Dec 28, 2000

Israel Decides Desalination is the Way Forward

After a great deal of discussion, debate and heated dialogues, Israel has
decided that the best way that the country can meet its current water demands
is to invest in large-scale desalination plants, reports Matthew Barker,
Research Analyst at Frost & Sullivan, the international marketing consulting

In late April 2000, Israel's Ministerial Committee for economic affairs
approved recommendations for the construction of the country's first major
seawater desalination plant. Initial estimates and plans for the plant are
that it will provide around 140,000 m3 per day of potable water, and construction
will cost around $150 million. The plant is to be built by a private contractor
under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) contract. The government will accordingly
agree to purchase a quantity of the water produced at an established price
over a predetermined period. A tender for the project is expected to be
issued in late 2000, and full commissioning is hoped to occur around 2004.

The plant will be located on the southern shores of Ashkelon and bids are
expected to be around $0.70 per cubic meter including investment recovery.
This move towards self-sufficiency regarding water resources was backed
up in mid-may as the Israeli Ministerial Economics Committee announced that
it was planning to allocate around $700 million for the purification and
desalination of water. Investment will be sourced into water purification
and desalination, wastewater purification for agricultural practices and
the cleaning of wells that have become salinated or polluted.

Over the last winter, there have been lower than average rainfall across
the Near East and North Africa, causing drought conditions and crop failures
in many areas. Although not one of the worst hit regions, Israel is also
suffering from over use of water and a lack of water replenishment. Mekerot,
Israel's national water company, recently announced that by winter 2001,
Israel would have no water reserves. These reserves are being replenished
at a slower rate than they are being abstracted and according to figures
released by the company, fixed water consumption in 1999 was 800 million
m3, as opposed to a replenishment of 700 million m3.

The question is how to restock the national water reserves? One solution
that has been discussed at length is the transportation of water from water-rich
Turkey on a contractual basis either by ship or pipeline. This idea has
received widespread criticism for it being merely a stopgap solution that
will solve the immediate problem but will not provide a serious solution
to future water crises. Who can predict what Turkey's water situation may
be like in 5 years time? If water imports stop, the situation could be disastrous
for the region. So, the best solution seems to be the conversion of salt
water into potable water for municipal and industrial use.

The Israeli water commissioner, Meir Ben-Meir, has long been an advocate
of the installation of desalination plants in the region and the long term
benefits that this type of plant will provide. Ben-Meir is also keen to
point out that this market will contract out plants on a BOT basis, although
he is also adamant that when the tender is made this summer that the majority
of bids are made from private companies rather than from government entities
such as state-owned water company Mekorot or electricity monopoly Israel
Electric Corporation, as he believes that government involvement will jeopardize
private sector participation. Matthew Barker continues: "It is also
quite a contentious issue in that water scarcity in the region could be
a future spark for war between Israel and its neighbors. If Israel ensured
that it was producing enough water to support its own population it could
no longer be accused of stealing water from its neighbors. With the area
around the inland Sea of Galilee being at the center of debate in peace
negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the common co-operation
between states in the region concerning water resources could ensure that
there is a future peace between its peoples." Of all the different
proposals put forward to supply Israel's water shortfall, large scale desalination
projects, although not providing an immediate solution, would be able to
provide a supply of water for its 20 to 30 years lifetime from a limitless
source. With falling prices and technological improvements in desalination
plants, this solution to an ever-present problem could prove vital to preserving
both peace and life in the Middle East.