The Desalination Solution
Increased use of desalinated water by Israel and its neighbors will eventually translate into less water diverted from the Dead Sea. Desalination has been a goal since Israel’s early years. In 1948, soon-to-be Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion uttered what is now seen as a prophetic statement. “The purification of seawater by an inexpensive process is not only vital for Israel—it is a necessity for the world…if Israel succeeds in desalting the water of the sea, it will bring great benefits to the entire human race.” Only 12 years later, Sidney Loeb—a UCLA scientist who later immigrated to Israel—invented the first filter capable of efficiently separating freshwater from saltwater. In a process called reverse osmosis, salt water was pushed through a semi-permeable membrane, speeding up the separation process and requiring considerably less fuel than early boiling and evaporation methods. In the years since, reverse osmosis has become the most popular process of large scale desalination worldwide.
Soaring water usage, combined with three consecutive years of drought in the late 1990s, spurred a 2000 government plan to achieve water self-sufficiency through desalination. Throughout the last decade, Israel invested heavily in desalination plants, extracting increasing amounts of pure water from salty seawater, brackish aquifers and wastewater. While desalination is not a perfect solution—critics say that it requires significant amounts of energy and harms ocean life—Israel now has three large desalination plants along its Mediterranean coast, which provide almost 40 percent of the country’s water. A fourth, the Sorek Desalination Plant, opens soon. The largest in the world, it will generate close to seven million gallons of fresh, potable water every hour. With Sorek in operation, the majority of Israel’s water will be produced by desalination. The country, which ranks among the top four nations in desalination worldwide according to a 2011 study, is also a major exporter of desalination technology.