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Alternate Israel

Israel’s Innovative Water Solutions Are “Way, Way Ahead of the Rest of the World”

In 2012, a representative of Israel’s Water Authority told me – a visitor from Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds – “Israel is drying.”  Four years later, it was time for another look. 
 
First stop: the National Water Carrier, arguably Israel’s most iconic undertaking. The National Water Carrier falls under the domain of Mekorot, Israel’s water consortium.  Ashley Davidson, manager of the company’s visitor center, explains that the project, which began in the late 1950s, stretches the length of the country, from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev. 
 
Nearly 60 years later, it remains, according to Davidson, Israel’s “biggest and most complex infrastructure project,” noting that the National Water Carrier “was instrumental in making the desert bloom.”
 
But there was a problem.  As Israel’s population grew, Davidson says the amount of water needed for drinking rose exponentially.  Consequently, increasing amounts of Israel’s scarce water resources had to be diverted from agriculture to the growing needs of Israel’s citizens.
 
That’s where Israel’s well-established reputation for innovative solutions came into play.  With the Mediterranean Sea as the country’s western border, desalination became the obvious answer.  Today, says Davidson, “eighty-five percent of Israel‘s drinking water comes from the sea.” Taking into account anticipated population growth, he projects desalination will ensure clean drinking water “for the next 10 years,” adding the complex filtration process produces water “ten times cleaner than what the Health Ministry requires.”
 
The success of desalination gave birth to another extensive infrastructure project, dubbed the New National Water Carrier.  The updated carrier distributes water from five different desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast to locales throughout the country.
 
And what about agricultural needs?  Davidson says Mekorot has that covered, too.  Seventy percent of Israel’s wastewater is recycled and used for agriculture, particularly in the arid Negev.
 
It all sounds like Israeli innovation at its best.  Shouldn’t these ideas be shared with the world?  Turns out, they are.


Members of the 2016 Israel Bonds staff delegation pay a visit
to Israel's iconic National Water Carrier, the nation's most ambitious
infrastructure project (Photo: James S. Galfund)


“Every Drop Counts”

Oded Distel is all about water.  Distel professes he “fell in love with the sector,” calling it “one of the most important sectors for the future. Israel’s approach to water is totally different because in Israel, water is really appreciated. We learn from childhood that every drop counts.”

Distel, who heads Israel New Tech for the Ministry of Economy and Industry, ticks off Israel’s myriad accomplishments:  water independence; producing 20 percent more water than the nation consumes - a surplus allowing Israel to export water to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan; and a knowledge base that can, and does, benefit countries throughout the world.

Distel emphasizes the problem of dwindling water resources is “a major headache everywhere.  It’s not only a Third World issue, it’s everybody’s issue.” As a case in point, Distel cites a recent visit to California, where his ministry hosted the Israel-California Water Conference. The idea was to explore partnerships and initiatives to help position California as a leader in sustainable water solutions.

Looking forward, Distel projects an air of confidence. He feels Israel’s water situation is “perfect,” to the point where “even in a dry year, there is no problem with water usage being cut.”

He gives much credit to Israel’s focus on desalination, calling it a “revolution.”  Israel’s water supply “is no longer dependent on nature. If there were a catastrophe, Israel’s population would still have water to drink and use domestically.”

Another success story has been water recycling.  Distel believes that without a proactive approach to reusing waste water, Israel’s agriculture sector “could not have survived.”

Distel maintains the current global business model regarding water “is not functioning efficiently,” stressing the world “can’t avoid reforms any longer.” He has visited every continent, save Antarctica, to share his expertise. A problem he highlights as critically important is water leakage, which, he says, averages 25 percent around the globe and up to 50 percent in some countries.

Can’t anyone in Israel come up with a solution?  Turns out, someone has.


The Ashkelon desalination plant is one of five facilities along the
Mediterranean coast providing Israel with up to 85 percent of
its drinking water (Photo: IDE Technologies)


“The Future of Water Utilities”

“Amazing” is how Shani Feldman describes the amount of water countries lose to leakage. Feldman, sales operations manager for Israeli company TaKaDu, emphasizes countries need to tackle the problem by being “proactive rather than reactive.”

The idea behind TaKaDu, explains Feldman, “is to use analytics to save water.”  Launched in 2009, founder Amir Peleg realized early on how TaKaDu could leverage the potential of the Internet of Things to address global water issues.
 
