92 93 «Necessity is the mother of invention» is a well-known, sometimes overused proverbial saying. But it seems fitting as a shorthand explanation of how a country that is 60% desert, that has historically suffered from perpetual water shortages and is experiencing a rapidly expanding population, has managed to produce 20% more water than it needs. Only a few years ago, the growing gap between demand and available water supplies was becoming the national nightmare. Yet, Israel managed to avoid that parched future through pioneering technological innovation and infrastructure. If a need is the driving force for most new inventions, as the saying has it, then as a very small country with not enough water, a finite resource, there was a challenge that had to be met. Some of the major inventions, innovations and patents come from Israel’s southern Negev region, a living laboratory of arid lands science and technology. Promoting and shepherding the development of technologies dealing with desert-related challenges is DeserTech, one the newest innovation communities. The community was founded by the Merage Foundation Israel, a catalytic foundation aiming to promote economic growth in the Negev region, relying on the territory's competitive advantages. The Merage Foundation Israel saw the potential of creating an innovation cluster in the Negev, and joined forces with the Israel Innovation Institute, Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Together they initiated the DeserTech Community. DeserTech is located in Be’er-Sheva, the so-called “capital of the Negev”. It promotes the development, adaptation and commercialization of technologies that enable sustainable living in arid climates, particularly in the areas most affected by water scarcity. It runs international seminars for the development and adaptation of desert-related technologies and creates hundreds of business opportunities for Israeli startups in the fields of water, agriculture, renewable energy and infrastructure. The presence of thousands of startups and more engineers per capita than anywhere else in the world, makes Israel a natural hub for innovation. How to support and bring together all the diverse companies, academic centers and startups that address global needs is a challenge being met by the non-profit Israel Innovation Institute. The mission of this do-tank is to establish innovation communities in which entrepreneurs and startups in fields including healthcare, agriculture, transportation and climate change can share mutual challenges and solutions. The Institute helps the communities find resources, make connections and – vitally – exchange knowledge with industry players: how to match needs with solutions and create business opportunities. In addition, the Israel Innovation Institute accompanies and supports international organizations that join the Israeli innovation ecosystem. «Israel’s prime minister David Ben-Gurion was clever enough to understand that 60% of the country is desert, and if we don’t manage to live in this desert we will not survive», states Prof. Amit Gross, director of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. «Water issues have been a major concern since the beginning. We had to find solutions to water scarcity, where in other countries it wasn’t an issue. So, we have the advantage of several years during which we dealt with these concerns». Patricia Golan - the DeserTech Community Water in the desert Water disinfection and recycling, desalination, drip irrigation: Israel shares its expertise internationally «Israel is a kind of an isolated island, and when we have problems we have to find our own solutions», comments Steve Elbaz, vice-president of Watergen, a company which invented a technology creating – literally – drinking water out of air. Like Iron Dome, the mobile air defense system developed by Israeli defense industries, says Elbaz, «when you need a bubble of protection, you build it; when you don’t have water, you create it». Watergen’s technology sucks out the moisture from the air using solar energy, creating clean drinking water on the spot. Water-from-air units are currently being used in 65 countries, including the Gaza Strip and rural villages in Central Africa. Watergen is one of many Israeli companies, startups and academic research centers which have developed and are building successful technologies to deal with the existential problem of lack of water. Most, if not all, of the solutions have been developed in Israel’s south, an area now famous for innovative water conservation measures. Perhaps the oldest, and one of Israel’s greatest innovations, is the drip irrigation system invented and developed in the mid-1960s in Kibbutz Hatzerim, in the arid south. The then revolutionary method slowly applies water directly to the roots of crops through a network of tubes, valves and drippers. Today the multinational drip irrigation company Netafim, founded by the Kibbutz, operates in 150 countries, and drip irrigation waters 75% of Israel’s crops. Oddly, perhaps, for a country on the sea, Israel came fairly late to large-scale seawater desalination. Israel only started implementation in 2005, though the development of the practical use of reverse osmosis which revolutionized water desalination. It was developed by Sidney Loeb at Ben-Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. Traditionally, desalination is an expensive undertaking, but Israeli advances have made it much cheaper today, allowing it to expand its desalination program. There are now five large operational facilities in Israel with two more in development, allowing it to export water to other countries facing shortages, such as Jordan. For decades Israel has been famous for treating wastewater. Today it uses about 90% of its wastewater for agriculture, more than any other country. But because the system includes toilet water, beginning in 2003 researchers at the Zuckerberg Institute looked for a way of efficiently using of what is called greywater, that is wastewater generated in households or office buildings (sinks, bathtubs, washing machines etc.) but without toilet wastewater. «We realized that if you separate the domestic sources, and even exclude the kitchen stream, then the initial wastewater quality is much higher», explains Prof. Gross of the Zuckerberg Institute. The system, he says, had to be economically feasible and risk-free health-wise. The team set up what proved to be a successful experiment which ultimately led to the creation of guidelines for implementation. Though today the greywater system is employed by country clubs and other locations in Israel, the Health Ministry has not approved its wide-spread use in the country. «It’s a bit strange that we’re the leader in the world in terms of research on greywater, but in terms of practice Israeli research is being applied in many other countries, including Australia», states Gross. Almost all countries have wastewater treatment plants. But even the most modern plants must deal with the serious problem of levels of pollution that are higher than the system can manage. The Israeli company Kando has developed a highly accurate technology – a wastewater intelligence platform – that monitors incoming raw materials, identifying the sources of dangerous pollution, thus making the process more efficient. «Sometimes the quality of the incoming wastewater is so poor that the processes can’t cope. Often the plants have to shut down because there is no way to treat the wastewater; so it’s just dumped into the sea or river, because there are no other options», explains Jenny Gelman, head of Kando’s marketing and communications division. «That cycle can sometimes happen a few times a week». The Kando technology is a combination of hardware and software that gathers and analyzes data from different sources, and eventually alerts management so the situation can be handled in real time. «The Kando solution gives plants the ability to detect events in the network, track the source and make an impact on the wastewater facility», states Gelman. Another revolutionary and practical use of the wastewater intelligence platform is epidemiological, which came to light during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before people showed signs of being sick, it turned out that the virus manifested itself in the wastewater. In a joint project with Ben-Gurion University, the company developed a technique to improve screening of wastewater for variants of Covid, that gives health authorities advance warning of a potential outbreak. The application has already been adopted by Israel’s Health Ministry. According to Kando CEO Ari Goldfarb the company is helping governments around the world analyze their water to guide public health policy, including an early warning system on airplane toilets. The company has also detected sudden upticks of the polio virus in Israel, which is helping the government direct resources to unvaccinated neighborhoods.