From the Desert to the Ganges: Israel's Water Tech Could Aid India's Holy River0

Meredith Mandell | Tue May 29 2012

Israel has long suffered from severe water shortages due to its arid climate and a scarcity of natural water resources. It’s no surprise then that Israeli firms have become leaders in water technology and the country as a whole purifies and reuses almost 70 percent of its wastewater each year for agriculture.

“Wastewater was a big headache that everyone tried to get rid of,” explains Oded Distel, director of the Investment Promotion Center for the Israel NewTech, a government entity charged with promoting Israeli technologies abroad. “In Israel we look at it as a resource. We treat wastewater on a national level and it is one of the main sources of water for agriculture in the country.”

Now, Israeli businesses are looking to export their experience with water technology – from wastewater treatment to drip irrigation – to mitigate the serious threats to India’s Ganges River.

In the past year, Israel NewTech has sent two delegations to India, its second largest trading partner, to promote its water technology to government officials, scientists and engineers.

A Sacred River turns into a Mess

The Ganges River provides India with more than 25 per cent of India’s total water resources. The river is considered sacred for Hindus, who believe its waters represent the goddess Gaṅgā. It is also consistently ranked as one of the filthiest rivers in the world.

Bacteria levels in parts of the Ganges are 120 times greater than what is considered a safe level for bathing.

Much of the river’s pollution comes not only from industrial and agricultural waste but from direct human contact. The Indian government estimates that roughly 40,000 bodies are cremated on the banks of the river using 15,000 tons of wood each year, spewing ash, unburnt wood and flesh into its waters. The river’s once blue-green hue has now become black and tar-like in some spots and studies show that it contains 60,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, 120 times greater than is considered safe for bathing.

The Indian government plans to eliminate the untreated municipal sewage or industrial runoff entering the Ganges by 2020 through the Ganga Action Plan. But previous attempts to clean up the river have failed because of bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of funds – the cleanup is expected to take decades and cost $20 billion.

The project has become more urgent as the Ganges has receded because of unregulated water extraction for farming, cities, industry and other uses. Additionally, many suspect that climate change is melting away the Himalayan glaciers, the main source of the river’s flowing waters.

In 2011, the World Bank kicked in a $1 billion loan for the project. That and the newfound commitment by India’s government have prompted Israeli companies to take a keen interest.

Wastewater treatment

Israel’s greatest innovations in recent years have come in the areas where India is most lacking, notably wastewater treatment.

“Waste water treatment facilities are a big consumer of energy globally and whenever you are able to minimize the amount of energy you use there, it’s a big, big advantage,” Distel says.

For example, the Israeli company Mapal Green Energy has developed a technology that provides oxygen to the bacteria that eat pollutants from floating aeration units. The company claims that the units save up to 70 percent in energy consumption and up to 80 percent in maintenance costs compared with current technologies.

Making irrigation efficient saves and cleans the river at the same time.

Another technology Distel hopes can be used for the Ganges River project is Emefecy’s “zero energy” wastewater bioreactor. Emefecy’s Electrogenic Bioreactor (EBR) treats wastewater and produces green electricity as a byproduct. The EBR functions as a battery which uses wastewater as fuel.” General Electric is among the main investors in the start-up, along with NRG Energy and ConocoPhillips, through a vehicle called Energy Technology Ventures.

Drip Irrigation

A key component of the river renewal project is ensuring that farmers who live near the river use environmentally sound growing practices.

“Once you introduce technologies to make irrigation much more efficient and you allow the farmers to use less water from the river itself for their crops, then you basically save and clean the river at the same time,”Distel says.

Modern drip technology, where small quantities of water are released on intervals via long plastic tubes that go directly to the plant itself, was pioneered in Israel in the 1960s. Today, Israeli firms such as Netafim as well as the joint Indian/Israeli venture NanDanJain, have been active in the river cleanup discussions and were among participants in the delegation to India.

Amnon Ofen, a director at NaanDanJain, says that there are 150 million small farmers in India with less than one acre to call their own, meaning that many of them lack the resources and education to work with drip irrigation by themselves.

“Most of them depend on monsoon, they don’t have regular irrigation,” Ofen said. NaanDanJain company has worked with the Indian government to develop programs to introduce drip irrigation to individual farmers.

It’s technologies like these that could preserve the Ganges for future generations.

Top image: The Ganges River at the city of Varanasi. Courtesy Flickr user Daniele Sartori