Part II of this Israel Knowledge at Wharton interview with Israeli water experts considers the successful technologies and water management techniques that have been pioneered in Israel, and how they might aid others in coping with the world’s quickly rising problem of water scarcity. Members of the panel include Eilon M. Adar, director of the Institute for Water Research, and Avigad Vonshak, director of desert research, at Ben Gurion University. Joining the discussion is Noam Lior, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Would you give an overview of the kinds of [water] technologies, ideas, innovations in Israel today that would apply very well to other countries that may be facing problems.

Vonshak: I would try and divide them into two. And maybe Eilon will elaborate on the technology of reclaiming and producing water. But there is the other part and this is the consumer — and understanding that it’s not enough to produce more water, you have to use it in a more efficient way. And even the term “efficiency” or “water sustainability” is getting to be controversial. So if you come to a farmer and ask him what water use efficiency is, his answer will be very simple. How much money do I make from a unit of water? And this is the advantage of the relatively educated Israeli farmer, he can adopt, diverse and change whatever he is doing with the water based on market needs and price of the market of the product.

The best example – and this is something that we developed in our institutes — is aqua culture in dry lands.  Growing fish in the desert seems to be a crazy idea but makes a lot of sense if you measure the efficiency by the amount of protein you’re producing per unit of water.

And then you realize that fish, as I say, live in water but they don’t consume the water. So the challenge is intensive farming of aqua culture, recycling of water, using the water afterwards in order to have another product, like growing dates, for suddenly from one unit of water, you actually have two products – you have fish and you have dates. You increase the well-being and the income of a farmer and you utilize the water in a very smart way. There is a need associated with the understanding of people that at a certain stage there will be a change in the diet of what we are eating. And this is just one example and there are many others – growing vegetables that not only thrive on saline water but actually take up the salt – all the way to growing algae and microalgae, that again, the water can be recycled and the product that you are producing has a very high value in the market.

This, of course, depends on the ability of the technology to provide us with more good quality water. And I think Eilon is the right person to elaborate on this one.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do we have the technologies we’d need right now? Or we’re going to have to develop more?

Adar: We do have technologies. However, the question is whether these technologies are adequate for the future. But before that, to continue with what Avigad said, the question is whether it will be sufficient to dwell on increasing water use efficiency to solve the problem globally. And the example from Israel is that it’s not. In Israel we reached high use efficiency by whole means, by whole standards, but it’s not enough.

And it’s not enough, definitely not enough. In spite of the fact that the agricultural sector in Israel is now getting only 25% of the water consumed [it] consumes as fresh water. Forty-seven years ago the agricultural sector consumed 1.1 billion cubic meters of water – at that time 100% fresh water. Slowly but surely in 45, 47 years later they moved to 68% treated, reclaimed sewage water, only 24% fresh water. The rest is fresh brackish water. And surprise, they consume the same amount of water today – 0.998 billion [cubic meters]. And a big surprise, the agricultural production was not negatively affected. They produce 10 times more – to be accurate, 10.2 times more than 47 years ago. And bear in mind, the Israel GDP during that time is nine times higher. And the population at the time was 3.2 million people and now we are 7.6 million people. So it can be done.

However, the question is, and I’m coming back to the issue, whether that will be sufficient to solve the problem? And the answer is no. We reached almost the highest efficiency and we still have a gap between what is available and the demand. Now demand is a relative term. But the motto in our country is that the fact that water is a scarce commodity should not have a negative impact on our economy, on our society. So to close the gap we had to come up with novelties and technologies to treat water – by desalination of brackish water, by desalination of sea water. There are many ways to go. We finally went for those mega plans when we reached the solution that we can produce one cubic of meter from sea water desalination utilizing 3.75 kilowatt hours of energy at the cost of – not energy, the global cost of between 6.5656 to 66 U.S. cents per cubic meter. And it’s affordable. So I think that’s the way to go. And I don’t say which way it will be developed. We have to get our signs – full clearance to get wild and come up with different ideas. And at the Water Institute at the Ben Gurion University we actually explore several avenues. I cannot tell which will finally be materialized. And that will be, of course, the most efficient one moneywise.

Lior: I’d like to add some qualification to what Avigad said, maybe to lead a discussion to a little different direction. Having been a farmer in Israel, the value of water is how much money you can make from your product, not per unit of water but per unit cost of water. So the cost of water is a very important ingredient and maybe the dominant one in the situation. We also talked a lot about food and agriculture. But in fact in Israel as far as I have seen, industry uses at least as much water globally as I recall.

Adar: No. Industry consumes about 10% of water.

Lior: Well, the industry is described in the statistics that I got from the Israeli literature [reported the level as higher].

Vonshak:  Well, this may be when the time when we had the huge textile industry — not any more. They cannot afford the prices. You have to realize that this brings us back to cost of water and pricing, and policies and politics.

