Italy scouts for Israeli water tech as drought concerns mount

Largest delegation of Italian water utility companies wraps up visit to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to learn from Israel’s water successes

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

A view of the Shafdan water treatment plant in Rishon Lezion of Mekorot, Israel's national water company. (Mekorot)
A view of the Shafdan water treatment plant in Rishon Lezion of Mekorot, Israel's national water company. (Mekorot)

A large delegation of Italian water utility companies recently wrapped up a visit to Israel to scout for collaborations and partnerships on water technologies, meeting with startups representatives, government authorities, and business entities as Italy battles the country’s worst drought in some 70 years.

The delegation of 22 Italian water utility companies and three engineering firms was hosted earlier this month by the Israel Export Institute, a government agency tasked with facilitating trade opportunities, partnerships, and strategic alliances under the purview of the Economy and Industry Ministry.

The parties met in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the Israel Water Innovation Technology Summit, and toured water desalination, purification, and conservation plants by Mekorot, Israel’s national water company which says it supplies about 1.7 billion cubic meters of water (or about 450 billion gallons) per year.

Mekorot also works with Israeli water tech startups to pilot innovative solutions.

Ami Levin, director of the Europe Department at the Economy and Industry Ministry noted that Israel has had water challenges “from day one,” in a region with little rain and an acute need to produce sustainable agriculture and feed its population.

Israel has needed to “think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions,” Levin told the audience at the summit earlier this month. “We are proud to have had so many [water] success stories in Israel.”

Levin said the percentage of water reuse in Israel was the highest in world. The country reclaims some 90 percent of its wastewater, primarily for agriculture.

The Dan Region Wastewater Treatment Plant (SHAFDAN) in Rishon Lezion, November 22, 2018. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

“Water is a big story in Israel; it always has been. Water is being understood in most economies as critical infrastructure and of strategic importance,” said Levin, adding that countries have to consider issues like supply, efficiency, and distribution.

With over 60% of its land being desert, Israel has pushed to create technologies to make every drop of water count over the course of several decades. Today most of its drinking water comes from desalination facilities and it is considered a world leader in all aspects of water management.

There are some 250 companies developing water technologies and equipment in Israel, according to figures provided in 2019 by the Israel Export Institute, and the nation exports some $2.4 billion annually in water technologies and equipment. Over 180 startups operate in the fields of water and wastewater treatment, irrigation, water systems, water network management, desalination technologies, and water quality detection, according to the Finder database on Start-Up Nation Central, a non-profit that tracks the industry.

Some of these companies were on hand at the Israel Water Innovation Technology Summit this month to tout their solutions and offerings, including Asterra, a company that can locate and analyze water leaks from underground pipes using satellite data; Kando, a wastewater intelligence and data analytics firm; water-from-air firm Watergen; Caesarea‐based NUFiltration, which repurposes dialyzers that have reached the end of their lives and uses them as water purification devices for developing countries; and Lishtot, a startup that developed testing devices to quickly detect contaminants in water such as E. coli, lead, arsenic, mercury, copper and chlorine.

Lishtot Detection Ltd.has developed its TestDrop, a key chain-like device and app that detects contaminants in water (Olivier Fitussi for Lishtot)

Asterra and Kando already operate in Italy with the help of Italian consultant and business owner Franco Masenello, co-founder and CEO of BM Tecnologie Industriali and 2F Water Venture — Italy-based outfits that tap Israeli water companies for business opportunities in the Italian civil, industrial and agricultural sectors.

“We already have many Italian customers using Asterra’s and Kando’s solutions,” Masenello told The Times of Israel at the event.

Asterra CEO Elly Perets said the company combines geophysics, signal processing, software development and data analysis to help water enterprises identify water leaks and thus mitigate water loss.

“Pipes across the world are aging faster than the rate of replacement. We are seeing 0.5-2% of water loss a year,” Perets told The Times of Israel, noting that this was a high amount.

Asterra, he said, has proven technology that can “find three or four times, sometimes even 10 times, the number of leaks” of other solutions.