Peleg recalls going to water trade shows and being “surprised to see how, among all the pipes and valves, software was hardly seen. Surely,” he thought, “it had a part to play in the lack of efficiency. I started to think about how data analytics - together with cloud computing - could help power a smart water revolution.”
 
Today, TaKaDu helps 20 utility companies in nine countries manage water resources through software utilizing statistical algorithms to provide real-time detection and insights into any, and every, type of water event.
 
“All factors” are programmed into TaKaDu’s software, Feldman says, “allowing event management in one centralized system.”

She lists potential trouble spots TaKaDu’s algorithms can detect: identifying leaks before they turn into large bursts; changes and trends in water pressure, usage patterns, and supply interruptions; water quality issues; identifying water theft; and automatic early warning of operational issues such as open valves and zone breaches.
 
The predictive analytics of TaKaDu’s software establish a baseline Feldman classifies as “normal behavior” within each network. The better the program understands normal patterns of water flow, the more accurately it senses aberrations. Once activated by an alert, the software goes through a series of checks, enabling utilities to respond effectively.
 
Feldman calls the software “the future of water utilities.”


The Shafdan treatment plant recycles wastewater, 70 percent
of which goes for agricultural use (Photo: James S. Galfund)


“Way, Way Ahead”
 
Water carriers. Desalination. Recycling wastewater. Advanced analytics.  Israel’s outside-the-box approach to maximizing scarce water resources has dramatically changed the outlook from four years ago, when I was told “Israel is drying.”  The Economy Ministry’s Oded Distel summed it up best in asserting, “When it comes to water, Israel is way, way ahead of the rest of the world.”


Vineyards in the desert region of Arava highlight Israel's successful
approach to innovative water solutions (Photo: James S. Galfund)



Shafdan Wastewater Treatment Plant Highlights Israel's Global Leadership in Sustainability 
 
A cursory scan of stories pertaining to Israel would give the impression that beyond strife and geopolitical crisis, there’s not much else to report.
 
And that couldn’t be more wrong.
 
A reader would never know, for example, that Israel is at the forefront of both ground-breaking technology and innovative environmental solutions.  A stellar example of how Israel combines the two is the Shafdan wastewater treatment plant, located in Rishon LeZion, five miles south of Tel Aviv.   Shafdan represents another success story that, together with drip irrigation and advanced desalination plants, has positioned Israel as perhaps the most resourceful nation in the world when it comes to addressing the critical issue of scarce water resources.  
 
Exploiting Potential
Among the largest facilities of its kind, Shafdan treats and purifies sewage from the Dan Region, encompassing Tel Aviv and the central districts located along the Mediterranean coast.  All told, the region is home to 3.5 million Israelis, making it the country’s largest metropolitan area. 
 
The plant is part of Igudan, an acronym for the Dan Regional Association of Towns for Environmental Infrastructure.  The fact that Igudan was founded in 1955 underscores Israel’s longstanding, proactive approach to sustainability. 
 
Israel is dependent on three water sources, each of which has become problematic in its own way:  the Kinneret, which is steadily receding; the shore aquifer, with its ever-greater increases in salinity; and the mountain aquifer, which is becoming contaminated due to proximity to industrial zones.  Additionally, Israel has had to contend with continuous years of drought, with a concurrent increase in population and water consumption.   
 
Consequently, the idea of treating wastewater became another inventive Israeli means of problem-solving.  Shafdan spokesman Meir Ben-Noon points out that because sewage is 99.8 percent water, “the potential to reuse it is huge. The objective of the Shafdan plant is to exploit that potential,” otherwise, he says, “sewage just goes on contaminating the rivers, lakes and the sea.”
 
Speaking to a representative from Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds, the company that has helped build every sector of Israel’s economy, Ben-Noon proudly notes that “Israel is the world leader in water recycling, and Shafdan is the main reason.”
 
Even the UN, a body not known for its admiration of Israel, praised Shafdan in a 2012 report on creative ways of tackling environmental issues.  

 
Shafdan’s reactors are an ingenious utilization of primitive
microorganisms and sophisticated technology to treat wastewater


Microorganisms and Advanced Technology
Although the facility is huge, encompassing over 125 acres, it is operated by less than 50 employees, because the purification process is the result of an ingenious combination of microorganisms and advanced technology.
 
