Children play in a water fountain near the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 17, 2016. Photo by Corinna Kern/Flash90 (via JTA).

Millions of Israeli children said at risk of stunted development, possibly from desalinated water

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s first-ever national survey of iodine levels in the population revealed widespread deficiencies, which could mean millions of children are at risk of stunted development.

The survey, whose unpublished results were presented last week to endocrinologists in Ramat Gan, found that 62 percent of school-age children and 85 percent of pregnant women have iodine levels below the World Health Organization minimum.

According to the researchers behind the survey, Israel appears to have one of the highest rates of iodine deficiency in the world. The national health problem is likely related to Israel’s world-leading use of water desalination, they said.

“We could be talking about a significant detriment across the population,” Dr. Aron Troen, a nutritional neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the survey, told JTA. “For anyone below the minimum level, you may lose 7 to 10 to 12 IQ points, which translates into a huge decrease in GDP due to reduced productivity.

“We are concerned that increased reliance on desalinated water in the Israeli food chain is contributing to iodine insufficiency in the population.”

Even mild iodine deficiency can limit intellectual development. In the womb or early childhood, deficiency has been shown to impair brain development and in severe cases cause physical malformation, dwarfism and intellectual disability. Previous studies have found the children of iodine-deficient mothers perform much more poorly in school.

Researchers from Hebrew University, Maccabi Healthcare Service, Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon and ETH Zurich in Switzerland collaborated on the survey, which analyzed urine samples from 1,023 school-age children and 1,074 pregnant women. They found similar results among Israeli Arabs, secular Jews and Orthodox Jews.

From left, researchers Dov Gefel, Yaniv Ovadia, Aron Troen and Jonathan Arbelle (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

Based on their findings, the researchers called on the Israeli government to mandate the addition of iodine to salt or other foods, as do many other countries, including the United States. They said the change would be easy, inexpensive and have potentially large public health benefits. They also called for regular monitoring of national iodine levels.

In the meantime, Israelis can change their diets, including by buying iodized salt, which is currently expensive and hard to find in Israel.

“Individuals can improve their iodine status through increased consumption of iodine-rich foods such as milk, dairy and saltwater fish. They can also replace regular table salt with iodized salt,” Yaniv Ovadia, the doctoral student and registered dietitian who performed the survey, said in a statement.

Israel was one of only a few countries to have never before gathered nationally representative data on its residents’ iodine levels. But Troen said “the trajectory” of his research suggests the problem has worsened in recent years and may be related to Israel’s pioneering use of water desalination, which removes iodine as well as other minerals. About half of the water Israelis consume is desalinated – a higher percentage than in any other country.

In a study last year, Troen and fellow researchers found a “surprisingly high” prevalence of insufficient iodine intake among the residents of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, where residents get much of their water from the local desalination plant. They also found a strong association with thyroid dysfunction among adults and evidence that the problem increased in the 2000s, as Israel was ramping up its water desalination program.

According to data from the Israel Center of Disease Control, self-reported use of thyroid medication among Israeli adults increased 63 percent between the Israeli National Health Interview Surveys of 2003-04 and 2007-10.

Troen said other potential explanations for Israelis’ iodine deficiency are increased consumption of processed foods and surprisingly low consumption of dairy products. The scarcity of iodine-enriched salt and other food is certainly a factor as well, he said. Troen has started new research on the causes of iodine deficiency in Israel.

How Israel’s desert became a fecund source of water

“Making the desert bloom” is one of the stirring and enduring tropes of Zionist history. So it makes sense for a drought-afflicted country like ours to turn to Israel for an example of how to solve the water crisis. That’s exactly what Seth M. Siegel has done in “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a fact-filled and wholly fascinating account of the Jewish homeland’s ways with water.

Siegel, an attorney, environmental activist and author, starts with the fundamental proposition that the water crisis is a global crisis. He argues that the shortage of clean water will affect not only food and energy production but also whole economies, and California and the American West are only the first places at risk. “Water shortages may not occur everywhere,” he writes, “but hardly anyone will remain unaffected for long.”

Significantly, as Siegel points out, California and Israel have much in common, if only because much of the land in both places consists of deserts or semi-arid terrain and because the population in both places has grown enormously. When it comes to water, however, the similarities end. “Israel not only doesn’t have a water shortage, it has a water surplus,” he writes. “It even exports water to some of its neighbors.”

Israeli water policy, as it happens, is deeply rooted in Jewish religious tradition. “The religious culture that carried the Jewish people for two thousand years from exile to national rebirth is filled with reverence for water in the form of rain and dew,” he explains. But it was the early Zionist settlers, mostly secular and highly practical, who set themselves to solving the problem of water shortage. Indeed, one of the characters in Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” is made to predict “that the water engineers of his imaginary Jewish homeland will be its heroes.”

