Sunday, March 13, 2011

Technology could ease water crisis in Israel, West Bank

Written By: Eric Hiner

Edited By: Dave Talmage

For U.S. citizen Lauren Costello, the severity of the Israeli-Palestinian water shortage is illustrated by one thing: a plain, ordinary bucket.

Adel Handal, whose family hosted Costello for a two-month service trip to Bethlehem, places the bucket in the bottom of their shower to catch water. Like many people in the West Bank, the Handals must save and reuse every drop.

“Water is never guaranteed here,” Costello said. “Whenever it rains, people are like ‘Oh, thank God! We needed this so badly."

Like their neighbors, the Handals have running water courtesy of Mekerot, the national water company of Israel. However, Mekerot shuts off the pipes to Bethlehem when water is scarce.“They control the water,” Handal said. “In the summer, they cut it. Sometimes a month, no water.”

“When the water runs, it is often only for two to three days, Handal said. After that, residents must struggle through another dry month.

Handal has a well, but some of his neighbors are not so lucky. Many Bethlehem residents keep large water tanks on top of their homes to store water shipped in from outside the city. Others rely on the local spring, which Costello said is often polluted with sewage because the city lacks a reliable sewer system.

Living with less

People like Handal have been forced to live with less water as the water crisis in Israel and the West Bank has worsened. The Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures stated in 2002 that “Israel’s water economy is on the brink of a crisis,” and that rising demand is draining the country’s supplies. The Israeli government has made wastewater reclamation and seawater desalination top priorities, but water is still scarce.

Human and political factors have complicated the crisis, said Mira Edelstein, resource development and foreign media officer for the Israel branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization that lobbies for water sharing and studies the effects of climate change on water. The region’s uncertain political future has prevented water and wastewater infrastructure from being built in the West Bank, and droughts brought on by climate change will stress shrinking water supplies, Edelstein said.

A failing infrastructure

Many water reclamation techniques remain energy-intensive. The rural areas of the West Bank, which is still mostly under Israeli control, often go without water because the area lacks Israel’s technology and infrastructure.

Israel and the West Bank share water sources and an ecosystem, but neither party is wholly responsible for infrastructure in the West Bank, Edelstein said. The region is divided into three zones of control, and the Israeli government has been slow in helping Palestine develop, Edelstein said.

“If it’s Palestinian jurisdiction or Israeli jurisdiction, it certainly is another obstacle. Who’s going to run it? Who has rights?” Edelstein said.

However, a partial solution to this problem could come from new, homegrown technologies. While political issues are likely to persist, technological advances could make water reclamation more feasible in rural areas. Proponents believe technology could also lead to less strain on traditional water sources.

Solutions arise in Nesher

In Nesher, about 60 miles north of Tel Aviv, the company Mapal Green Energy has developed a simple way to treat water without heavy equipment or moving parts.

The system uses dissolved air, which is pumped into basins filled with wastewater. The air, which enters the water as tiny bubbles, promotes the growth of natural bacteria. Those bacteria clean the water by digesting the human waste. The clean water can then be skimmed off the top and further treated for use in irrigation.

While aerating wastewater is common throughout the world, most treatment plants use paddles or metal arms to splash the water’s surface and mix in the air. Zeev Fisher, Mapal’s vice president for business development and international marketing, said using a fine-bubble pump can cut the energy needs of a wastewater treatment plant by up to 70 percent.

The system’s mechanical simplicity bodes well for rural areas that do not have many skilled engineers, said Mapal Sales and Marketing Coordinator Sarit Tordjman.

“The main problem in many rural areas is they don’t have the manpower to maintain the [traditional] system,” she said. “The advantage of our system is that it doesn’t require high maintenance.”

The system could allow more wastewater to be recycled in rural areas, Fisher said. Although the water from Mapal’s process is not fit for drinking, it is clean enough for watering crops, which is a major use of fresh water in Israel.

“If you reduce the use of clean water for irrigation, you increase the water supply for drinking, cooking,” Fisher said.

More options for the future

Other technologies are being developed to improve desalination. Moshe Herzberg is a scientist with the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He said his research can improve the energy efficiency of reverse osmosis desalination, a technique used to remove salt from seawater or wastewater.

Reverse osmosis works by pushing salty water through a porous membrane that catches and removes the salt. Trouble arises when bacteria in the water settle on the membrane and secrete a layer of organic matter that obstructs the flow.

Herzberg refers to that layer as “biofilm,” and he said it can make desalination less efficient. The film makes it harder to push the water through the membrane, which means the process requires more energy. Removing that barrier has benefits, Herzberg said.

“You are just removing the obstacle for the technology. You are using the membranes more efficiently,” Herzberg said. “You get better flux. You reduce the energy costs.”

Edelstein cautioned that technology should only be part of the solution, and that Israel and Palestine must work together to protect water resources and build infrastructure.

“Water knows no boundaries. What one side does impacts the other side,” she said. Fisher said the technology is up to the task of helping with the region’s water problems, and that it now a question of political will. “We have the solutions, but now it is a question of the politicians deciding to do it,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Costello

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