Desalination: A Solution to Israel’s Water Woes?

By: Max
April 23, 2012

Israel’s water supply is on the verge of a state of emergency. The Israeli government has proposed an increase in desalination as the solution, and has made a plan to greatly expand their desalination program by 2020. However, the human, environmental, and financial costs of this method have not been fully explored. In a recently released position paper (Hebrew) analyzing Israel’s plan for desalination, FoEME outlines its recommendations for a balanced approach to resolve the water deficit in the Israeli water economy through limited desalinization and more environmentally friendly and sustainable approaches to water management.

Desalination is the purification of seawater for human consumption. Israel began its Sea Water Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) desalination program in 1999. Through reverse osmosis desalination, salt and other impurities are filtered out of the water through a semi-permeable membrane. There are currently three desalination plants in Israel, built in 2005, 2007, and 2009. Two more plants are currently under construction, due to open in 2013. This coincides with the government’s plan to increase the volume of desalinated water produced in Israeli threefold.

One of the primary concerns about the sustainability of producing large quantities of desalinated water is the high amount of energy the process requires. It takes three to four times more energy to desalinate seawater than to use natural reservoirs. Because almost all the electricity in Israel is generated by burning fossil fuels, this will increase greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution which is problematic especially as Israel has already pledged to reduce the rate of increase of its greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Another environmental issue is the seawater concentrate and chemical output of the plants, which will have a negative impact on the marine animal and plant life in the surrounding water.

Desalination also takes up land on the coast that is valuable in terms of both its inherent environmental qualities and public value. The economics of desalination represent another downside. Because of the high amount of investment required for desalination, its control will be in the hands of a few companies and individuals, and therefore the price of water could easily increase while the quality of service decreased. Desalination also does not create many jobs.

Rainwater Harvest System at the Beit Hinuh School.  Picture taken on December 2nd, 2008.
Rainwater Harvest System at the Beit Hinuh School. Picture taken on December 2nd, 2008.

The effects of consuming desalinated water versus freshwater have not been fully researched. One potential problem is the low level of magnesium present in desalinated water. To date, there is no standard established in Israel for the amount of magnesium that must be added to water, even though such a standard has been suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Adin Commission, and the Israeli Ministry of Health. What effects desalinated water has on topsoil and agriculture have not been examined. There is also the strategic risk of increasing Israel’s dependence on vulnerable engineering facilities.

These health, environmental, strategic, and financial costs need to be more fully researched and taken into account before Israel proceeds with its plans for increased desalination. While it seems like a clear-cut solution, there are still other options that can be explored or more fully exploited, including decreasing demand through tariffs, educating the population, and by enforcing current regulations that prevent the wasting of water. Increasing supply is possible through the further purification and reuse of sewage and grey water, agricultural reform, reduction in the use of water for municipal and domestic gardens, and by preventing the loss of water (e.g. through leakages and evaporation from reservoirs). These solutions are low risk, and will create more green jobs than desalination.

So could desalination be a solution for Israel’s water woes?  Possibly, but, as with any action that could be taken to ameliorate the water crisis, the impact of desalination must be carefully researched before implementation.

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 This post was contributed by FoEME intern Briana Parker. Briana is based in FoEME‘s Amman office.

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