Revolutionising water sustainability: Israel’s desalination success and how India can benefit

Collective endeavours of governments, industries and communities hold the key to constructing a sustainable and water-secure world

By Shivangi Aggarwal
Published: Wednesday 16 August 2023
In an era defined by climate flux, Israel’s transformation from water scarcity to abundance stands as a narrative of inspiration. Photo: iStock

In the face of mounting climate change challenges and depleting water resources, desalination is emerging as a beacon of hope. It has become a crucial climate adaptation tool, especially for water-scarce nations with falling technology costs and the rapid rise of renewable energy.

Among these nations, Israel shines as a pioneering model, demonstrating how desalination, combined with efficient water management and technology, can effectively address water scarcity concerns.

Globally, only 1 per cent of the world’s drinking water undergoes desalination. In Israel around 25 per cent of its drinking water sourced from desalination plants. 

Beginning humbly in 2005, Israel’s desalination capacity has surged dramatically, producing a staggering 585 million cubic metres annually. Accompanied by an impressive 90 per cent wastewater recycling rate, the process has virtually eradicated water-related anxieties in the nation. 

Desalination has transformed public perceptions from conservation problems to newfound confidence in water availability, Tamar Zandberg, Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister, observed. 

Once heavily reliant on freshwater from the Sea of Galilee, Israel confronted dwindling water supplies due to shifting climate patterns. However, through visionary foresight, the nation diversified its sources through desalination, even forging agreements to supply desalinated water to neighbouring Jordan.

Five desalination plants built along the country’s coastline — in Soreq, Hadera, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Palmachim — currently operate and two more are under construction. Collectively, these plants are projected to account for 85-90 per cent of Israel’s annual water consumption, marking a remarkable turnaround.

Israel’s accomplishments offer valuable lessons for other water-scarce regions globally. But, the financial dimension must not be disregarded. Establishing substantial desalination plants entails substantial capital investments, often amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. 

While Israel's success story is indeed inspiring, replicating the model elsewhere presents challenges. Christopher Gasson, a water industry expert, underscored that favorable project financing conditions and lower labour costs played a pivotal role in Israel's cost-effectiveness, a context not easily replicated worldwide.

However, the outlook for the desalination market is optimistic. The Global Industry Analysts’ report forecast substantial growth by 2026, predominantly driven by countries like China and the United States. As the technology proliferates, costs are likely to decrease, rendering desalination more accessible to low-income nations grappling with water scarcity.

Yet, the major obstacle for desalination remains its energy-intensive nature. The process demands substantial energy inputs, accounting for a significant 10 per cent to Israel’s electricity consumption. 

For sustainability, renewable energy sources are pivotal. This presents a unique opportunity: The plummeting costs of renewables open avenues can mitigate the expense of desalination. Incorporating solar power and storage systems can substantially reduce the cost of desalinated water by 2050, studies showed.

Alongside desalination, strategies such as public water use campaigns, refined water recycling procedures and cutting-edge farming techniques like drip irrigation can effectively curtail demand and costs.

However, the transformative potential of desalination pivots not just on technology, but on a paradigm shift from regarding water as a freely available resource to a valuable commodity. Achieving this has a formidable challenge. Governments need to lead the way by making bold decisions that encourage citizens to conserve water.

While challenges persist, the collective endeavours of governments, industries and communities hold the key to constructing a sustainable and water-secure world.

India’s path to water security

With a burgeoning population, increasing urbanisation and climate change impacts, India faces acute water stress in multiple regions. Here's how India can leverage lessons from Israel’s journey to inform its strategies:

Adopting desalination technology: Israel’s desalination success holds immense potential for India, especially in coastal areas grappling with water scarcity. By establishing desalination plants, India can tap into its expansive coastline to generate freshwater from seawater, providing a reliable water source even during droughts.

Recycling and reusing wastewater: Similar to Israel, India can prioritise the recycling and reuse of wastewater. Treating wastewater for non-potable purposes such as irrigation and industrial processes can alleviate pressure on freshwater sources and curb pollution.

Localised water management: Emulating Israel’s localised approach can help India tailor solutions to unique water availability and demand patterns in different regions. Implementing water-efficient agricultural practices and embracing technologies like drip irrigation can optimise water usage.

Integration of renewable energy: India’s commitment to renewable energy aligns with Israel’s experience of powering desalination plants with renewables. Leveraging solar and wind resources can make the desalination process sustainable and lower energy costs associated with water treatment.

Water diplomacy and cooperation: Drawing inspiration from Israel’s approach to water cooperation, India can explore diplomatic initiatives to manage shared water resources with neighbouring countries. This fosters regional stability and collaboration over conflict.

Promoting public awareness: India can follow Israel’s lead in promoting water conservation through public awareness campaigns. Encouraging citizens to value and conserve water can reduce wastage and enhance overall water efficiency.

Encouraging innovation: Israel’s innovation in water technologies can inspire India to invest in research and development in the water sector. Nurturing startups and researchers can yield breakthrough solutions for water treatment, distribution and management.

Crafting comprehensive policies: India can develop water policies aligned with Israel’s successful strategies. Regulatory measures that incentivise water recycling, reflect water’s true value in pricing and promote sustainable practices can drive meaningful change.

Capacity building and knowledge sharing: Collaborations with Israel can enhance India’s water management capabilities. Training programs and knowledge exchanges can empower India to effectively manage its water resources.

Long-term vision: LIke Israel, India can invest in water infrastructure, technologies and policies that build a resilient water system capable of withstanding climate change and population growth.

By embracing innovative technologies, efficient practices and sustainable policies, India can work towards securing its water future and ensuring water availability for generations to come. India has the chance to transform its water landscape and create a sustainable legacy.

Though desalination technique is being adopted by many countries, there is also a need to focus on reuse and recovery of the waste by-product called brine  generated in the process. Brine is a highly concentrated chemical residue that can damage the entire marine ecosystem if directly discharged into the water bodies or open sea.

Currently, the world produces more than 100 billion litres (about 27 billion gallons) of water a day from desalination, which leaves a similar volume of concentrated brine, accorinding to a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Much of that is pumped back out to sea, and current regulations require costly outfall systems to ensure adequate dilution of the salts, it added. “Converting the brine can thus be both economically and ecologically beneficial, especially as desalination continues to grow rapidly around the world.”

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