“Every day,” says Ben-Noon, “we receive 98 million U.S. fluid gallons of wastewater from 23 cities” via a conveyance system located 100 feet below ground.  The conduit is 6.5 feet in diameter and stretches 75 miles.  Once the sewage reaches Shafdan, the multi-stage purification process begins with pretreatment.  Bar screens, vertical steel bars spaced between 1 to 3 inches apart, remove large objects – bags, diapers and cell phones are examples cited by Ben-Noon -  that are subsequently disposed of in landfills. 
 
Following the initial filtering process, basins separate the remaining grit, oils and fat.  Grit sinks to the bottom and is pumped into four sand separators. Oil and fats float to the surface and are transported to an adjacent plant that recycles them for industrial use.
 
Next comes biological purification, whereby microorganisms digest organic materials in the sewage.  Special ventilators generate oxygen-saturated areas to accelerate the digestion process.  Whatever settles to the bottom is sludge, and what remains on top is treated wastewater that is transferred to large sand fields used to filter the water to potable levels.  “Sand,” explains Bar-Noon, “is considered to be the most natural and best filter.”
 
The fields, managed by Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, are the final treatment phase.  They are flooded with wastewater that eventually sinks through nearly 100 feet of sand, a filtration process that takes 400 days.  At the end of the complex procedure, the water is pumped out, and what was once raw sewage has achieved a quality that, says Bar-Noon, “is very similar to drinking water.”


Treated wastewater is collected in settling basins prior to final
filtering in sand fields, a process that takes 400 days. The treated
water ultimately supplies 70 percent of the Negev’s irrigation needs
and 10 percent of the country’s water needs.


Impressive Results
The ultimate result is truly impressive.  Over the course of a year, Shafdan treats 35.6 billion U.S. fluid gallons of wastewater that supplies fully 70 percent of the irrigation needs of the Negev and 10 percent of the water needs of the entire country.  Not even the sludge goes to waste, as it is mixed with coal ash and lime to produce 70,000 tons of fertilizer each year.  
 
Small wonder, then, that Shafdan attracts government officials, environmentalists and students from around the world, eager to utilize Israeli technology in their respective countries.  It works the other way as well, with Israeli experts traveling abroad to help construct wastewater treatment facilities in countries including the U.S., China and Australia. 
 
“For Israel, “says Bar-Noon, “Shafdan is really something to be proud of.  It is an international source of pride.”


Israel's High-Speed Rail is “A Whole New Ballgame”

In July, a representative of Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds journeyed across Israel. His goal: to find the alternate Israel, the Israel beyond perceptions of conflict and controversy.

The quest led to the headquarters of Israel Railways' fast rail project, a high-profile, game-changing initiative,  After overcoming the kinds of delays inherent in an enterprise of this magnitude, as well as setbacks stemming from political and special interest considerations, the so-called ‘Capital Express,' offically launched in 2005, is expected to become fully operational in 2018. 
 
When that happens, passengers will zip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on trains reaching speeds of 100 mph. The journey, currently a tedious 1 ½ hours each way, will be whittled down to just 28 minutes. 

The high-speed electric trains - the first in Israel not to be diesel-fueled – will race along a complex network of bridges and tunnels that, says Batsheva Segev, manager of the project’s visitors center, stands apart as “one of the largest infrastructure projects in Israel’s history.”


The view from inside a tunnel bored through difficult terrain highlights the high
level of engineering expertise needed to build the new rail line


By the Numbers
 
The sheer scope of the undertaking becomes apparent when Segev lays out the numbers. The six tunnels are a combined 24.8 miles, and the eight bridges span 4.3 miles in total length. The longest tunnel stretches 7.2 miles, while the longest bridge extends more than 4,100 feet. The highest bridge, at 318 feet, is the tallest in the country.
 
Developmenr has been particularly challenging because the route runs through daunting mountainous terrain and high over valleys. Consequently, building the line has necessitated employing massive numbers of people with diverse skill sets,1,500 in all, including 700 engineers.
 
Ultimately, says Segev, the expenditure of such large amounts of human and financial resources – costs total some $2 billion – will result in “a whole new ballgame” for Israel.  She explains the project will have “ripple effects that are wider than connecting the two cities.” In particular, Segev cites “economic and social benefits for all sectors of Israeli society” that will result from the dramatically shortened trip.
 
