Monday, November 05, 2007

Going with the flow at Israel's WATEC

Tiny phosphorescent bacteria that glow a warning signal when fed polluted water... a protection fence decked out with cameras and alarms to stop would-be water terrorists... or how about the complete package, replete with a battery-operated online monitoring system for the entire city?

They're all being offered by Whitewater, a portfolio of Israeli companies, and were just some of the newer technologies of the rather 'liquid' Israeli water technology market that was being showcased last week at the 4th annual three-day WATEC water technology convention in Tel Aviv.

Some of the 2,000 foreign visitors from 60 countries came on official visits to learn about what Israeli companies have developed, and they weren't disappointed. The 50-strong Australian government and trade delegation signed a water alliance with the Israeli government, joining a growing list of 25 countries with water cooperation deals.

"Water will not become the oil of the future; it already is the future," proclaimed Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Israel's Minister of National Infrastructures at a press briefing on the first day of the conference, last Tuesday. He joined the briefing just moments after signing the deal with Australia.

Water security is now a real threat around the world. It is no longer just poor and arid African nations looking for solutions. Even countries that have a lot of water, like the US and Canada, want to learn how to make it safer to drink; while at the same time keeping energy costs down and the processes involved environmentally sound.

Business savvy people know that water is worth its weight in gold - an estimated $450 billion global market. And it's becoming an established fact that Israel is not only a player, but an obvious leader in some areas.

"Israel is a leader in three distinct areas," says Ori Yogev, the founder of Whitewater, citing low-volume irrigation systems (such as Netafim, Plastro etc.). "Israel is number one by far," he says. Same is true in the field of water reclamation, where Israel recycles 70% of its water versus the US which recycles only about 10%. The third area where Israel is a winner is in water security and protection.

"Al Qaida says that the next big thing [the terrorists will attack] will be water," warns Yogev, who also explains how people are still dying from poorly monitored water, even in developed countries.

The problem is that water analysis, as it is done now, takes too long. By the time a problem is found, it is often too late. In 2000, seven people died in Walkerton, Canada after drinking contaminated tap water. An accident like this could have been prevented if a real-time, online monitoring system was in place.

This is what Whitewater is proposing to offer to municipalities. The company, which also signed a deal with Israel's national water carrier company Mekorot, has been busy building a consortium of companies and boutique solutions to fit any client's needs. Consolidation in water tech is the name of the game.

"There has been a huge consolidation in the water industry, not only in Israel but the world. It is consolidating like the telecom industry which went out from government utilities to the Internet," says Yogev.

Whitewater is attempting to make the most of this trend. One of Whitewater's recent acquisitions is CheckLight, a company that 'employs' genetically-engineered phosphorescent bacteria to identify pollutants in water (like a canary in a coal mine).

If certain pollutants "irritate" the bacteria, which took 10 years to develop in the lab, they shine a light to a sensor that alerts authorities real-time. The solution is now one of eight real-time monitoring technologies recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is already on the market.

Checklight's surprising invention was developed in 2001 by Prof. Shimon Ulitzur from the Technion, together with his daughter, Dr. Nirit Ulitzur.

Other handpicked companies Whitewater has selected includes Magal, a traditional border protection company that has recently dived into the water business under Whitewater's guidance.

Magal is a global leader in providing perimeter systems for border protection (in 75 countries). Terrorists looking to poison water sources will be foiled, hopefully, by the company's state-of-the-art fences, cameras and monitoring equipment.

And of course, other traditional favorites from the Israel water world were represented at WATEC. One is the drip irrigation company Netafim.

"Do you think there will be a Netafim distributor in Botswana one day?" asks Thabo Prince Thamane, pointing to the map of the world at the company's booth. Hundreds of water droplets in green, red, and blue mark the drip-irrigation company's factories and distributors.

Part of a quasi-governmental African delegation from Botswana, Thamane and his colleagues were looking for solutions to make water use more efficient. The WATEC conference was the first stop on their quest and Netafim was a familiar name.

"There is no argument," says Idit Gavrielli, a rep from Netafim, "we invented the drip irrigation system. The company has grown into a half-billion dollars in sales this year, mostly in global exports," she tells ISRAEL21c.

Netafim began about 40 years ago. It developed a system that transfers water through tiny holes on a labyrinth of pipes buried just below the soil surface. This way, water loss by evaporation can be minimized.

The invention devised by a small arid nation that had little in water reserves was an instant success. It started a chain reaction in the water business, which today shows no sign of slowing down.

Take for example Atlantium. The three-year old company has developed a patented UV laser system to eradicate bacteria and viruses from water. Until now, such pathogens could only be killed effectively with chemicals or through a heat treatment. Both processes are costly to the environment.

"Most people didn't think that we could disinfect viruses and bacteria with UV. It just wasn't considered an appropriate technology," notes Phyllis Posy, the company's director of strategic and regulatory affairs.

To prove its efficacy to the EPA, the company engaged recently in a third party investigative study. Atlantium worked with Duke University and Washington University; and the water standards company HydroQual checked the results. It was found that Atlantium's UV treatment was a competitive and safe solution.

Atlantium's technology called "Hydro-Optic Disinfection" disinfects, in real-time, high flow rates of water providing extremely high disinfection results. This is particularly important in areas where treatment methods against water-born pathogens do not work, says the company's website.

"We are doing something for humanity," says Posy, who is well aware of the toll that chemicals have on the environment.

She adds with a grin of satisfaction, "I always say that water in Israel is like oil, but better because we can drink it."

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