Water Mission to Israel (Day 1): The Past and Present of the Israeli Water Story

12/17/12Follow @jmatheson

I did say it was going to be a packed schedule, so here I am sitting down at 1am in Tel Aviv sharing the highlights of Day 1 of the Massachusetts-Israel Water Mission. The first 24 hours have been filled with a whirlwind of history, sights, and sounds, spending time with fellow delegates and lots of wonderful Israeli food. (You can follow the delegation’s activity on Twitter at #MWIM.)

We started with our first group meal last night in Tel Aviv Port at a lovely restaurant called Boya which is rumored to be President Bill Clinton’s favorite in the city—after the amazing desserts, I can believe it. It was a nice chance to get to meet the diverse and engaging collection of folks who make up the delegation.

The morning wake-up call came too early after the too-late dinner, but we were greeted by another full complement of Israeli breakfast food and a far-reaching talk about the Israeli water ecosystem by Oded Distel, Director of Israel NewTech. NewTech is a quasi-government group which helps facilitate cleantech innovation, and Oded focused not just on the spirit of innovation in Israel, but more so on the cultural and economic shifts needed to drive water innovation in any community or country—a common theme in any water discussion and a key lesson already learned for the entire delegation.

We then boarded the bus for Caesarea which was the seat of the Roman Empire in the region. On the drive there and throughout the day, we were captivated by the recent and ancient history of Israel and the region as provided by Abraham Silver—a frenetic, funny, and incredibly well-versed guide who shared so many anecdotes and stories that I want to come back and just travel around the country with him. Abraham shared the importance and history of water over the past four millennia and while we were enjoying a beautiful sunny day, he reminded us that this is the rainy season and the sun was less welcome than a bit of rain. He shared stories of the earliest movement of humanoids across the beaches of now modern Israel and the importance of the country to the Romans as a stronghold into the spice trade routes into the Persian regions. Caesarea was the throne of King Herod, and the remnants of Herod’s bold manmade harbor still remain, as does the end of the Roman Aqueduct which brought water from the hills of eastern Israel to Caesarea. These tremendous engineering feats still represent the basis for water management which is practiced in many parts of the world today.

From the past at Caesarea, we traveled a short distance to the ultra-modern present and a tour of IDE’s Hadera desalination facility. Hadera is the largest desal facility in the world, processing about 150 million gallons per day using reverse osmosis (RO) desalination at a very narrow footprint facility located next to a towering 80 MW coal-fired power plant. The facility was massive, modern, and elegantly efficient. It produces water for a price of $0.57 per cubic meter, which is a fraction of a penny per gallon. Several 6 MW high pressure pumps feed the endless banks of RO membranes, and then the energy recovery devices at the end of the process recapture the vast majority of the energy, which enables it to be the most efficient desalination facility in the world—at least until the new plant at Sorek is commissioned next year.

Later in the day we traveled to Old Jaffa which is the “original” Tel Aviv and a city with fascinating history with great importance throughout the past 2,000-plus years. It was much cleaned up and improved since my last visit there over 20 years ago, and its narrow, stone streets have a variety of shops, bookstores, public art, and great restaurants. As we stood on the hill of Jaffa looking down onto the bustling activity of Tel Aviv, we learned of the brave experiment that founded modern Tel Aviv in 1909 and which helped shape the psyche and energy of Israel today. In that year, sixty families made their way to Jaffa and looked down from our same spot onto the endless rolling hills of sand that was then “Tel Aviv” and decreed that they would build a modern city in the form of New York.  One hundred and three years later, Tel Aviv is truly one of the world’s great cities with a strong economy, diverse culture, and a beautiful façade.

We finished the night with a lovely dinner in Jaffa at Cordelia, including an insightful and motivating talk by Amir Peleg, Founder and CEO of TaKaDu. TaKaDu is Amir’s third startup in the data analytics space: the first was in telecom, the second in Internet marketing, and TaKaDu is borrowing from the first two in providing analytics which allow insights and better monitoring and management of water infrastructure.  TaKaDu’s SaaS model is a cleantech investor’s dream with low burn rate, high gross margin, and massive global scalability. Amir and his team have done a great job of entrepreneuring in a traditionally slow-adopting industry by being lean, focusing on delivering value, and using current technology and hard-earned agility to drive the company forward crisply, earning global renown along the way.

So today took us across 4,000 years of history all centered around, and relying on, water. Water has always been a centerpiece of life in this part of the world, and the opportunities and challenges of managing water are no easier or less dire today than they were in Herod’s time. We have better technology, but the cultural and economic challenges are remarkably similar. Perhaps it’s true that technology is indeed outpacing human and societal development.

Later today, we network with the local Israeli entrepreneurs and visit some more world-scale plants…oh, and eat some more delicious Israeli food.

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