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A Closer Look at how Israel Manages its Precious Water Resources

The students’ trek opens new avenues for global collaboration in a land adjusting to an ever-drier climate

Israel trip
Northwestern students traveled to Israel to meet with leading researchers and industry experts and study firsthand the dry country’s water infrastructure as well as current challenges and potential solutions. Photos by Rebecca Lindell

Israel is one of the world’s most forward-looking countries when it comes to water management, which is why 16 Northwestern students toured the country in September to learn how it has coped with a hotter, dryer world, and to glean strategies for the future.

Representing schools and disciplines from across Northwestern, the students on the Global Engineering Trek (GET) Water-Israel met with leading researchers and industry experts to study Israel’s water infrastructure firsthand. 

George Wells

The trip was organized by Northwestern’s Israel Innovation Project (IIP) and the Center for Water Research, and co-sponsored by the McCormick School of Engineering’s Global Initiatives program, and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

“It’s been a really exciting opportunity,” said Aidan Ocampo, an earth and planetary science major. “I’ve been very impressed with what Israel has accomplished through its water technology. There are a lot of valuable implications for what we can do in America and other parts of the world.”  

Observing processes circular in nature

A mere 14 years after its government sounded the alarm on a growing water crisis, Israel is moving rapidly toward a sustainable water future. The country now draws and desalinates 75 percent of its drinking water from the Mediterranean Sea. And where the US reclaims just 4 percent of its wastewater for agricultural purposes, Israel repurposes nearly 90 percent.

Molly Whalen, who is studying industrial engineering and cognitive science, was struck by that discrepancy.

“The US is so far behind in terms of wastewater reuse and desalination,” she observed. “In Israel, it’s clear that they need to be more forward-thinking. But in the US, we seem to have so much water­ — right now, anyway — that we haven’t needed to think that way.”

Israel also repurposes the “waste” in its wastewater treatment process, using the exuded methane gas to fuel its treatment facilities and the treated sewage to fertilize its crops.

“I didn’t know it was possible to re-use so much” of those byproducts, Whalen said after a tour of the Shafdan treatment plant. “I was really struck by the circular nature of their processes.”

Immersed in history, studying future solutions

Led by Elie Rekhess, the Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies and director of the IIP, and George Wells, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, the trek covered the aqueducts and water tunnels of ancient times as well as the wastewater treatment plants, desalination facilities, and drip-irrigation farms of today.

“The students had a chance to immerse themselves in history — from traversing part of a 2,700-year-old water tunnel that still brings spring water to Jerusalem’s City of David, to studying the remains of the Roman aqueducts that once carried water to the seaside town of Caesarea from nearly 10 miles away,” Rekhess said. “That’s what makes this program unique.”

The students also traveled to Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University to meet with leading water researchers.

Their work includes ongoing collaborations with Northwestern’s Center for Water Research via CoWERC, a consortium of research institutions, water utilities, and private companies through which researchers like Wells work with counterparts in Israel to advance solutions to water sustainability issues. 

Many of Israel’s core water issues are manifested in the dry and rocky Negev, which comprises 60 percent of Israel’s land. There, the students visited a kibbutz where 1,000 acres of jojoba plants are nurtured through a sophisticated drip-irrigation system pioneered by the Israelis who settled the land in 1946.  

Today the kibbutz operates Netafim, a global manufacturer of drip irrigation lines, and exports its technology to large agricultural concerns as well as to small farmers in developing nations.

That a solution to a local problem could have such a far-reaching impact wasn’t lost on biomedical engineering major Shyam Chandra. 

“The technology that went into solving that problem is now going back out into the world,” Chandra observed. “And now it has a real opportunity to bring us to a better place in terms of the climate crisis and global water conservation efforts.” 

Opening new avenues for research and global collaboration

Such experiences are critical in expanding students’ thinking.

“They open new avenues for research, internships, and international collaborations,” Rekhess explained. “They inspire students to think and work globally — and they are a key pillar in Northwestern’s mission to nurture engaged global citizens.”

Rekhess looks forward to offering the GET Water-Israel program annually, and hopes to expand it to include additional trips each year.

That would allow even more students to participate in programs like GET Water-Israel, which Ocampo said has been the highlight of his Northwestern experience thus far.

“Being able to travel internationally and take that knowledge back to other places is amazing,” Ocampo said. “I’m very grateful to go to a school that is able to sponsor and offer these sorts of experiences.”