I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land
(Jerusalem a poem by William Blake)
I have news both good and bad for my friends in England. First the good news — there is no need to build Jerusalem in England. Jerusalem, our eternal capital, is doing very well here in Israel as it has done for the last 3000 or so years. The bad news? England may well be pleasant, but it is no longer green.
The London-based Telegraph newspaper has just run an article “Heatwave effect: stunning before and after pictures show Britain’s green and pleasant land turned brown”. Looking at the horrifying pictures, taken `Before’ and `After’ the current heatwave, I was struck by the differences in approach to the water problem by Israel and the UK.
For many years, Israel has been a global leader in reclaiming wastewater. Even the United Nations, not usually a great champion of Israel, pointed to the Dan Region Wastewater Treatment Plant as an example for the world to follow. This plant, the Shafdan, employs the natural filtration properties of sand to purify raw sewage, resulting in clean water for use in agriculture. The Shafdan WWTP presently treats approximately 370,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day, contributed by the entire Greater Tel-Aviv Region. In addition to water, the plant produces a by-product of the purification process – a sludge that is used as fertiliser. And, of course, millions of cubic meters of sewage are no longer discharged into the clear waters of the Mediterranean.
As an indication of how efficient Israel’s water treatment systems are, we reuse for irrigation nearly 90 percent of the water that goes down the drain compared to Spain, the second-most-efficient country, which manages just 19 percent.
A long drought from 1998 to 2002 made the government realise that something had to be done. Israel could no longer rely on nature for its water supply. As a country with a long coastline, and easy access to the sea, desalination on a large scale was the obvious answer. The water ministry, quickly rising to the challenge, built five desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast.
In response to the current, 5-year, drought that has overloaded Israel’s existing desalination plants and has seen natural water sources drop to their lowest levels in nearly a century, Israel has announced a plan to build two more desalination plants and upgrade the pipelines that constitute the country’s water grid.
It is expected that there will be sufficient water from the desalination plants to pump water back into the Kinneret, to replenish Israel’s main freshwater source. Thus, in 2018, unconventional water resources such as reclaimed water and desalination provide about half of Israel’s water supply.
Meanwhile, in England’s green and pleasant land…..
In the UK, with a population nearly eight times that of Israel, some 350,000 kilometres of sewers collect over 11 million cubic meters of waste water every day. After treatment in the thousands of sewage works around the country, the “clean” water is discharged – not to farmers’ fields, not to public parks, not to parched gardens but to estuaries and the open sea. This, in a country where most agriculture relies on rainfall and, even in a dry year, only a very small proportion of land is irrigated. (As a symptom of the problem I looked at a UK Irrigation website. After a few minutes I got the message – www.ukia.org took too long to respond!)
Most potable water in the UK is taken from artificial reservoirs or natural lakes, which are filled by rainwater via rivers and streams. In England, groundwater (water found underground in cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock known as aquifers) contributes some third of the public supply water. In Wales and Scotland, only a small proportion of the water supply is from groundwater. But all of these sources start as rainwater – no rain, no water.
Britain, of course. is an island – no shortage of seawater. The UK opened its first desalination plant in June 2010 in Beckton, East London. However, this plant, capable of supplying just 150,000 cubic meters of potable water per day, uses conventional thermal desalination, which evaporates water to remove the salt. This is a costly and energy-intensive process. It is expected that a further four plants will be in operation by 2050, no that’s not a typo, 2050.
In Israel, plants in Ashkelon, Hadera, and Sorek, provide some 1.6 million cubic meters per day, with more plants on the way, hopefully before 2050. The Israeli plants use an energy-saving process – Reverse Osmosis. Many thousands of membranes are enclosed in vertical cylinders. These membranes are covered with pores less than a hundredth the diameter of a human hair. Water at very high pressure enters the cylinders and is pushed through the membranes, leaving the salt to return to the sea.
Not long after 2050, when the UK might have another four small desalination plants, the world should see the inauguration of Israel’s largest water engineering project – the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal. This project, almost science-fiction, will see water from the Red Sea flowing down into the Dead Sea. A hydroelectric power plant will supply electricity to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and the world’s largest desalination plant will supply almost half a billion cubic meters of desalinated water to water-starved Jordan.
Perhaps it is time to build London in Israel’s green and pleasant land.