewater is common throughout the world, most treatment plants use paddles or metal arms to splash the water’s surface and mix in the air. Zeev Fisher, Mapal’s vice president for business development and international marketing, said using a fine-bubble pump can cut the energy needs of a wastewater treatment plant by up to 70 percent.
The system’s mechanical simplicity bodes well for rural areas that do not have many skilled engineers, said Mapal Sales and Marketing Coordinator Sarit Tordjman in a phone interview.
“The main problem in many rural areas is they don’t have the manpower to maintain the [traditional] system,” she said. “The advantage of our system is that it doesn’t require high maintenance.”
The system could allow more wastewater to be recycled in rural areas, Fisher said. Although the water from Mapal’s process is not fit for drinking, it is clean enough for watering crops, which is a major use of fresh water in Israel.
“If you reduce the use of clean water for irrigation, you increase the water supply for drinking, cooking,” Fisher said.
Other technologies are being developed to improve desalination. Moshe Herzberg is a scientist with the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He said his research can improve the energy efficiency of reverse osmosis desalination, a technique used to remove salt from sea water or wastewater.
Reverse osmosis uses membranes, dense barriers with tiny pores big enough only for water molecules to pass through. Salty water is pushed through the membranes, which catch and remove the salt. Trouble arises when bacteria in the water settle on the membrane and secrete a layer of organic matter that obstructs the flow.
Herzberg refers to that layer as “biofilm,” and he said it can make desalination less efficient. The film makes it harder to push the water through the membrane, which means the process requires more energy. Removing that barrier has benefits, Herzberg said via online telephone.
“You are just removing the obstacle for the technology. You are using the membranes more efficiently,” Herzberg said. “You get better flux. You reduce the energy costs.”
However, technology is unlikely to solve the water crisis alone. Many standard water reclamation techniques remain energy-intensive. The rural areas of the West Bank, which is still mostly under Israeli control, often go without water because the area lacks Israel’s technology and infrastructure.
Plus, human and political factors complicated matters, said Mira Edelstein, resource development and foreign media officer for the Israel branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization that lobbies for water sharing and studies the effects of climate change on water.
The region’s uncertain political future has prevented water and wastewater infrastructure from being built in the West Bank, and droughts brought on by climate change will stress shrinking water supplies, Edelstein said in an online telephone interview.
Israel and the West Bank share water and ecosystems, but neither is wholly responsible for infrastructure in the West Bank, Edelstein said. The region is divided into three zones of control, and the Israeli government has been slow in helping Palestine develop.
“If it’s Palestinian jurisdiction or Israeli jurisdiction, it certainly is another obstacle. Who’s going to run it? Who has rights?” Edelstein said.
Edelstein cautioned that technology should only be part of the solution, and that Israel and Palestine must cooperate to protect water resources and build infrastructure.
“Water knows no boundaries. What one side does impacts the other side,” she said.
Fisher said technology is up to the task of helping with the water crisis, and that it is now a question of political will.
“We have the solutions,” he said. “But now it is a question of the politicians deciding to do it.”
Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify the desalination process