Lior: Well, industry includes cooling water for power plants and for desalination plants and so on. But anyway, we’ll take whatever they say as the truth. But in fact, industry does use water and there is a need to reduce the consumption and improve the quality of the water that comes out of there, too.

Adar: Yes and to improve this quality of the effluence is really a challenge. And as you probably realize, we don’t see effluence as waste. Effluent is another resource that has to be treated and later on reclaimed. And reclaiming effluence from the industry is a very challenging process and we try very hard to come up with solutions, not because it will provide us with additional significant amounts of water, but because of protecting the environment. We signed the Barcelona Treaty for not contaminating the Mediterranean Sea and we are very much concerned with that.

Knowledge at Wharton:  A lot of the innovation, then, that you’ve undergone in Israel has been driven by constraints, by price. That price constraint hasn’t bit down in places like the U.S. yet, where water is mostly very cheap. You would probably say very underpriced. Can you talk about the importance of price and how that may be really the mechanism that changes or forces change?

Vonshak: I think that we have to understand that the water issue is not just availability of water for consumption and agriculture and industry. We have to realize that water has an impact on every facet of our life. And this is why water research, if you want, and developing it is something that requires an interdisciplinary approach from the social problems, the education problems, energy consumption, the technology itself and finally food production. So all of it has to be put in a basket, and then it’s up to the leadership and the politicians to put a real price tag – not of how much does it require to produce a unit of a water, but what is the contribution to society in large of this unit of water.

And it’s OK to say to a country, we subsidize our water so that we can develop a region in the country. In Israel, if I live in the desert, I pay the same amount for water as someone who lives in the north. And someone can claim that it’s not fair, but this is a kind of a social, political issue that is confined to the policies of the country. And this is why there is no need to have a global price for water. Every country has the right to do it as long as the decisions are really driven by the understanding that there are many inputs into it.

And unfortunately sometimes, this is not the case, which leads to wasting of water. We discussed before our farmer in the southern part of France who is basically using water in a very wasteful way because of politics and policies that have nothing to do with a national contribution of this particular [kind of] agriculture in the country. And one can go side by side your geographical regions and find this kind of, if you want, stupid decisions we get, cannot be explained.

Adar: There is a flex price all over the country in Israel as Avigad mentioned, but different pricing for treated water, brackish natural water and blue, so-called fresh, water. For the agricultural sector as long as you use the quota allocated – by the way, it changes every year according to the situation – as long as you used the quota, or within the quota, it’s a constant price. If you exceed the quota – sometimes they cut the [amount] because there is no water, the price is elevated automatically. The same for domestic use. There is a quota that for a family has a reasonable cost – it’s still expensive. But if you exceed the quota, if I want to water my garden I want to see some green in front of my eyes, I have to pay. It’s a matter of priority.

Vonshak: Exactly. The pricing can be used by the government as a way of implementing policies. If you get a farmer to pay a much more real price for the water, he will be driven to use it more efficiently.

Adar: The best example is from the farmers. You see, many farmers, especially in the Negev Desert, they get three types of water at the gate – the blue, fresh, more expensive; the green, brackish, quite cheap and in the middle is the red water, the treated sewage water. And every farmer has its own tanks in the farm and he makes the mélange based on the growing season, germination, the crop, pricing. He makes the decision. But he knows – as Avigad said — he knows a priori how much he pays for every cubic meter he takes from each of these colored lines.

Knowledge at Wharton: So being so close to this as you are and having lived through the development of these pretty extraordinary technologies, are you hopeful about how the world will handle water in the future? In other words, is it your view that eventually water’s going to get expensive – the price will go up to a point where people will have to adopt new behaviors, new technologies — and thank goodness that technologies are there? Or are you less optimistic for reasons you can explain to me.

Lior: I’d like to just add one thing which will maybe also direct the answer. In addition to what Avigad and Eilon said, there should be in the sense of sustainable development some depletion allowance in the price. Because water gives us some things now, but we have to take into account the price of it being a lower quantity in the future. There are depletion allowances in some areas, not in water but in some other resources. Until the world agrees that this kind of depletion allowance should be included in the price in addition to all of the other costs, we are going to be in trouble.

Vonshak: We are in trouble.

Adar: Yes.

Vonshak: And the reason I am more optimistic is that there’s no other choice. So the question is: When are we going to wake up  – [will it be] early enough? Or will it have to go to a much worse situation? And this can be carried away up to issues of health in Africa or just the need to dry out our golf courses.

Adar: I follow Avigad. I’m also an optimist. And I think that by just reviewing the scientific community, we are driven by the market, so called. And I see among my colleagues, researchers in different institutes, we – the scientific community – work very hard to come up with more novel methods and later on technologies I hope, to be able to produce more water, more adequate water, in a more efficient way.

