First Person | Israel

Nations connect, learn at ‘Wicked Water Problems’ conference in Israel

Sharon Megdal, center, with fellow Central Arizona Project board members Jennifer Brown and Mark Taylor at the ‘Cutting-Edge Solutions to Wicked Water Problems’ conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 2017. (Courtesy Jennifer Brown)

I recently had the great honor and pleasure of co-chairing the international water conference “Cutting-Edge Solutions to Wicked Water Problems.” Held Sept. 10-11 at Tel Aviv University’s beautiful Porter School of Environmental Studies building, the conference was jointly convened by the American Water Resources Association and the Water Research Center at Tel Aviv University. The Center’s director, professor Dror Avisar, served as conference co-chair.

The Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University

“Wicked water problems” include water overuse or over-allocation, impacts of long-term drought, the imbalance between growing demands for water relative to supplies, and transboundary challenges. Different regions face different problems, but the pathways to solutions often have common or similar elements. Israel is well known for its leadership in deployment of desalination technology, drip irrigation, and water reclamation, which has enabled it to address the scarcity of natural freshwater resources. The key thrust of the conference was to discuss the pathways to solutions in order to learn from colleagues’ experiences, and research. The active sharing and learning occurred through conference keynote addresses, technical presentations, field trips, and meals and hallway conversation. And learn we did!

In addition to speakers and attendees from the United States and Israel, experts from Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong participated.

The opening keynote speakers set the stage. Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, emphasized the need to look at the whole of the problem(s), including difficult-to-predict game-changing influences, such as those associated with climate. Her presentation underscored a concern water managers often discuss, namely that it will take a crisis to spur actions that many have known were advisable, but difficult to implement, due to political and cost considerations.

Professor Eilon Adar of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Resources at Ben Gurion University of the Negev provided an overview of how Israel has addressed the problem of water scarcity. Key strategies include improving water utilization efficiency for irrigation and other water applications, conservation, water reuse, and management of water quantity and quality. “New” usable water was created through treating and reclaiming wastewater and desalinating seawater and brackish groundwater. As in California, responding to crisis has figured into the timing of Israel’s water management actions. Drought conditions during the early part of this century led to a renewed look at seawater desalination. Desalinated water now accounts for more than 70 percent of the municipal water used in Israel. Adar emphasized the economic value of water and the importance of a holistic and coordinated approach to its management.

Remarks on “Immigration and the Water Crisis” by professor Eyal Zisser, TAU vice rector, helped provide a regional geopolitical backdrop to the discussions. Conference attendees received the most up-to-date information on the Red Sea-Dead Sea Project from Oded Fixler, senior deputy director general, Israel Ministry of Regional Cooperation. A 2013 Memorandum of Understanding signed by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority enabled the parties to move forward with what may be the first phase of a much larger effort to desalinate Red Sea water. The project involves building a plant in Jordan; about half of the desalinated water will be sold to Israel. Israel in turn will provide water from the Sea of Galilee in the north to Jordan. The project includes delivery of water to the Palestinian Authority for the West Bank, further demonstrating its regional
importance. Also incorporated are energy features and pumping the seawater desalination plant’s brine discharge to the Dead Sea to offset some of the decline in its water levels — another crucial water problem of the region.

We arranged for field trips to IDE Technolgies’ Sorek desalination plant, the largest reverse osmosis desalination facility in the world, and to Netafim’s drip irrigation manufacturing facility at Kibbutz Hatzerim in the Negev Desert, where participants learned about the technology embedded in drip emitters and life on a kibbutz. Those who did not participate in the field trip to Sorek were able to take a virtual tour of the Sea of Galilee and view our locally produced documentary “Beyond the Mirage,” which connects some of the water problems of Arizona to Israeli water management.

Two tracks of technical presentations on strategies to address water problems featured experts representing academic institutions, government water agencies, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations.

It is hard to convey the excitement associated with the conference in words. This was the first visit to Israel for many participants, some of whom were joined by family members. Wicked water problems will not go away, but the continued sharing of approaches and lessons learned should contribute to improved efforts to mitigate them.

Sharon B. Megdal, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. A longer version of this article appeared in the Arizona Water Resource newsletter,