Water: the new oil of the Middle East

Water: the new oil of the Middle East

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

A Palestinian farmer directs water downhill from one terrace to another in his West Bank field.
A Palestinian farmer directs water downhill from one terrace to another in his West Bank field.

Millions have it but billions need it. Stephen Oryszczuk finds out how Israeli companies are turning air into H20.

A Palestinian farmer directs water downhill from one terrace to another in his West Bank field.
A Palestinian farmer directs water downhill from one terrace to another in his West Bank field.

We’re made up of it, use it and need it, yet many of us can’t get it, despite there being far more of it than we know what to do with.

It is absolutely core, the reason we’re anything other than a frothy soup, yet it is also completely diverse – when we think of water, we each think of something very different.

Nothing is more beguiling, infuriating, ancient or important. And it’s suddenly become fashionable.

Early in March, at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, DC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about cross-border cooperation in the Middle East (post-peace).

“The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship could catapult the entire region forward,” he said, to huge applause.

In front of 14,000 leaders of world Jewry, he then went on to talk about water. Israel has half the rainfall it had 65 years ago, he said, but 10 times the population, yet Israel’s GDP and water usage continue to shoot up.

“Which country in the world doesn’t have water problems?” he asked. “Israel.” He then offered to make his country’s technology, innovation and systems available to “our Arab neighbours throughout a region that is not exactly blessed with water,” adding: “We could solve the water problems… We could better the lives of hundreds of millions. We all have much to gain from peace.”

An irrigation systems factory in Hatzerim.
An irrigation systems factory in Hatzerim.

The idea caught on. Two weeks later, British Prime Minister David Cameron asked the Knesset to imagine what a lasting peace with the Palestinians would look like. “Imagine Israel’s economy unleashed to work in the region… to harness water resources so precious to all,” he said, to attentive ears.

Water is the Middle East’s new oil, so we’re told, but for many of the world’s developing nations, it is far more. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of children every four hours, or more than 4,000 per day.

And it’s not just children. A staggering 3.5 million die annually from a water-related disease. Companies don’t have to sell the need for their technology – the statistics do it for them.

Globally, one in nine people lacks access to clean water, and of the world’s 60 million new annual urbanites, most move into slums with no sanitation, using less water per day than you would in a quick shower. The crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.

The problem isn’t that there’s not enough water: there are at least 326 million cubic miles of it, mostly underground in aquifers and, as analysis on a tiny Brazilian diamond impurity revealed recently, deep in the mantle, locked into the crystalline structure of the rock.

The problem is that only 0.3 percent is drinkable, and of this, much is wasted and misused.

An irrigation system waters a plantation in Hatzerim.
An irrigation system waters a plantation in Hatzerim.

Cue Israeli entrepreneurialism. As the world of technology tries to harness, save and share water, Israel is taking a lead. Among the problems it is addressing is the shameful 3.3 billion litres of water wasted every day in the UK, mainly from ageing pipes.

Takadu, a Tel Aviv start-up specialising in smart water and one of a dozen Israeli companies exhibiting in London at the World Water Tech Investment Summit last month, thinks its leak-seeking know-how could help London’s creaking infrastructure.

“Almost instantly, we can detect and locate [a leak] and inform the utility,” says chief executive Amir Peleg.

Israel’s Aquarius-Spectrum also plugs holes, using what it calls “proprietary algorithms, statistic artifact rejection and a fixed network of wireless acoustic sensors” (answers on a postcard…) while Ashkelon- based Curapipe’s “pig train” glugs special viscous material into pipe sections via fire hydrants to stop the spill.

There is growing co-operation between the UK and Israel, in both research and commerce, and big deals are being announced. This May, for instance, Thames Water trials a new system at its Chesham sewage works. The technology, from Israel’s Mapal, uses bubbles to clean water and remove pollutants, and if it works, it will roll it out across the capital.

“Israeli innovation is giving British companies a global competitive edge,” says Simon Spier, senior economic advisor at the Israeli embassy. “And British companies are helping Israeli innovation go global.”

As with so much in Israel, many ideas come out of the IDF. Take Israeli company Water-Gen. Its founders fought Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and found themselves cut off from supply lines with nothing to drink.

So they came up with the Atmospheric Water-Generator Unit. It sucks water droplets from the air and collects them as clean drinking water. If Jesus turned water into wine, Israelis are turning air into water.

That’s not all. Israeli companies are desalinating seawater in places like Chile, with 4,000km of Pacific coastline but whose Atacama Desert is among the driest places in the world.

Not without its own dry regions, Israel exports its knowledge, too. Its semi-arid south has used conservation campaigns, irrigation systems, resource management, degradation monitoring, well rehabilitation, sewage treatment, data mapping and whatever else you can think of to protect and preserve this most beguiling, infuriating, ancient and important resource.

Perhaps it’s something from which we can all learn.

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