An Overview of the Role of Desalination in Israel’s Water Supply Portfolio
Over the past 10–15 years, desalination has been a game changer for the stability and reliability of Israel’s water supply. Israel had relied on groundwater and treated surface water from the Sea of Galilee as its primary water sources. The country’s numerous droughts, however, took a toll on those water supplies. Now, the makeup of the country’s water supply portfolio has evolved to rely heavily on desalinated seawater, which accounts for up to 80–85 percent of potable water supplies, and to include a more prominent role for desalinated brackish water.
As of the end of 2015, Israel was operating five large seawater desalination plants, including the Sorek Desalination Plant, the largest reverse osmosis plant in the world. There are plans for additional plants. The Israeli Water Authority’s master plan calls for desalination to account for 100 percent of domestic water supplies by 2050.
The Israeli government’s desalination program began in the 2000s. From 2001 to 2003, serious drought caused a shortage of water from the Sea of Galilee, prompting cuts in water allocations and subsidies to farmers and other water users. The cuts were unprecedented, and the Israeli government realized it had to do something to help the water supply portfolio.
The Israeli government rapidly increased investments in desalination technology and infrastructure, and the country's first facility came online in 2005. Public-private partnerships funded most of the desalination program; private entities constructed four of the five plants. In fact, IDE Technologies, which is a leader in desalination projects worldwide and which helped build the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Southern California, built and operated three of those facilities.
According to Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, “The speed with which the government moved to implement this program should be a message to all leaders: It can be done quickly if there is the willpower to do so. All of the projects were done in an orderly way after careful planning. Once the decision was made to pursue the effort, implementation followed very quickly.”
A Critical Part of the Regional Portfolio
Professor Megdal sees the Israeli adoption of desalination technology as the new norm. “There is going to be an increasing reliance on desalinated seawater across the Middle East in the coming years. The people and governments in the region recognize it as an important part of their future.”
In light of that trend, Israel and Jordan are undertaking a large seawater desalination project, known as the Red Sea–Dead Sea project. Professor Megdal explained, “This comprehensive effort will be a desalination project, a water exchange, and an example of how technology can address water scarcity issues in Israel and Jordan in a collaborative way.” The two countries are collaborating to build a plant on the Jordan side of the Red Sea; Israel will purchase a large amount of the water from it, and the rest will be used in Jordan. The facility will mix brine with some additional seawater and deliver it up to the Dead Sea, which is receding dramatically. There will also be an exchange of water, whereby Israel will send water from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Abroad for Applications at Home
The costs and concerns associated with widespread use of desalination have not been an impediment to its adoption by the Israeli government. The Israeli economy is doing well, and according to Professor Megdal, people do not seem to be concerned about the overall cost of water.
“Desalination is now part of the water culture there. It is a proven technology that can help mitigate many of the climate and drought issues affecting many areas.”
Professor Megdal is encouraged by the Israeli-Jordanian collaboration and sees a potential for a similar undertaking here in the United States. “Such cooperation can be relevant to issues in the [American] West, especially for places like Arizona that could develop seawater desalination and potentially exchange Colorado River water with, for example, Mexico.” However, Professor Megdal highlighted that unlike the United States, Israel has a much more centralized approach to water management. The national government sets water prices and allocations, including on brackish water and other desalination sources. In addition, Israel’s per capita water use is much lower than in the United States. Despite those differences, the Israeli model of employing desalination technology to address regional water challenges is one to watch.
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