Baseline of a Desecrated Land II: Desalination Impacts

Baseline of a Desecrated Land II: Desalination Impacts
Part 2 of a 12 part series examining the ecological impacts of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
A synopsis of the findings is here.

by Dick Callahan, reposted from DickCallahan.net

Read part 1 here.

Desalination: more salt than Lot’s wife

“Israel leads the world in water recycling and desalination. We’ll share our technology with India and provide clean water for millions.” Benjamin Netanyahu on Twitter, 07.06.2017

“In time, it’s going to become impossible to use desalination in a way that makes economic sense. The water will become so saline that it will be too expensive to desalinate.” Gokce Gunel, University of Arizona.

Aliens looking down on our blue marble from a spaceship could put out sampling equipment and observe that sea water in the mid-Atlantic has 35 parts per thousand (ppt) salinity. That’s 35 grams of salt per thousand grams (one liter) of water or, 35 kilograms per metric ton. Moving east through a narrow slot at Gibraltar, the Mediterranean sea circulates counter-clockwise past Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, then north past Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria before heading back west along Turkey. In the Eastern Mediterranean off Israel, salinity is over 39 ppt. and rising. There are four primary reasons why:

1) Massive ocean evaporation in this hot part of the world is increasing as global climate change brings hotter temperatures and less rain.

2) Egypt’s Aswan High Dam blocks the Nile and cuts off fresh water from the region’s only large river on the Mediterranean’s southeast side. Giant Lake Nassir reservoir behind Aswan Dam exhales massive evaporation as it impounds the river for energy, drinking water and agriculture.

3) The Suez Canal in Egypt connects the Red Sea, which, at 41 ppt, is even saltier than the eastern Mediterranean. Predominant flow of the Suez, especially in winter, is south to north, so it joins the counter-clockwise flow of the Mediterranean and heads up past Gaza and Israel. Egypt recently completed a ‘second Suez,’ which is really just a widened, deepened Suez, that will increase flow of high saline Red Sea water northward up the coast.

4) For desalination to work in the eastern Mediterranean, the process has to pull 39 grams of salts from each liter of seawater. To visualize that, draw one liter of water into a clear pitcher. Next, get out your kitchen scale and measure 39 grams of salt. Set the water and salt side by side on the table. Imagine that much salt times a thousand because there are 1,000 liters in a metric ton. And so for every ton of fresh desalinated Israeli water that goes inland, 39 kg. (86 pounds) of salt is extracted. That equals two 40-pound bags of rock salt from the hardware store—plus six more pounds.

Israel calls itself the world leader in desalination technology. Maybe, but they can only produce 600 million cubic meters (mcm) of fresh water a year. That’s really not much, especially considering the environmental costs. Six hundred mcm of fresh water times 39 kg per cubic meter leaves 23.4 million metric tons (Mt) of salt. For comparison, that’s more salt than the entire United States uses most years on ice control and road stabilization.

All that extracted salt is dumped back into the sea along a small section of Israel’s coastline in the form of heavy brine, essentially dumping it into a different cubic meter which now has 78 kg. of salt. Being heavier than the surrounding sea water the brine sinks. Israeli authorities, if they mention it at all, mostly claim the salt diffuses harmlessly into surrounding waters. “The solution to pollution is dilution.” as the discredited 1950’s saying goes.

The volume of a metric ton of salt is 0.46 of one cubic meter. That is to say, a volume of a little more than a square yard 18 inches deep. There are a million square meters in a square kilometer so, if Israel were to evaporate all their residual salt until it was dry, instead of sending it offshore as brine, they’d cover 23.4 square kilometers (9 square miles) 18 inches deep in salt. If you dropped such a salt bomb on land so lacking rainfall as Israel, you could forget about farming that land pretty much forever. And that’s just one year. Next year drops another salt bomb, and another the year after that. And the year after that….

What if India takes up the Israeli Prime Minister’s boast and jumps aboard the desalination bandwagon? Israel, with 8.4 million people comprises 0.11 percent of the world population. Imagine India with 17.74 percent of the world population, producing salt by desalination at the rate Israel does.

Environmental Impacts of desalination:

Benthic life near Israel’s shorelines has profoundly shifted in the past few decades. Among other things, marine biologists have discovered, “In a study of 59 types of mollusks which used to be quite common in this region, it was found that 38 of them could not be found in recent years.” Reef building worm snails, Dendropama petraeum , are vanishing from Israel’s coast and face extinction. Without reef building snails Israel’s beaches face increased erosion. Technological solutions include artificial concrete reefs and the optimistically named practice of, ‘beach enhancement, ’ which is digging up sand from someplace else and dumping it on your preferred beach. Israel has done this on several beaches and in July 2017 hired a Belgian firm to import a million cubic meters of black sand from Turkey to spread on Israeli beaches. The authorities plan to spread white Israeli sand over the Turkish sand so the beach won’t look funny.

Beach enhancement has inadvertently created new problems for Israel and neighboring countries by providing ideal habitat for the invasive swimming moon crab Mutata victor, which came north from the Red Sea via the Suez. Dumping sand buried the moon crab’s competitors. In addition, Haifa Bay is heavily polluted which the invasives can tolerate better than local species. “We created conditions for them like Club Med and turned it into an export industry to other countries, which aren’t exactly happy about it,” said [Dr. Bella] Galil. “They reproduce rapidly and reached the Lebanese coast.” The crabs have now made it to Turkey 1,500 km north.

Large scale desalination in an area that lacks good ocean current circulation is a disaster in the making, especially since Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are all running desalination plants of their own and planning to build more.

