Facing an unprecedented water crisis, Israel is speeding up plans to desalinate even larger amounts of seawater than it had already planned. The National Infrastructure and Finance Ministries say in early January they will issue a build-operate-transfer tender for the largest reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world, to be built 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv.

In an effort to speed up the construction of other badly needed plants, the Israeli government has also decided to exempt state utility Mekorot Water from the usual tender process for its planned 100 mcm desalination plant at Ashdod. The government has also asked operators of existing facilities to price expansions of those plants.

The Soreq reverse osmosis desalination plant south of Tel Aviv will sit along the country’s southern Mediterranean coast.  The tender calls for a minimum production of 100 MCM but is considering a plant of 150 to 200 mcm.  The exact size will be determined in negotiations with the winning bidder. Four groups have pre-qualified for the project: IDE Technologies Ltd with Hutchison Water; Tahal Group with Veolia Environment; Housing and Construction Holding Company with General Electric; and Global Environmental Solutions (GES), Shafir Civil and Marine Engineering and the Baran Group.

“Our target is to have 600 mcm of desalinated water in 2012 and 750 MCM in 2016,” says National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, whose ministry has overall responsibility for water resources.   The ministry has moved the timetable ahead by 12 months as a result of a lack of rainfall this winter, the fifth straight year of drought conditions. The country’s three major reservoirs, the Sea of Galilee, the western mountain and the coastal aquifers have all dropped to record low levels.

Israel currently has a 100 mcm plant at Ashkelon owned by IDE and Veolia Environment and a 30 mcm plant at Palmachim owned by GES. A 100 mcm plant is currently under construction at Hadera by IDE and Housing and Construction and is due to begin production by the end of 2009.

Israeli household demand in 2007 totaled 767.9 mcm out of a total demand of 2.072 bcm.   “Desalinated water will meet most of the household demand from 2012 and beyond and in the meantime we will have to implement drastic measures to cut back usage,” says minister Ben-Eliezer. These are expected to include a partial ban on the watering of public and private gardens and a sharp cutback on water allocations for the agricultural sector.  

Exempting Mekorot from the usual tender process “will enable Mekorot to put out bids for the design and construction of the plant within the next few months,” says Uri Shani, director of the Israel Water Authority. The government has also asked for bids from the operators of the two existing facilities at Ashkelon and Palmachim as well as the plant under construction at Hadera to expand production by 75 to 80 mcm.  “Some of the additional quantities of water could be available by the end of the year and the rest during 2010,” predicts Shani.