Segev knows, nonetheless, that “we have to prove ourselves, because we received billions of shekels from the government.”


Israel's high-speed trains will race 100 mph along a network of eight bridges
and six tunnels


Overcoming Topographical and Environmental Challenge
 
Those shekels have been put to use for a wide range of elements essential to the line's successful completion, like tunnel boring machines, or TBMs. The German-made TBMs, custom-manufactured at a cost of approximately $22 million apiece, are monster machines stretching nearly 500 feet in length and weighing 1,800 tons. 

Three TBMs are being utilized to chew through solid rock at a rate of 50-65 feet per day, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Formidable to begin with, the task is complicated by the fact that the TBMs bore two adjacent tunnels, as opposed to just one for trains going in each direction. The reason, explains Segev, is to ensure that trains keep running in the event of an emergency.
 
Environmental concerns also received considerable attention from planners.  Every tree, and, for that matter, every rock removed from a hilltop to bore a tunnel was eventually put back exactly as before.
 
Illustrating the enormity of the task, trees in the path of the TBMs were carefully uprooted and moved to a fenced-off location outside the construction zone, where they were replanted and marked for eventual return. Special precautions were taken to ensure the relocation zone remained undamaged. The care taken to minimize environmental damage underscored Israel’s stature as a global leader in sustainability.
 
Another case in point was construction of a bridge spanning the Yitla Nature Reserve. Environmentalists opposed the bridge and proposed a tunnel instead, which would have added millions to the cost. The solution was to build a bridge spanning the valley that rested on just one central pillar instead of four. The ingenious engineering feat preserved the integrity of the reserve, and the project moved forward with all parties satisfied.


Custom-made boring machines carve two tunnels out of formidable terrain. Every
tree, and even the rocks, are carefully moved and then put back exactly as before.


“Its Influence Will Be Huge”
 
Beyond its careful approach to the environment, Israel is also protective of its past. A uniquely Israeli consequence of infrastructure development is the uncovering of artifacts dating back to antiquity. When this happens – which is frequently – work must stop until the finds are studied by the Antiquities Authority, often setting back schedules for months. In this instance, Israel Railways caught a break. Only one olive press was discovered, with no delays for the rail line’s timetable.

This being Israel, however, there is another essential component to major projects – security. The final stop along the line, Jerusalem’s Ha’uma station, is being built more than 260 feet below ground to double as a shelter that can accommodate thousands of people in the event of an unconventional weapons attack.
 
Prior to launch, trains will run without passengers for a three-month testing period to ensure everything is safe and operating correctly. Then, when the line officially opens in 2018, three trains will run during peak hours. By 2020, the number will double to six.
 
There is no doubt the Capital Express will have a transformative effect on Israel. Reflecting on the enormous undertaking, Segev says, “There are so many reasons it shouldn’t have gone through, but it's happening.” She concludes with a prediction. “Its influence,” Segev states with confidence, “will be huge.”


Israel Bonds staff members pay a site visit to what an Israel Railways spokesperson
calls “one of the largest infrastructure projects in Israel’s history”


Ariel Sharon Park - The Story of an Exploding Landfill
That Became Israel's World-Class Model of Sustainability
 
 
Shay Levi is animated. The head of Ariel Sharon Park’s Environmental Planning and Ecology Department is explaining to a visitor from Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds – on the lookout for the amazing and unexpected side of Israel - how a massive landfill once referred to as ‘trash mountain,’ among other disparaging names, could become a global model of sustainability, and a welcome oasis of green serenity for Israelis living in the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
 
This, he says enthusiastically, “is something Israel can be proud of.”
 
He’s right.  Exploring the park, with its serene waters, walking and biking trails and impressive vistas of the Tel Aviv skyline, it’s hard to imagine that for decades, this was a site of noxious fumes, spontaneous combustion and methane explosions. 
 
The huge landfill contained so much trash – over 565 cubic feet of unsorted garbage at its notorious peak – that it eventually rose to a height of nearly 200 feet, making it an unsightly landmark visible for miles around.  
 
If all that weren’t bad enough, the hundreds of thousands of birds swooping in to feast on the garbage posed a serious danger to flights in and out of nearby Ben-Gurion Airport.
 
