By Corin Degani
The Colorado River in the United States, the main water source for some 40 million people, is perhaps the place that best illustrates the severity of today’s climate crisis. Despite a years-long drought and water evaporating due to rising temperatures, states such as California, Arizona and Nevada continue to rely on the river in the absence of a long-term solution. One year ago, after negotiations between state governments failed, the federal government intervened and set mandatory cutbacks in usage of the river’s water supply.
The story of the Colorado River should serve as a warning sign for the world: Even developed Western countries will face crises if water resources aren’t properly managed.
Israel, on the other hand, is sitting pretty.
“From the beginning, Israel’s water economy was built in a smart and unique way,” says Tami Shor, who previously held senior positions in Israel’s water management system and is now the Chief Operating, Manufacturing and Engineering Officer at N-Drip. The strength of Israel’s water economy is clear: As large swathes of Europe and the U.S. struggle to cope with water shortages, Israel has dramatically reduced its dependence on naturally occurring drinking water.
A project by Israel’s Mekorot water company, currently in its final phases, will result in a pipeline streaming desalinated water to the Sea of Galilee, once Israel’s main source of water. In the past, such a project would have sounded ludicrous. “This is almost inconceivable,” says Shor. “Desalinated water will be streamed for use in and around the Sea of Galilee. The dramatic changes in climate and the oscillation of our water sources make it impossible for the area to function independently in terms of water supply.”
This is the last link in a chain that will likely make Israel better prepared for the climate crisis than most countries on earth.
“The first master [water economy] plan was prepared by Simcha Blass, one of the founders of Mekorot, before the founding of the state. Even back then, the goal was to establish a national corporation that would be in charge of the country’s central water system. It was an insane investment to be made at such an early stage, but the vision was positive, and resulted in the inauguration of Israel’s national water carrier, the ‘Hamovil Ha’artzi,’ in the 1960s. For Israelis, this is trivial, but a central water system is not a common practice around the world.”
“In the 1950s, Israel passed The Water Law, an incredibly progressive law stating that water resources belong to the public, and their management is entrusted to the state. In the U.S., on the other hand, if you own property and there’s a well on it, the water in the well belongs to you. In Arizona, for instance, water rights were seized by those who arrived first – during the gold rush, for example. The result was farmers with extensive and untouchable water rights.”
The establishment of desalination and sewage water treatment plants were also pivotal to getting Israel’s water economy to where it is today.
“Water supply used to travel north to south. Now, following desalination, water comes from the west and heads north,” Shor explains. “Desalination provides some 600 million cubic meters of water per year, and by the end of the decade, it will provide some 900 million cubic meters per year – with yearly consumption at 2 billion cubic meters.”
“In the late 1970s and the 80s, when it was clear that the population was growing quickly and that in the long term, there wouldn’t be enough water, they realized that sewage is not just a burden but another source of water. Today, 90 percent of the sewage water in Israel is recycled for agricultural use. After the water is purified at the ‘Shafdan’ (the wastewater treatment plant in central Israel), it’s transported via a pipeline towards Yavne, where it undergoes natural sand-filtering, and is then pumped further south to be used as irrigation water. ”
As a result of these changes, the country’s water system underwent a fundamental shift: Water and sewage corporations were established to force municipalities to invest in water infrastructure and cut back on water losses, agreements were made with farmers on water costs and the Water Authority was established – an official body unifying powers that were previously scattered across various government ministries.
A crop field in Arizona irrigated by N-Drip’s system.Credit: Uri Segev
“Within 10 years, five desalinization plants were built in Israel, three of which were the largest in the world at the time. Such a number of plants, in such a short time – is unprecedented.”
Israel is also far ahead in the use of drip irrigation, which N-Drip hopes to change. The startup seeks to solve an issue common to the developing and developed world alike, flood irrigation.
Shor joined N-Drip after serving in many field positions, from the Jordan Valley’s water engineer early in her career to Deputy Director for Regulation at the Water Authority. The man who founded N-Drip and currently serves as its CTO and Chairman is Prof. Uri Shani, who was the inaugural director of the Water Authority. The company completed a fundraising round of $44M in late June, at a valuation of $200M.
“Israel invented drip irrigation back in the 1960s, and despite that – 85 percent of global irrigation is done through flooding the field,” Shor says, adding that “drip irrigation doesn’t only save water, it also saves fertilizer and produces better crops. But only three percent of the world’s farmers use drip irrigation, and another 12 percent use sprinklers.”
For farmers, there are two good reasons not to use drip irrigation. “Drip irrigation needs two things: Clean water that won’t clog the drip holes, and water pressure. But first and foremost, a farmer needs to be motivated to make that change, and lack of water is real motivation to change your irrigation method,” Shor says.
N-Drip has developed a precise irrigation system that uses gravity and no external energy – meaning it eliminates the farmer’s need for pumps and a power source. Farmers who previously used flood irrigation will reduce their water and fertilizer consumption by about 50 percent, and will lower their greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Yet not all farmers want to make the change, Shor explains. “Corn, wheat, sugar cane, cotton and rice – all these crops are grown using flood irrigation. For those farmers, shifting to drip irrigation, which requires constructing proper infrastructure, is unrealistic. ”
Israel’s Granot water desalination plant.
N-Drip currently employs over 100 people and has a factory in Migdal Ha’emek, where its drip technology is manufactured. The startup has clients all over the globe: from Australia to Italy’s Po Valley – normally high-yielding farm land suffering from a harsh drought.
In the U.S., a major target market for the company, N-Drip has built a production line in Arizona, and in India it works with Pepsico in its potato farming projects.
“A giant like Pepsico is the first to notice water scarcity, because it plans its production chain years ahead. So it has a strong interest to introduce water-saving technologies. But concurrently, we have to reach the individual farmer. Our biggest challenge, more than technology, is to change how farmers think, after centuries of they and their ancestors irrigating in a certain way.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance