Water, water, everywhere - and many drops to drink (National Post, May 3, 2006)

REHOVOT, Israel - My last trip to Israel was in July, when Tel Aviv is punishingly hot. The landscape was brown and thirsty-looking. One never stepped out of doors -- and never for long in any case -- without bottled water at hand.

This time, I came during the short annual window that showcases Israel's freshest and greenest face. From the approach by air, produce fields of vibrant green stretched to the horizon, and on the ground, from the lushness of the foliage, you wouldn't know you were in one of the world's 25 most water-stressed countries.

The prospect of life without a superfluity of water makes me anxious, which makes Canada an ideal home for me. I'm happy to have learned on this trip, however, that future generations of Israelis will no longer face that particular challenge.

Last week, the son of my Israeli friend Barbara invited me to a luncheon celebrating the ceremonial laying of a desalination intake pipeline at Kibbutz Palmachim, about 20 kilometres south of Tel Aviv. In speaking to the general manager of Via Maris, the private firm carrying out the project, I was surprised to find out how much desalination methods have improved over the last 30 years. By March 2007, the Via Maris plant alone will supply 30-million cubic metres of freshwater per year.

Of the 12,500 desalination plants currently operating in the world, the largest, producing the cheapest water, is in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, down the coast. Ashkelon produces 100-million cubic metres per year. There is a third project in the works up at Hadera. By 2010, desalination will provide 15% of Israel's needs; 30% by 2020.

I always assumed Israel had pioneered and remained on the cutting edge of desalination technology. But in fact it is Saudi Arabia that is the most advanced and the most productive. I learned this from Barbara's next door neighbour and friend, a petite grandmother with an amiable air called Miriam Balaban, who by an odd coincidence is one of the world's leading experts on desalination. Editor-in-chief of the journal Desalination for 40 years, Miriam has midwifed thousands of articles on the subject.

Miriam is also secretary-general of the European Desalination Society. She organizes conferences all over the world, and, she informed me, is received like royalty in the Arab countries -- Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Dubai, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria -- where she frequently travels (but on her American, not her Israeli passport, for the usual reasons).

Miriam kindly invited me to her impressively equipped home office for our interview. There, surrounded by five state of the art computers and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of documents, she presides over the desalination world via her Desalination Directory (of which she is also the editor and publisher), a data bank of 19,000 names and publications. There are 786 names from Saudi Arabia, as one might expect. But who would have thought that freshwater Croesus Canada would have produced 295 desalination specialists, with 75 organizations and 91 published papers to our credit?

The future of desalination lies in solar technology. In a few years, it will be cost-effective, and then, one hopes, freshwater shortages will become the smallpox of the water world, tamed and finally eradicated.

There has been an explosion of industry and research in the last few years. The number of published papers on desalination has tripled, while the actual capacity has doubled. Add to that improved efficiency in recycling agricultural water -- Miriam says there is an abundance of agricultural-use water, as it can be re-used endlessly -- and the world's freshwater future is bright.

Freshwater availability, however, will never trump culture and politics. Israel has offered to build a plant for Gaza or sell the Arabs there very cheap water, but they refuse. Gaza would rather go thirsty than drink Israeli-purified water.

To round out the rosy picture, desalination plants are not even expensive. The Via Maris project, which by March 2007 will be producing enough water to cover the domestic needs of two large Israeli cities, will cost about $US67.5 million -- or as the manager put it, "about the cost of one-and-a-half war planes."

If only the need for those could go the way of small pox as well.


© National Post 2006