And so, in 1998, 54 years after it opened during the period of the British Mandate, the landfill was closed.  That, however, was not the end of the saga. The colossal trash mound continued to be an eyesore and ecological hazard, bringing the next issue to the forefront:  now what?
 


Aerial view of the expanse of Ariel Sharon Park, with the rehabilitated
'trash mountain' in the background (Photo: Albatross)


A ‘Green Lung’
 
Because the site was government land, an initial proposal was to build apartments.  Discussions dragged on for nearly seven years until then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided the area, encompassing 2,000 acres, would be designated as a ‘green lung’ that, according to Levi, more than doubled the amount of green space in Tel Aviv.
 
With the decision made, plans to develop what Levi proudly calls “one of the biggest environmental projects in the world” were underway. The first step was to hold a design competition for an advanced ecological park. Israeli and international landscape architects submitted their respective visions for the makeover, with the winning design coming from Germany’s Peter Latz.
 
An integral part of the plan was not to conceal the former ‘trash mountain,’ but instead, says Levi, to highlight it as “a symbol of sustainability.”  Four objectives were determined:  the park would be multifunctional; it would be modern; it would be sustainable; and finally, Ariel Sharon Park would be a model of environmental healing.
 

A spectacular view of the glittering Tel Aviv skyline, as seen from the park's pavilion
(Photo: Niv Mosman)


Surmounting Challenges
 
Obviously, turning a massive trash dump into a haven of green was not without considerable challenges, including the intertwined risks of pollution, health and safety issues. The first step was to extract the combustible methane gases from the mountain via a series of perforated pipes.  In keeping with the project’s focus on sustainability, the collected gas was utilized as a source of green energy.  Levi explains that everything involved in creating and maintaining the park “is part of an ecosystem.”
 
Protections were then put into place to monitor methane emissions, check mountain movement and maintain slope integrity to ensure the safety of visitors.
 
Then, the award-winning designs created by Latz - an artificial body of water dubbed ‘the mountain oasis,’ a shaded pavilion overlooking Tel Aviv, and terraces made of thousands of cubic feet of recycled concrete - were shifted from blueprints to reality.
 
In 2014, the first phase of the park, the rehabilitated ‘trash mountain,’ opened to the public. Thousands of Israelis have subsequently flocked to the park to take advantage of its network of hiking trails and bike paths, stroll serenely along artificial river banks, enjoy the shade provided by groves of trees and partake in the many leisure and recreational activities offered by the park.
 
And it’s not only for the benefit of people.  Levi says “animals that had disappeared for decades” have reappeared to enjoy the region’s only wide expanse of green.  Numerous four-legged, aquatic and winged species can all be spotted throughout the park.


The park's tranquil lake, complete with floating lily pads and a border built from 
recycled concrete, is a far cry from the waters of the former 
landfill, once caustically
referred to as 'garbage juice' (Photo: James S. Galfund)


Welcoming Visitors
 
On any given day, Ariel Sharon Park welcomes visitors of all kinds.  They include Israelis seeking a respite from the pressures of everyday life, student groups, and international representatives from countries including China, Sri Lanka and Mexico seeking to benefit from yet another example of Israeli ingenuity.
 
There are also the thousands who attend Ariel Sharon Park’s annual Skyline Music Festival, held against the glittering backdrop of the nightlights of Tel Aviv.
 
The project, says Levi, remains ongoing.  With the mountain transformed, plans for the next phase are equally ambitious:  a promenade along an artificial lake, an open-air theater with a 30,000 person capacity, a biodiversity center and more. Levi even speaks excitedly of a pedestrian bridge linking the park with Tel Aviv, enabling visitors to arrive on foot or by bike. 
 
The catch to all this is that government funding is drying up, so Levi says the park will be turning to outside funding and sponsorships to keep the ambitious project on track.
 
When complete, Levi notes Ariel Sharon Park will be twice the size of New York’s Central Park. It will be, he says, “something to give to future generations,” adding, “We’re doing good for the public. Everyone is coming and enjoying the park. This,” he states emphatically, “is the most important thing.” 

As Levi says this, a group of visiting Israeli Arab schoolkids are hopping up and down in excitement. Seems like he's onto something.


Once the site of noxious fumes, spontaneous combustion and  methane explosions,
today Ariel Sharon Park is the perfect place for a hike (Photo: Ariel Sharon Park)