TEL AVIV — The Israeli water industry took over the convention center here this week to show the world its bacterial sewage scrubbers and computerized shower heads, its low-flow nipples to grow high-yield tomatoes, and its early-warning mathematical algorithms to detect dribbles, leaks and bursts.
It might not have been the sexiest business conference in a country that refers to itself as “start-up nation,” but there’s a lot of money in water.
Israel wants to be seen in the water world the same admiring way it is viewed in the realm of high-tech. The country’s exports of water products have tripled in the past five years and now total $2 billion, according to Israel’s economic ministry. Its biggest customer is the United States, but new markets are opening in countries with an emerging middle class, such as Mexico, Turkey, China and India.
Because of Israel’s history of scarcity, isolation and resourcefulness, it has the jump in water management and conservation. The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, issued the call to “make the desert bloom.” Since then, Israeli leaders have periodically dangled the transfer of water technology as a possible incentive for peace with the Palestinians and Arab states.
Two Republican governors from arid states, Rick Perry of Texas and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, were on hand with large delegations this week to peruse the wares at the Watec Israel 2013 exhibition.
Perry hailed Israel for its reuse of wastewater — Israel recycles more than 80 percent of its effluents, compared with about 1 percent in the United States, the governor said.
Asked about potential deals between Israel and Texas for water technology, Perry said in an interview, “Let’s do it.”
The Texas governor was repeatedly approached by representatives of the Israeli water business who introduced themselves, delivered business cards and made their sales pitches.
The reason for their interest did not escape Perry. “Texas goes from drought to drought, and what we need to survive is to conserve and use wisely what water we have,” Perry said. Texas residents will vote in November on a $2 billion initiative to rebuild the state’s water infrastructure.
The hallways of the Tel Aviv convention center were packed with engineers from China, Spain, France and Australia. Buyers and sellers huddled around water coolers signing memorandums of understanding.
Israel is a world leader in desalination of seawater. By next year, more than a third of Israel’s tap water will come from the Mediterranean Sea and a few briny wells. Israel’s total water consumption remains nearly at 1964 levels — even though its population has quadrupled to 8 million people, according to the economic ministry.
“They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that is clearly the case in Israel,” said Oded Distel, director of Israel New Tech, a government agency that primes the water pump by giving grants to high-tech water start-ups and helps market the water industry abroad. “If we had to rely on sources of fresh water, we wouldn’t be here. In Israel, we use every drop twice.”
Distel said that water used to be a kind of “dumb industry” dominated by low-tech and cheap water, distributed by centuries-old pipes and canals, employing irrigation technologies that dated to the ancient Egyptians. Municipal water systems such as those in Los Angles, London and New Delhi traditionally lost 20 percent or more of their water to leaks and evaporation.
But in a world dominated by scarcity, climate change and population growth, water is no longer being taken for granted.
The modern water industry here was launched in the mid-1960s, when an Israeli agronomist named Simcha Blass and his son Yeshayahu partnered with a kibbutz to manufacture the country’s first drip-irrigation system, which delivered a trickle of water directly to the plant roots.
Their invention created the low-volume irrigation revolution and evolved into a company with 3,000 employees that sells drip irrigation and greenhouses in 150 countries.
“Israel will soon become the largest hub for water innovation in the world,” said Amir Peleg, founder and chief executive of TaKaDu, which uses algorithms to monitor municipal water companies for leaks in real time.
Israel’s public and private sectors are investing heavily in developing and promoting the water industry. There are 280 water technology companies in Israel.
Peleg’s company is a subject of study at Harvard Business School. He is a product of Israel’s start-up nation — educated in the Israeli army’s elite computer intelligence unit, with degrees from Israel and France. Peleg made a fortune selling YaData, a behavioral targeting company, to Microsoft in 2008.
After the sale of his software company, Peleg said he cast around for a new niche and discovered water. He said Israel has the science, the entrepreneurs, the demand and the venture capital to create the perfect incubator.
“I will be serious with you. Not all of us are in Greenpeace,” Peleg said. “But there is a huge growth potential here.”