Israel opens huge sea-water purification plant

Officials say huge new desalination facility on Mediterranean seashore, with network of pipes beneath beach reaching far into ocean, could help solve country's chronic fresh water shortage

(AP) A huge new desalination facility on Israel's Mediterranean seashore, with a network of pipes beneath the beach reaching far into the ocean, could help solve Israel's chronic fresh water shortage, officials said Sunday.

The plant, one of the largest in the world, turns sea water into drinking water. It stands next to the northern city of Hadera, the third of five large facilities that will dot the coastline, designed to provide two-thirds of the country's drinking water and reroute the National Water Carrier, a water transport system that has sustained Israel for 50 years.

"Up until now, it was a government monopoly regulating all water transportation," said Teddy Golan, vice president of IDE Technologies, a company responsible for the plant. "Then we found it was cheaper to desalinate water on the shore than transfer it from the (Sea of Galilee) in the north."

The facility, which President Shimon Peres inaugurated in a ceremony Sunday, includes a series of interconnected round and rectangular concrete buildings. It has been in operation since January.

Water has been a source of conflict for Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab neighbor states for decades. With the development of desalination techniques, Israeli officials began to look to the sea for a solution to the region's water woes. The current push to build desalination plants began in 2000 during a prolonged drought.

The coastal construction boom is not without controversy, however. While cheering the plants' healing impact on natural bodies of fresh water environmentalists worry about the impact on ocean life.

The $425 million Hadera plant is the world's largest using reverse osmosis technology, a process that does not involve heating the sea water as larger plants do. The plant is designed to produce 33 billion gallons of fresh water each year. A larger plant near the southern port of Ashdod is scheduled to come online in 2013.

Israel has dedicated more than $500 million to connect the string of coastal plants to the country's water system, according to Mekorot, Israel's state water company.

More research needed

Because of years of inadequate rainfall, the Sea of Galilee, a main source of water in the north, has reached record low water levels in recent years, while the Jordan River, which flows out of the southern end of the little sea, may slow to a trickle in some places, according to a report released this month by Friends of the Earth Middle East.

"The more desalination we do, the less we'll need to exhaust these resources and allow them to get back to their natural state," IDE Technology CEO Avshalom Felber said.

Rivi Federman, Mediterranean coast coordinator for Zalul, an Israeli environmental group, said there needs to be more research on the effects of desalination's byproducts, which include iron and nutrients released into the ocean.

"We are in favor of desalination but not so sure about building so many plants. It should be just one part of a solution, along with conservation," she said.

Last February, the Palestinian Water Authority released a statement saying they would not explore "alternative water sources" such as desalination before they were given back rights to the Jordan River and aquifers they claim belong to them, saying they were, "unwilling to purchase water at such a high cost ... knowing that this water in fact partially belongs to the Palestinians but is inaccessible."

Felber said that current Israeli water plans do not make allowance for the needs of the Palestinian territories, needs that his company would like to fulfill.

"This has a political issue that is out of our hands, but we are doing our best to promote this solution," he said.

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