Seth M. Siegel

Water soon passed from the pages of fiction to facts on the land. For example, the familiar folk song “Mayim, Mayim” — “Water, Water” — borrows its lyrics from a passage in the Book of Isaiah, but the words were set to music only in 1937, when years of unsuccessful drilling at a kibbutz finally brought forth water. And Israeli water law is based on the communalist values of the early generations of chalutzim: “Unlike in the U.S., where water is a personal property right, in Israel all water ownership and usage is controlled by the government acting in the interest of the people as a whole,” Siegel writes. “Israel’s water system may be the most successful example of socialism in practice anywhere in the world today.”

“If you put a bucket on the roof of your house at the start of the rainy season, you own the house and you own the bucket,” explains former Israel water commissioner Shimon Tal, “but the rain in that bucket is the property — at least in theory — of the government.” 

The man who made it happen is Simcha Blass, a now-mostly forgotten figure who made aliyah from Poland in the early 1930s and recognized that water was an essential ingredient in preparing the land to receive the millions of endangered Jews who were still trapped in Europe. Working with Levi Eshkol, the future prime minister of Israel, Blass “would develop grander water plans and execute projects which, cumulatively, would open ever greater parts of the country to productive use of the land and the production of more food for a soon-to-be-growing nation.”

His boldest plan was as an ambitious system of water storage and transportation that was inspired by the damming and diversion of the Colorado River. The earliest phase of the project was built with war-surplus pipes that had been used to fight fires in London during the Blitz. When completed in 1964, the so-called National Water Carrier provided Israel with the infrastructure for collecting, allocating and using water as a vital national resource.

But the real key to solving the water problem was to make the most of the limited supply of water that was available. Starting in the 1930s, Blass sought to replace wasteful flood and sprinkler irrigation with drip irrigation. A co-op was established to develop new strains of plants that would thrive with less fresh water or with otherwise undrinkable salty water. New sources of water were found in the Negev, and new techniques for desalinization of seawater and brackish water were invented. Remarkably, Israeli water engineers devised ways to process sewage into water for agriculture with the result that “over 85 percent of the nation’s sewage is reused.” Ironically, treated sewage is actually a better source of usable water than rainwater: “Unlike the volume of rain, which changes from year to year, the amount of sewage being turned into reclaimed water is consistent, reliable and predictable.”

A secondary benefit of Israeli water policy is that the quality of water in Israel’s rivers has actually improved. The Yarkon River near Tel Aviv was once so foul that athletes who fell into the water during a bridge collapse at the Maccabiah games in 1997 were poisoned by the toxins. “While environmental laws and enforcement of regulations helped bring Israel’s rivers back to life, what may have helped most was that Israel developed new water sources,” Siegel explains. “This new abundance in water — and the now unceasing demand for sewage to treat and reuse — took pressure off all of Israel’s rivers.” 

Rather less cheerful is the role of water in Israel’s troubled relations with Jordan and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, all of whom “have a common destiny in jointly held aquifers and rivers.” Even here, however, Siegel sees the glass of water as half full. Israel may be “a water superpower,” but the Jewish state is willing to export water to the Jordanians and Palestinians, “and often at prices less than is charged in Israel.” And he points out that “the Palestinians also have something of interest to the Israel” — that is, fresh supplies of sewage from Arab towns and cities that the Israelis can process into a new supply of usable water.

The whole point of “Let There Be Water,” as it turns out, is to show how the hard-won successes of Israeli water technology and policy can be used by countries and regions outside of Israel, starting with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries and extending around the globe: “The world now knows that Israel has answers to their water problems,” observes Ilan Cohen, a former government official. Thus does Siegel show us that Israel — once again but in an entirely new way — can be a light unto the nations.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Desalination: Science, engineering and alchemy

'Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press; September 15, 2015) reveals the secret to Israel’s bold approach to water security and how the rest of the world can adopt these measures now, to get ahead of the looming global water crisis

The irrigation of the desert with purified seawater will appear a dream to many, but less than any other country should Israel be afraid of dreams capable of transforming the natural order . . . . All that has been accomplished in this country is the result of dreams that have come true by virtue of vision, science, and pioneering capacity.
— David Ben- Gurion (1956)

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy occurred two weeks before the Weizmann Institute’s 1963 fund- raising gala in Manhattan. Kennedy had been announced as the keynote speaker and with his sudden, violent death, the event’s organizers cancelled it. Two months later, the dinner was held. To the organization’s good fortune, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, agreed to take the slain president’s speaking slot at the rescheduled event.

The Weizmann Institute was, and is, a leading Israeli scientific research center founded in 1934 by Chaim Weizmann, a world- renowned scientist who later became Israel’s first president. The institute was renamed in Weizmann’s honor in 1949, a year after the country was founded, when he was elected the ceremonial head of state. From its earliest days, the institute had taken on an array of scientific challenges. One of these was how to efficiently remove salt from seawater.  The desalination research was scientific, but it also had important ideological and political implications for the young country.  Success in desalination would produce important benefits for Israel in helping to fulfill the Zionist goal of building a secure, self- sufficient economy and society that would be a magnet for Jews worldwide. Lacking adequate natural water from rain and rivers, the nation’s growing water deficit would be an impediment to both its economic vitality and, as important, its ability to absorb new waves of Jews resettling in Israel. Large- scale desalination of seawater from the Mediterranean was seen as an ideal, if entirely theoretical, solution.

David Ben- Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and the moving force in building the institutions that would lead to the creation of a state, never had water far from his mind. Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion’s close aide and himself later Israel’s prime minister and president, says Ben-Gurion talked about water all the time. Ben-Gurion, Peres says, was captivated by the idea of turning salty seawater into freshwater for homes and farms.  Lyndon Johnson shared Ben-Gurion’s deep interest in “desalting” water. Coming from a hardscrabble Texas life, Johnson’s views about water were similar to the desert- centered Ben-Gurion. A few days before his election in 1960 as Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson took time out from campaigning to help prepare a lengthy article for The New York Times’ Sunday magazine. The article advocated a national focus on developing cost- effective desalination techniques as a tool for eradicating poverty and promoting world peace. Candidates in the heat of a campaign put out many proposals, but Johnson could have placed an article in the magazine on any of several more higher profile topics. But he chose to write about what he called “desalted water,” a seemingly odd topic for water- rich New Yorkers at any time, and especially so in the closing days of a tight presidential race.  Desalination has the feel of science, engineering, and alchemy combined. The medieval alchemist tried to take lead, a product of scant value and transform it into one of great worth, gold. So, too, the desalination process tries to take seawater (or inland, brackish water), strip it of its worthless elements, and change it into a lifesaving product of enormous value.

The ancient Romans tried to purify seawater for their army, but their efforts never went far.  During World War II, American scientists also began thinking about ways to either take the salt out of the water or the water out of the salt, which sounds like the same thing, but which require completely different approaches and scientific techniques. The problem with either approach, they realized, was that it might make sense in limited military applications where expense is of little concern, but the enormous amount of energy needed to produce pure water from seawater would have made it impossibly expensive for civilian use, at least with then current technology.  Expensive or not, Johnson was sure desalination was in America’s and the world’s future. He had been instrumental as the senate majority leader in obtaining funding for federal research on the issue, most of which was allocated to the U.S. Office of Saline Water, which had been established in 1952.  Senators knew that Johnson could be counted on to support bills which included water components. And all the more so, when desalination research was included. 

“Johnson the Jew”

When Johnson stepped to the podium at the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel ballroom to greet the seventeen hundred dinner guests and Weizmann Institute donors in February 1964, few likely expected Johnson to set in motion a project that on the one hand would spark an immediate firestorm in the Arab world, but on the other would promise a significant boost to Israel’s own desalination efforts. Johnson said, “We, like Israel, need to find cheap ways of converting saltwater to freshwater, so let us work together. This nation has begun discussions with representatives of Israel on cooperative research in using nuclear energy to turn saltwater into freshwater. This poses a challenge to our scientific and technical skills. . . . But the opportunities are so vast and the stakes so high that it is worth all of our efforts and worth all of our energy, for water means life, and water means opportunity, and water means prosperity for those who never knew the meaning of those words. Water can banish hunger and can reclaim the desert and change the course of history.”  From Damascus to Beirut to Cairo, Johnson’s speech was met with fury. One Lebanese newspaper columnist addressed the Texas- born, Disciples of Christ church- president as “Johnson the Jew” and said that the speech went “beyond recognition of the birth of Israel to recognition of Israel’s future.” The Syrian government newspaper called the speech “the ultimate in American support for Israel.”  Israel’s adversaries understood what a secure water future would mean to their sworn enemy.

Although Johnson saw desalination as an essential tool in transforming the Middle East, he may have decided to reach out to Israel due to his respect for Israeli science and the country’s rapid and remarkable achievements. With uncanny intuition, Johnson saw in Israel a worthy, if junior, partner who might provide an alternative route to his longstanding dream of desalted water.

From Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Water surplus in Israel? With desalination, once unthinkable is possible

As construction workers pass through sandy corridors between huge rectangular buildings at this desalination plant on Israel’s southern coastline, the sound of rushing water resonates from behind a concrete wall.

Drawn from deep in the Mediterranean Sea, the water has flowed through pipelines reaching almost 4,000 feet off of Israel’s coast and, once in Israeli soil, buried almost 50 feet underground. Now, it rushes down a tube sending it through a series of filters and purifiers. After 90 minutes, it will be ready to run through the faucets of Tel Aviv.

Set to begin operating as soon as next month, Israel Desalination Enterprises’ Sorek Desalination Plant will provide up to 26,000 cubic meters – or nearly 7 million gallons – of potable water to Israelis every hour. When it’s at full capacity, it will be the largest desalination plant of its kind in the world.

“If we didn’t do this, we would be sitting at home complaining that we didn’t have water,” said Raphael Semiat, a member of the Israel Desalination Society and professor at Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “We won’t be dependent on what the rain brings us. This will give a chance for the aquifers to fill up.”

The new plant and several others along Israel’s coast are part of the country’s latest tactic in its decades-long quest to provide for the nation’s water needs. Advocates say desalination — the removal of salt from seawater – could be a game-changing solution to the challenges of Israel’s famously fickle rainfall. Instead of the sky, Israel’s thirst may be quenched by the Mediterranean’s nearly infinite, albeit salty, water supply.

Until the winter of 2011-’12, water shortages were a dire problem for Israel; the country had experienced seven straight years of drought beginning in 2004. The Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret), a major freshwater source and barometer of sorts for Israel’s water supply, fell to dangerous lows. The situation got so severe that the government ran a series of commercials featuring celebrities, their faces cracking from dryness, begging Israelis not to waste any water.

Even as the Sea of Galilee has returned almost to full volume this year, Israeli planners are looking to desalination as a possible permanent solution to the problem of drought. Some even anticipate an event that was once unthinkable: a water surplus in Israel.

Israel Desalination Enterprises opened the first desalination plant in the country in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in 2005, following success with a similar plant in nearby Cyprus. With Sorek, the company will own three of Israel’s four plants, and 400 plants in 40 countries worldwide. The company’s U.S. subsidiary is designing a new desalination plant in San Diego, the $922 million Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will be the largest desalination plant in America.

In Israel, desalination provides 300 million cubic meters of water per year – about 40 percent of the country’s total water needs. That number will jump to 450 million when Sorek opens, and will hit nearly 600 million as plants expand in 2014, providing up to 80 percent of Israel’s potable water.

Like Israel’s other plants, Sorek will work through a process called Seawater Reverse Osmosis that removes salt and waste from the Mediterranean’s water. A prefiltration cleansing process clears waste out of the flow before the water enters a series of smaller filters to remove virtually all the salt. After moving through another set of filters that remove boron, the water passes through a limestone filter that adds in minerals. Then, it enters Israel’s water pipes.

Semiat says desalination is a virtually harmless process that can help address the water needs prompted by the world’s growing population and rising standard of living.

“You take water from the deep sea, from a place that doesn’t bother anyone,” he said.

But sesalination is not without its critics. Some environmentalists question whether the process is worth its monetary and environmental costs. One cubic meter of desalinated water takes just under 4 kWh to produce – that’s the equivalent of burning 40 100-watt light bulbs for one hour to produce the equivalent of five bathtubs full of water. Freshwater doesn’t have that cost.

Giora Shaham, a former long-term planner at Israel’s Water Authority and a critic of Israel’s current desalination policy, said that factories like Sorek could be a waste because if there is adequate rainfall the desalination plants will produce more water than Israel needs at a cost that is too high. Then, surplus water may be wasted, or international bodies like the United Nations could pressure Israel to distribute it for free to unfriendly neighboring countries, Shaham said.

“There was a long period of drought where there wasn’t a lot of rain, so everyone was in panic,” Shaham said. “Instead of cutting back until there is rain, they made decisions to produce too much.”

Fredi Lokiec, an executive vice president at the Sorek plant, says the risks are greater without major desalination efforts. Israel is perennially short on rainfall, and depending on freshwater could further deplete Israel’s rivers.

“We’ll always be in the shadow of the drought,” Lokiec said, but drawing from the Mediterranean is like taking “a drop from the ocean.”

Some see a water surplus as an opportunity. Orit Skutelsky, water division manager at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, says desalinated water could free up freshwater to refill Israel’s northern streams and raise the level of the Sea of Galilee.

“There’s no way we couldn’t have done this,” she said of desalination. “It was the right move. Now we need to let water flow again to the streams.”