However, we have to take the holistic approach here. Don’t forget, for every cubic meter now with the current technology available, we need 3.75 kilowatt hours [of electricity] – just in the Middle East. This year, we desalinated 400 million [cubic meters]. Next year, December, 2013, it will be 505 million cubic meters a year, half a billion just for Israel. What about Palestine? They need about 300 million. What about Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan? What about dry Syria? So then, the amount of fossil oil becomes significant with all the consequences. So we have to look for, as I said, the holistic approach and look for alternative methods with maybe cleaner energy associated with desalination, whether it’s wind driven desalination or solar energy driven desalination. And it’s not just to create electricity from solar panels and plug the old desalination plant to that, it’s more sophisticated.

But we have to be concerned. We shall be able – and I’m an optimist – to meet the demand for water, definitely. The question is whether it will be affordable to the entire population or only to very special segments, or sections and what will be the toll on the environment. But we’d better think about it right now and develop it together. Not come later – 15 years from now, coming with the technologies, then we say, okay, yes, but it has a very significant impact, negative impact on the environment. Then it will be too late.

Knowledge at Wharton: People might have thought the Middle East would be the test case for all of this. But we’ve seen this year severe droughts in the United States and the effects on lower production, therefore the effects on prices – the real spike in food prices, food shortages, that sort of thing. And depending on one’s view on climate change – that could become the norm. And so is that the beginning of a wake-up call for the rest of the world? You, in the Middle East, have faced this for a long time and have had a lot of time to think about it. The rest of the world has not.

Adar: We don’t have that much of dry farming in the Middle East. So the so-called annual fluctuations have more impact on dry farming rather than on irrigated land. So, well, maybe it might be a wake-up call. It’s too early to say. But at least we can hear the bell.

Knowledge at Wharton: Any final words?

Vonshak: Just to the wake-up call: There are so many wake up calls that human nature – the tendency is to ignore them all. There’s a wake-up call on energy. There’s a wake-up call on food. There is a wake-up call on environment. And, as scientists, what we are trying to say is [it is all] the same wake-up call. By the time you exaggerate on one hand, you are causing a pull on the other one.

And alongside the holistic approach we have to understand – and this goes all the way even to the way we educate our students – the understanding that the need to be a good scientist requires an inter-disciplinary background – the ability to tackle an issue from an inter-disciplinary approach. And this again, if I may go back to our backyard, to the desert research institutes, this is why you have this kind of diversity of people dealing with issues – all the way from desert architecture – how are you going to build your houses, your cities?

And this is true not only for Israel. Phoenix, Arizona is facing the same problem as a small settlement in the Israeli Negev. It’s even blown up and a bigger problem in Phoenix, Arizona. So it’s desert architecture. It is energy. It is education. It is social issues — everything, if you want, it’s the same wake-up call. We are going to face and we are actually facing a problem. And the wake-up call is not only for the scientific community, but also for the politicians and the leaders because finally scientists don’t make decisions. They finally may be able to provide good advice.

Adar: I think this is a very important point. We should give the advice but we have to educate the politicians as well.

Lior: Yes, I think that the demand and pricing seem to be more dominant than the scientific inventions, unfortunately. And policy, we can blame the quote unquote politicians, but we elect them, usually.

So if the people don’t understand the problems, then we elect the wrong people.

Vonshak: So it’s a game – put the blame on me.

Lior: Yes put the blame on us. And just, not to leave the global warming issue open, there were some brief comments made. But whether you believe in global warming or not, there are two incontrovertible facts. One is we are doing our best to increase global warming.

So there is no question about it. The emissions of green house gases are increasing and their effect on global warming is absolutely true. And the second thing that is also incontrovertible is that we see the massive melting of the icebergs. This is not a question – and of the snow caps. So something is creating it. And to ignore it and to say that there’s no global warming and we’ll continue I think is a very bad mistake.

Vonshak:  Absolutely.

Knowledge at Wharton: It is the lowest level of ice cover for summer in the North [in the Artic Sea, since satellite measurements were first taken in 1979].

Adar: Yes, as far as we know.

Knowledge at Wharton: As far as we know in the North, correct?

Vonshak: Also in the South. There’s a very interesting study just published about the Mt. Kenya in Africa. The ice disappeared. There’s no snow anymore — in the summer time, for the first time ever.

Knowledge at Wharton:  And they’re talking about an ice free North Pole area perhaps in as little as 10 years in the summer.

Lior: This is disappearing, yes.

Vonshak: So ignoring climate change is up to the stage of being ridiculous.

Adar: But on the other hand, you see, if we follow the Russians, they are very optimistic because they claim more land in Siberia will join the productive land because of the defrosting.

Vonshak: Yes, it’s a good joke.

Adar: Yes, it’s a joke, but they claim that more land will be able to be cultivated now in Siberia. We shall see.

Vonshak: And they’re selling cruises in the Bering Sea already.

Knowledge at Wharton: So there is an upside. Thank you very much for joining us.