In Israel, water where there was none

Necessity and ingenuity made Israelis leaders in water technology. Now, seeing vast global potential, they are teaming up with Mass. innovators

YATIR FOREST, Israel — On the chalky lower slopes of the Hebron Hills, in the midst of the scorched Israeli desert, there is an expanse known as “Green land,” where grapes grow lush on the vine, fruit orchards flourish, and a man-made forest of more than 4 million trees rises toward the sky.

Called Yatir, the forest and the vineyards it surrounds are potent symbols of Israel’s battle with nature. With science, technology, and, yes, a good amount of chutzpah, the arid country has figured out what few other desert regions have: how to squeeze enough water from a parched landscape to sustain a nation.

“This is the main war in Israel,” said Ya’acov Ben Dor, managing director at Yatir Winery, which uses 13.2 million gallons of water a year in an area that gets less rainfall than most parts of Texas, “the war against the desert.”


Israel, hoping to build on its home-grown success, is now turning to Massachusetts as an ally in this contest between nature and technology as rising temperatures, spreading deserts, growing populations, and pollution make water an increasingly precious commodity around the world. Attracted by the state’s technical know-how, innovative culture, and access to world markets, Israeli companies are investing, relocating, and seeking partnerships in Massachusetts to further advance their technologies and build a US platform from which to launch their global ambitions.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In Massachusetts, state officials and entrepreneurs see collaboration with Israel as an opportunity to build another world-class technology sector, one that will create potable water from the ocean; nurture crops with treated sewage; manage water quality with software; and mine for water in much the same way precious gems are unearthed.

The payoff could be huge. The global water industry today generates revenues of up to $600 billion a year, according to Boston market intelligence firm Lux Research Inc., and is projected to grow to $700 billion by the end of the decade.

“We’ve done it in IT. We’ve done it in biotech. We can do it in water,” said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state’s secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “In terms of growing [an industry] we do it better than anybody else.”

The challenges, however, are many. Massachusetts has several dozen water technology firms that make filters, control systems, and other equipment, but until recently the sector was so disjointed it could hardly be described as a cluster — the dense concentration of businesses in a single industry, such as technology in Kendall Square and Silicon Valley.

Some girls cooled off in the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main source of fresh surface water, in July.


As the sector tries to come together, it still must overcome fierce competition from established water industry hubs in places such as Singapore.

Finally, with plentiful rain and abundant streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds, Massachusetts lacks the sense of urgency driving innovation in Israel.

But the need for clean, fresh water is growing around the world, so much that analysts predict the search for water in the 21st century will become as vital — and lucrative — as the quest for oil in the 20th.

If water consumption continues to grow at its current pace, according to a study by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., demand will outstrip available resources by 40 percent within the next 20 years.

“Israel has invented for its own sake,” Governor Deval Patrick said in an interview. “We can invent for the world’s sake.”

‘Farmers without water’


It was nothing like the historic monuments that usually inspire visitors, yet the collection of white pipes, black tanks, and a control box beneath a metal canopy caught the imagination of Alicia Barton during a trade mission to Israel in December. The system recovers water from sewage in a single process that is more efficient, less energy-intensive, and less costly than existing technologies, which need several stages to treat wastewater.

This, thought Barton, chief executive of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, could be part of the state’s future. “We know that we have companies that can build those technologies,” she said.

The installation, at a wastewater treatment plant near Tel Aviv, is a pilot project of Desalitech, an Israeli company that recently opened its US headquarters in Newton. Desalitech, viewed by industry analysts as an up-and-coming water technology firm, has developed very efficient processes for treating sewage and industrial wastewater and removing salt from sea water.

Israel’s preoccupation with water has spanned thousands of years, as evidenced by the stone ruins of aqueducts and cisterns dating back to the Roman Empire and earlier. One underground aqueduct, today a tourist attraction, was ordered built in 701 BCE to protect the water supply of the City of David, Jerusalem’s birthplace.

Some 2,700 years later, Israel has succeeded in forcing the desert to recede. Since independence in 1948, cultivated agricultural land has nearly doubled while forested land has increased more than twentyfold, to nearly 274,000 acres from about 13,000, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Satellite images show a nation that is now largely green.

