NU engineering students study water tech in Israel

Their mission: to study how the country manages water -- and how it used to, in the time of King David.

Rekhess trip image
Northwestern University students toured Israel to learn about the country’s success in managing its water. One facility they visited was the Sorek Desalination Plant, the world’s largest, south of Tel Aviv. Photo credit: David Gordon.

Water has many obvious uses, from health to agriculture to recreation. Israeli Professor Elie Rekhess -- an expert in the contemporary Middle East -- has discovered another: teaching engineering students about Israel. 

Earlier this fall, Rekhess -- Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University and the Associate Director for Israel Studies of the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies -- brought a dozen engineering students to Israel. Their mission: to study how the country manages water -- and how it used to, in the time of King David. 

The trip, called the Global Engineering Trek: Water, is a part of an ongoing collaborative project between Israel Studies and Northwestern's Center for Water Research, headed by Professor Aaron Packman. Packman, who also teaches in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was one of the founding fathers of the globalization initiative with Israel.

Israel Studies began at Northwestern in 2013. Like other departments of its type, it focused on the humanities: history, politics, sociology. But academic boycotts of Israel Studies prompted a search for another way to engage students -- the sciences -- of which Israel is already a proven leader. 

A seminar on the subject of water in Israel grew into an annual international symposium, now in its third year. Topics have ranged from waters that share borders to droughts.

The latest addition has been this 10-day field trip to Israel for students. For the first trip, 12 of the 40 applicants were selected to attend. All were first- and second-year students, as the trip was intended to introduce students -- not only to Israel -- but to potential internship and study opportunities there. 

As with the symposia, both old and new aspects of water tech were explored. For the "modern" aspect of the trip, students visited the world's largest sea-water purification facility, in Sorek, south of Tel Aviv; half of the drinking water in Israel today is desalinated. 

Israel's ability to de-salt Mediterranean water has weaned it off the Kinneret as a major freshwater source. Unfortunately, due to an ongoing drought, its waters are still receding. The good news is that, due to the signing of a trilateral agreement with Jordan and Egypt, Israel is on track to build a canal that will refill the Dead Sea with waters from the Red Sea.

They also saw the Shafdan sewage recycling site. As much as 80 percent of Israeli sanitary wastewater is used for agriculture; Israel leads the world in this area by a huge margin. The students visited the Eshkol and Sapir sites of the National Carrier, an 80-mile system bringing water to the Negev. Israel is renowned for its revolutionary drip-irrigation system; the students visited the factory that makes these systems, the Netafim plant in Kibbutz Hatzerim.

The students also saw ancient water projects in Nahal Taninim, the port of Caesarea and the Dead Sea. They saw the giant cisterns on Masada for collecting rainwater, and hiked through a tunnel in the City of David. King Hezekiah created it 3,000 years ago, to reroute the spring of Gihon to within the city walls, ensuring a water supply during sieges.

"Ancient systems still have much to teach us today," Rekhess said. 

Additionally, the students visited with experts at the Grand Water Research Institute, at the Technion in Haifa, met with the Dean of the School of Engineering at Tel Aviv University, and spent a day at the Zuckerberg Center for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University.

Rekhess notes that the tour was entirely academic, and did not involve funds or sponsorships from any governmental or other non-profit sources. 

Rekhess was pleased with the trip. "This is a major breakthrough for Israel Studies," he said. "We intend to expand the cooperation between Israel Studies and other technological and scientific fields." He said there is potential to focus on renewable energy, nanotechnology, and even food tech. 

The students consider the trip a success as well. Already, one has made a connection to a potential internship. 

Another, Myles Bowen -- a freshman from Minnesota double-majoring in biological anthropology and international studies --  said he found the trip eye-opening and wants to return some day soon. He said the tour would help "many engineers appreciate the social impact" of their efforts, especially how "social systems depend on water."

The professor said he learned on the trip too. "Water is a world in its own," Rekhess said. "It engages so many other fields, from biochemistry to physics, to the materials science that creates the filters. Every cup of water," he concluded, "holds more than a cup of water."

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