Israel turns to the Mediterranean to address water shortage

Desalination plants now treat enough seawater to meet a quarter of the country's needs

People tour a desalination plant during its inauguration in Hadera, Tel Aviv, on May 16, 2010. Israel is increasingly turning to desalination to tackle its water shortage. Reuters / Nir Elias
Powered by automated translation

On the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, Israel is turning seaward – and to desalination – to tackle its water shortage.

Just a few kilometres from sandy beaches popular with bathers, noise hums from a vast industrial site.

Seawater flows through a network of tanks and pipes, where it is treated before continuing its journey to people’s taps.

“The main idea is to be self-sufficient,” said Semion Brover, chief executive of Sorek desalination plant, about 15 kilometres south of Tel Aviv.

“We do not want to be dependent on natural resources, because there's drought and desertification,” he added.

Sorek is one of Israel’s five desalination plants, which together treat enough water to meet a quarter of the country’s total needs.

Three-quarters of household consumption is sourced from the Mediterranean, according to government data.

With a growing population increasing the demand for water, work is under way to construct “Sorek 2”, alongside the current plant.

The expansion will meet greater domestic needs, as well as some of those abroad.

Last month, the Israeli government signed a water-for-energy deal with Amman, under which Jordan will export solar power to Israel in exchange for water from the coastal plants.

“This is a message to the world on how countries can act together to fight the climate crisis,” Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said when the accord was signed in Dubai.

The UAE is second only to Saudi Arabia for production of desalinated water in the Gulf and Middle East region.

UAE's Minister of Energy visits UAQ desalination plant - in pictures

For many other governments, running desalination plants remains too costly, said Manzoor Qadir, an environmental scientist at the United Nations University.

“At the moment, desalination is for countries that can afford it,” said Mr Qadir, assistant director of the university’s water and human development programme.

However, he predicted more nations would adopt the technology as costs drop.

“If you don’t have water and if your population is growing, you will have to fulfil those needs. And desalination is really good in those regards,” Mr Qadir said.

In Israel, six per cent of the country’s desalinated water is currently piped to Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

In Gaza – which since 2007 has been under an Israeli blockade – 97 per cent of the available water is undrinkable, according to the UN. Some Palestinians in the occupied West Bank also lack direct access to clean water.

While seawater remains a plentiful resource for those with the funds to treat it, desalination plants can be hampered by oil spills or algae blooms.

The facilities could also be vulnerable to cyber attacks, with Israeli media reporting multiple attempts to target the country’s wider water system last year.

At Sorek, Mr Brover described cyber security as a “very high priority”, without elaborating.

Although Israel has touted desalination as a means of addressing climate change, the process itself can prove damaging.

Manjula Nair, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, said it has a “tremendous environmental impact”.

“Once the salt is removed from the seawater, most of the time the concentrated brine is discharged back into the sea,” said Ms Nair, from the university’s school of engineering and physical sciences.

Marine life can be killed off by such concentrated salty water and by hot water pumped out to sea from some desalination plants.

Sea creatures are also at risk of getting sucked into the system – such as fish seen swimming in tanks at Sorek.

Overall, however, there is optimism that continuing research will reduce the harm caused by the process.

There is certainly no sign of the industry slowing down. Desalinated water production is expected to jump nearly 14-fold in the Middle East by 2040, according to data cited by the International Energy Agency.

“Rainfall is very scarce and we don’t have many groundwater resources,” in the Middle East, said Ms Nair.

“There’s no way we could eliminate desalination in this part of the world.”

Updated: December 16, 2021, 6:41 PM