The transformation began in the 1950s with the construction of Israel’s National Water Carrier, a pipeline that transports water south from the Sea of Galilee — Israel’s main source of fresh surface water — into the Negev Desert. Around the same time, an engineer named Simcha Blass was developing a system of spiral plastic tubing that would revolutionize agriculture by nourishing plants drop-by-drop.

He turned to farmers at Kibbutz Hatzerim to prove his invention’s usefulness, forming a partnership with them that spawned Netafim Ltd., today the world’s leading maker of drip irrigation systems. Go anywhere in Israel, and Netafim’s products snake around trees lining city sidewalks, water orchid farms, and feed landscaping at local parks.

“We say necessity is the mother of all invention, and in our case this is true,” said Naty Barak, chief sustainability officer at Netafim. “We were farmers without water in a desert.”

Six wastewater treatment plants stretch the country’s resources even further. They clean sewage, which is then sent to one of nine facilities that disinfect the wastewater, making it sanitary enough to irrigate crops. Nearly 95 billion gallons of water — roughly 75 percent of Israel’s sewage — is reclaimed this way each year.

But perhaps no technology has done more to satisfy Israel’s thirst than desalination. Five massive plants dot the country’s coastline, sucking billions of gallons of water from the Mediterranean each year.

“No country that is close to the sea shouldn’t have water,” said Ron Yachini, vice president of business development at IDE Technologies Ltd., the company that built three of Israel’s largest desalination plants.

Drinking from the sea

In Caesarea, nearly 40 miles north of Tel Aviv, visitors stroll the sandy beach, their eyes trained on the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. In the distance looms a marvel of the modern era, its silvery pipes glowing pink in the sunset as they plunge into the sea.

Called Hadera, this is one of Israel’s largest desalination plants, where more than 53,000 filtering membranes hum as they strain salt from water. In the course of a year, this plant, built for about $400 million by IDE Technologies, produces 33.5 billion gallons of drinking water, about 10 percent of Israel’s domestic water consumption.

In a back corner, a spigot lets visitors sample a cup of the Mediterranean, turned sweet and fresh.

Israelis began drinking from the sea in 1965, when a desalination plant in Eilat on the Red Sea used an energy-intensive distillation process. Over the next several years, Israeli firms developed and advanced a much more efficient process using reverse osmosis, a filtration-like technology.

Since the 1970s, the cost of removing salt from sea water has plunged from about $2.50 per cubic meter of water, or 264 gallons, to as little as 50 cents, according to academic research in Israel. Still, the cost of water is not cheap: Israelis pay an average of $11 per 1,000 gallons of water, compared with Bostonians who pay less than $6 on average.

Israel, however, is confident that new advancements in desalination will push costs even lower, and by 2020, become capable of supplying all the nation’s domestic water consumption. But in a country where water remains the most valuable commodity, innovations to make the most of it never stop.

Drip-irrigation and related systems — many pioneered by Netafim — today nourish about 75 percent of Israel’s agricultural land and 5 percent of the world’s irrigated crops. From the original coil of plastic tubing that regulated the drip-drip-drip, Netafim has transformed the main component of the technology into an inch-long rectangle with a labyrinth of tiny channels to deliver the precious drops even more precisely.

Drink a glass of Robert Mondavi or Gallo wine, and you’re sipping a product that Netafim helped grow.

Or guzzle a Coke, another product an Israeli company has helped get to market. Blue I Water Technologies, a 10-year-old firm east of Tel Aviv, makes testing technology that Coca-Cola Co. uses to assure the quality of the water in its soft drinks.

In Lod, also near Tel Aviv, bacteria-filled petri dishes are scattered across a counter inside the lab of TACount, a start-up trying to reduce the time it takes to test water contamination. Nearby, machinery analyzed a water sample for E. coli and other contaminants in just five minutes — instead of several days that some testing methods require.

TACount chief executive Charles Gast recalled the 2010 rupture of a Massachusetts Water Resources Authority pipe that forced nearly 2 million people to boil water while authorities waited for tests to determine if it was safe to drink. If it had been available then, Gast said, TACount’s process “could have prevented the boil water notice over that weekend.”

Despite so much progress, water is still on every Israeli’s mind. Regular news reports and a Twitter feed provide updates on the levels of the Sea of Galilee. Many older Israelis still recall the government campaign decades ago that urged people to “save water, shower with a friend.” Conservation-minded citizens, meanwhile, wonder if such a scarce resource should be exploited through technology to transform a desert ecosystem into an unnatural oasis.

Neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Syria, have similar concerns, questioning whether Israel takes a disproportionate share of common resources, such as the Jordan River, which feeds the Sea of Galilee. Such tensions have erupted in violence in the past, including the Six Day War of 1967, which was fought in part over water supplies.

But as those debates rage at home, water technology companies are looking beyond Israel, seeking opportunities in the growing need for water as the global population increases. In the 20th century, noted Dominic Waughray, head of environmental initiatives at the World Economic Forum, global population quadrupled, but water use grew by a factor of nine.

“We have this success story of a rising middle class — people getting richer, using more paints, more cosmetics, and having more appliances,” Waughray said. “The faster our economy grows, the thirstier it is.”

Mass. collaboration

On the eighth floor of a high-rise sandwiched between a mall and a car dealership, Booky Oren sits amid the paraphernalia of more than a decade as a top executive in Israel’s water industry — a painting of a breaking wave, a commemorative photo of a desalination plant, a framed newspaper article. Here, the bespectacled 54-year-old now plays matchmaker for Israeli water technology start-ups looking for international partners.

Oren is a former executive chairman of Israel’s national water utility and onetime leader of the World Bank’s task force on innovation in the sector. When he talks water, others drink it in. For years, he has focused on one problem: launching Israel’s water technology industry onto the global stage. Massachusetts, he believes, can provide the platform.

In 2011, while Patrick was giving a talk during a trade mission, Oren listened as the governor expounded on how Massachusetts’ commitment to innovation and education has spawned industries such as life sciences and clean technology. When the governor finished, Oren asked, What about a water industry?

“And I said, well what about it?” Patrick recalled.

Oren argued that Massachusetts and Israel would be natural partners in such an endeavor because of their track records of nurturing innovation in other industries such as technology, life sciences, and alternative energy. The governor soon turned to his new environmental secretary, Rick Sullivan, who had been on the job about a week and a half, and said, “Make it happen.”

Two years later, Massachusetts has begun to attract Israeli water firms to complement a $4 billion cluster of home-grown water technology companies and global firms with local offices. The sector includes engineering and consulting operations, investment firms, and research operations, including Siemens Water Technologies in Lowell, which offers water treatment services; and CDM Smith Inc., a global consulting, engineering, and construction firm based in Cambridge.

Desalitech, the Israeli desalination company that moved to Massachusetts, recently landed a contract with the Los Angeles County sanitation districts to launch a pilot project to treat sewage. The company has already installed a water purification system in Massachusetts to water the greens of the Kittansett Club golf course in Marion. Desalitech chief executive Nadav Efraty said the system began operating last month.

“If Massachusetts wants to be a player, they need to be a test bed for young companies and they need to invest,” Efraty said. If that happens, he added, “endless companies are going to stream here.”

To ensure that outcome, state and water sector leaders have spent the past months building the foundations of a new industry group, the New England Water Innovation Network, which will connect firms with laboratories and facilities, such as the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant, that can be used to test, prove, and commercialize new products. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist plan to award tens of thousands of dollars in grants to Israeli-Massachusetts water industry collaborations.

If this nascent partnership can combine Israel’s innate understanding of water issues with Massachusetts’ technological nimbleness and market savvy, it could dominate the global industry, many sector leaders believe.

Consider again, the Yatir Forest, on the edge of the unforgiving Negev Desert. When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, floated the idea of a man-made forest in the dry expanse, many Israeli scientists scoffed at the idea. So Ben-Gurion found others to research techniques for planting and nurturing seedlings; Yatir’s first trees were planted in the mid-1960s.

Today, the once-barren land is also alive with farms, fulfilling Ben-Gurion’s vision, as the Bible says, of making the desert “blossom as a rose.” Fruit trees, heavy with nectarines, peaches, and olives, stretch toward the horizon. Strawberries grow plump in row after row of bushes. Tomatoes and grapes ripen on their vines.

It has become the modern version of the land of milk and honey, much of it nurtured, drop-by-drop, from water reclaimed from Tel Aviv’s sewage.

Globe reporter Erin Ailworth reported this story as part of the International Center for Journalists “Bringing Home the World” program, which funded her trip to Israel. She can be reached at erin Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.