Prevailing currents run south to north in the eastern Mediterranean taking Israel’s saline plume northwards along the bottom towards Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. What if, instead of sinking to the bottom and creeping along out of sight out of mind, the saline plume turned banana yellow and floated to the surface before heading off with the currents? People might wonder if this is a good idea after all.

In addition to increasing salinity and affecting species diversity, desalination plants are finicky, militarily vulnerable, energy hogs. They don’t just suck up water. They suck up every thing in the water. Tons of phytoplankton and fish larva are swallowed up the intakes never to return. Bigger animals, like a large smack of jellyfish can bring a desalination plant to a stop. The plants suck up pollution, too. In 2016 the Israeli Health Ministry had to shut down Israel’s largest desalination plant after tons of ‘treated effluent’ from Ashdod and Yavne sewage treatment plants were deliberately dumped into Soreq stream. The Ashkelon plant, which is close to the Gaza border, has been closed numerous times because of north flowing sewage from besieged Gaza. In 2017 the Health Ministry shut down three plants following an oil spill in Ashdod. etc.

Desalination has increased the Jewish state’s already exorbitant energy demands. Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip is widely viewed as a ruse to seize and exploit the giant Leviathan Natural Gas Reserves (estimated at 1.4 trillion cubic meters) off Gaza because Israel wants that resource to run things like desalination plants.

And finally, desalination strains out micronutrients like magnesium that humans need. The Israeli Health Ministry estimates 250 Israelis die of heart attacks each year caused by mineral deficient desalinated water.

*Update: As of 10.07.2018 Israel has received seven bids to build another plant, the world’s biggest, south of Tel Aviv, in the vicinity of Soreq—which used to be the world’s larges desalination plant. The new Israeli plant is supposed to be able to produce about 200 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. [This is one of three new desalination plants Israel has announced plans to build. The other two will be north of Tel Aviv and in Western Galilee. ]

(*Graphic at top by artist Kari Dunn http://kdunnart.weebly.com)

Recognition 2: Desalination: Selected Sources

*Salt statistics check them out:
[(600 million Mt of water x 39 kg salt per Mt)/1000kg per ton=23,400,000 tons of salt]
Salt weighs 2.17 grams/cubic centimeter
Volume of 1 Mt of salt is 0.46 meters
23,400,000 square meters of salt 0.46 meters (18 inches) deep. That would be 23.4 square kilometers (9 square miles) knee deep in salt.
12.06.2016 Native marine life has almost vanished from Israel’s shores Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
05.31.2015 Scientists hoping to save sea snails that protected Mediterranean reefs. Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
07.20.2015 Israel turning to breakwaters in bid to stem cliff erosion Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
09.29.2016 Peak salt: is the desalination dream over for the Gulf States The Guardian. by Stephen Leahy and Katherine Purvis. [Gokce Gunek is an Assistant professor of anthropology, energy and climate change. She says that shallow seabed configuration off the Gulf states is holding the salt excreted by desalination plants in the near shore Gulf, making it saltier to the point where desalination will become no longer be feasible.]
07.25.2015 Egypt holds trial run on Second Suez Canal BBC News
07.30.2017 Israel to import black sand from Turkey to firm up coastal cliffs. Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
08.25.2017 Crab invasion in Israel captured in unprecedented footage Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
03.18.2016 Health Ministry shuts down Israel’s largest desalination plant due to pollution Haaretzby Zafrir Rinat.
02.06.2017 Desalination problems begin to rise to the surface in Israel. Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
03.16.16 Health Ministry shuts down Israel’s largest desalination plant due to pollution. Haartz by Zafrir Rinat.
USGS 2018 Minerals Yearbook by Wallace P. Bolenhttps://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/salt/mcs-2018-salt.pdf
Aqua-calc conversions and calculations https://www.aqua-calc.com/calculate/weight-to-volume/substance/rock-blank-salt
Research-gate: Salinity Question:
What is the practical salinity limit for reverse osmosis?
Answer, in part: from Nazir Hussain, Ministry of Environment, Qatar.
1) Higher the salt content of the feed water, lesser will be the produced desalinated water and more will be the brine water, (reject).
2) Higher the salt content of feed water more numbers of membranes have to be added to the cycle.
3) Higher the salts in the feed water, higher will be cost of desalination and the system will be becoming lesser and lesser economical.
October, 2010 Sea Water Desalination in Israel: Planning, coping with difficulties, and economic aspects of long-term risks State of Israel Water Authority Desalination Division by Abraham Tenne, Chairman Water Desalination Administration.
01.08.2009 War and Natural Gas: the Israeli invasion and Gaza’s offshore gas fields. Global Researchby Professor Michael Chossudovski.
07.09.2014 IDF’s Gaza assault is to control Palestinian gas, avert Israeli energy crisis The Guardianby Nafeez Ahmed.
05.30.2014 Israel solves water woes with desalination Phys.org section of ScienceX website by Joseph Federman. “The plants require immense amounts of energy consuming roughly 10% of Israel’s total energy production.” attributed to Gideon Bromberg, Friends of the Earth, Middle East.
04.28.2016 Israeli water recycling, desalination tech needs work, studies show. Times of Israel by David Shamah, “even Israel’s Health Ministry is aware of the problem, and in 2010, it predict iced that the annual death toll among cardiac patients in desalinated areas due to lack of magnesium would be about 250 annually.”
10.07.2018 Update: Israel received bids to build world’s biggest desalination plant. Reuters by Ari Ratanovitch. Seven bids to build another plant in vicinity of Soreq—which used to be the world’s largest desalination plant.  200 million cubic meters of fresh water per year.


Dick Callahan is an Alaskan writer with degrees in biology and education. In April 2016, he won first place in the Alaska Press Club Awards for best outdoors and sports column in the state. Find his work at DickCallahan.net.