Founded in 2016 and formerly known as Utilis, Asterra says it can identify subsurface water near critical infrastructure such as potable water and sewer pipes, roadways, railways, and dams, and provide synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data from satellites to decision-makers water utility companies, government agencies, and infrastructure firms.

Asterra CEO Elly Peretz speaks at the Israel Water Innovation Technology Summit, in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2022. (Courtesy)

In addition to Italy, Asterra has clients in the US, Britain, Croatia and Thailand and employs about 70 people worldwide, but the company has little commercial activity in Israel beyond its R&D operations in Kfar Saba, where it employs about 45 people.

Israel has at least 52 water corporations that run water operations and services for residents in cooperation with separate municipalities and regional councils — a setup Perets called a “bardak that the devil did not create,” or horribly chaotic. “It’s just not efficient at all,” he said.

Asterra focuses its activities outside the country and has a presence in Japan, China, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, said Perets.

Scouting for startups

Masenello is now looking for additional Israeli water companies to provide solutions to the Italian market.

“It is very important for us to match startups [with utility companies] and exchange experiences. We are looking for companies that will be a good fit with quick time-to-market, and launch more pilot programs,” Masenello said, eyeing Israeli company Takadu, the developer of a water event management system, for a possible project in Italy.

Paola Pagnotta, the director of CleanTech, Agriculture, Consumer Goods, Industry 4.0 at the Italian embassy in Israel, told The Times of Israel that the delegation of water utility companies was the largest to Israel in recent years. “We’ve never seen such a large delegation in the utility sector for a focused event,” she said.

These water utility companies are looking for “ready technologies, mature technologies that can quickly be integrated into the markets,” she noted. At the same time, “we also want to expose them to new technologies that are maybe not ready just yet — maybe in 2-3 years — that can be explored” in Italy.

A delegation of 22 Italian water utility companies in Israel to scout for Israeli water tech solutions, June 8, 2022. (Courtesy)

As part of the summit, the delegation of Italian companies toured Mekorot’s Shafdan Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Tel Aviv area including the R&D center, as well as the Palmachim Desalination Plant near Ashdod, operated by the GES Global Environment Solutions Group (formerly owned by the Azrieli Group).

Masenello said such events are very important as delegates can share experiences and practices and learn from Israel’s water successes.

“We hope to do this [summit] every year, hosted alternately in Israel and Italy and in different areas. We also want to generate ties with startups and strengthen relations with Mekorot and other water authorities. It’s not just for business, it also improves ties between countries,” he said.

Drought in Italy

Italy, Masenello noted, is currently in the midst of one of the worst droughts in seven decades, especially in northern areas.

Authorities fear that if it doesn’t rain soon, there’ll be a serious shortage of water for drinking and irrigation for farmers and local populations across the whole of northern Italy.

People fish near a hydroelectric power plant at Isola Serafini, on the Po river in San Nazzaro, Italy, June 15, 2022. (AP/Luca Bruno)

The drying up of the Po, which runs 652 kilometers (405 miles) from the northwestern city of Turin to Venice, is jeopardizing drinking water in Italy’s densely populated and highly industrialized districts and threatening irrigation in the most intensively farmed part of the country, known as the Italian food valley. Parmesan cheese, wheat, and high-quality tomatoes, rice and renowned grapes grow in huge quantities in the area.

The region hasn’t seen rainfall for more than 110 days and this year’s snowfall is down by 70%. Aquifers, which hold groundwater, are depleted. Temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the seasonal average are melting the tiny snowfields and glaciers that were left on the top of the surrounding Alps, leaving the Po basin without its summer water reservoirs.

All these factors are triggering the worst drought in 70 years, according to the Po River Basin Authority.

Dry cracked land is visible under a bridge in Boretto, Italy, on the bed of the Po river, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (AP/Luca Bruno)

Irrigation systems and energy generation operations are also at risk. If the Po dries up, numerous hydroelectric power plants will be brought to a halt, at a time where the war in Ukraine has already hiked up energy prices across Europe.

The authority is working on a resilience plan that includes higher draining from Alpine lakes, less water for hydroelectric plants and rationing of water in the upstream regions.

AP contributed to this report.

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