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What Can We Learn From The Desert?

Ginny Lee | November 1, 2019
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Northwestern University undergrads learn about water technology in Israel with the Global Engineering Trek (GET) program

What can we learn from the desert? This summer, a group of Northwestern University first-year and sophomore students discovered answers to this question themselves, as they traveled to Israel with the Global Engineering Trek (GET) program. Developed by the Northwestern Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), Northwestern Engineering Global Initiatives Office, Northwestern Center for Water Research, and Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies, this year’s Israel program concentrated on the topic of water. This Global Engineering Trek builds upon the ongoing success of the Global Engineering Trek to Germany, which was founded in 2017 and focuses on sustainability. 

Once in Israel, students spent the following 12 days delving into the interdisciplinary field of water management, exploring ancient and modern Israeli technology, visiting historical and archaeological sites, and receiving insights from expert researchers. The importance of innovation in water management is expressed below in the students’ own words, from their GET Water Student Travel blogs.  

Why Israel? 

Where Technology and History Converge

“We learned that this large-scale [agricultural] production, in an arid region that only receives [a] few millimeters of rainfall every year, was made possible by innovative water management and technologies developed by the kibbutz’s own company, Netafim. Back in 1965, the company developed the agricultural technique ‘drip irrigation’ that enables growing crops with minimal water use and waste. Tubes beneath the crops drip water directly onto the roots of the plants using their patented dripper technology, a small plastic mechanism inside the tubing that administers the water. This technique decreases evaporation waste and water overuse by not having water sprayed into the air or flooding fields that use more water than optimal and are prone to evaporative waste.” — Morgan Gass, Helena Freire Haddad (GET: Water student participants, 2019) 

At first glance, Israel’s desert climate appears to deviate from the theme “of all things water.” Yet, this lack of water has proven to be the driving force behind Israel’s innovation in hydrotechnology. The dry climate has influenced a mindset in favor of water conservation--especially in terms of sustainable agriculture practices and water filtration.  This summer, the students travelled to the jojoba plantation of Netafim and Kibbutz Hatzerim, which is currently the world’s number one jojoba oil manufacturer. Upon arrival, it was evident that despite the dry desert climate, the lush plantation was thriving in a seemingly harsh environment. 

Wastewater Treatment

“The [wastewater treatment] center comprises a complex inter-region system that collects, treats and reclaims wastewater in urban areas and industrial zones in the Dan Region.  All the wastewater is collected from the drains and transportation begins at the Sapir Pumping Station, north of Tel Aviv. 

The wastewater undergoes purification which involves the use of natural biological processes that are essential for removing and decomposing microorganisms in the water…One of the byproducts of this process is biogas, which is a valuable source of revenue. All of the reclaimed water is [then] supplied for agricultural use. The treated wastewater is sent to the Negev Desert. [In fact,] more than 60% of agriculture in the Negev is irrigated by Shafdan water.” — Caroline Webster, Grace Wanjiku Wainaina (GET: Water student participants, 2019) 

Israel’s prioritization of water conservation was further demonstrated when the trekkers visited the Shafdan Wastewater Treatment Center in the outskirts of Tel Aviv. What made this facility stand out from standard water treatment facilities was its main goal of minimizing excessive usage of limited water sources while also striving to minimize pollution. 

Drylands Research

“[One of the researchers we met was] Naftali Lazarovitch, who is from the French Associates Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands. His research focus is on water flow and solute transport in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum to increase agricultural productivity and maintain environmental sustainability. He works with sensors and numerical models to create visual models of the effects of water flow and solute transport to better understand the constraints on plants for desert farming...Overall, we had an amazing time getting to know the Zuckerberg institute and our five speakers. This experience has opened our minds to the research being done in the Negev, realizing that the desert, as well as scientific ingenuity, continues to bloom there.” — Valeria Apolinario, Carmen Awin-Ongya (GET: Water student participants, 2019)

The students were also able to meet several guest speakers from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research in the Negev, which is located in the southern desert region of Israel. Each presentation contributed to an understanding of the opportunities for ingenuity that the Negev region of Israel provided. The research presented ranged from environmental biology to stream restoration, contaminant transport, and the desalination of water for agriculture.

Though these are modern examples, Israel’s advanced technology dates back to ancient times. Because water scarcity has been a constant presence for the people of Israel, adaptation has been a prominent part of the country’s rich history. 


“The Masada settlement seemed to be in a perfect spot because the settlers could easily get water from the Dead Sea. But if you know anything about the Dead Sea, you should know how salty it is. Thus, they had to find other ways to get water. The desert region has very few incidents of rainfall during the summer, in which flash floods cascade down the mountains. The settlers established series of hydraulic aqueducts for the main source of water that would both feed from storms into the many cisterns they carved into the rock. One of the biggest cisterns we saw could hold 4000m3 of water.” — Deogratias Mukuralinda, Hannah Paridis (GET: Water student participant, 2019)

This is the case for early Masada. Located above the Dead Sea, the Zealots first inhabited Masada in 68 CE and continued to inhabit this area until 73 CE.

King Hezekia’s Tunnel

“The main highlight of this tour was entering Hezekiah’s Tunnel, also known as the Siloam Tunnel. This tunnel is a water channel underneath the City of David which is in east Jerusalem. For a city to thrive in this time period, water, food, and protection from outside threats were essential for success. King David had the rule over all the village of Jerusalem and was able to fortify his city shortly after. The city had walls protecting its citizens and housing; however, their water supply lied shortly outside the city walls. King Hezekiah saw this as a potential weakness as he was preparing for an attack from the Assyrians; an enemy force could use the Gihon spring as a source of water during the attack or could even contaminate it, which would severely cripple the City of David. He devised a plan to move the water from the spring closer to the city through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This tunnel is about 580 yards long and had about a 0.06 percent gradient, which allowed the waters from the Gihon Spring to flow within the city walls.” — Alexandro Reyes (GET: Water student participant, 2019)

Such technology emphasized the central role of water in early Israeli societies. In a tour of Jerusalem, the trekkers descended into King Hezekiah’s Tunnel to learn about the water systems that allowed the City of David to flourish.

The far-reaching relationship between Israel and water created an insightful experience for the students to comprehend not only the complex technologies that made water accessible to the Israeli population, but to understand how humanity adapts to environmental limitations.

A Nation of Progress

“The word ‘Bedouins’ describes the collection of small nomadic Arab groups that have inhabited North Africa and the Middle East for well over a thousand years... [Since then], the Bedouins as a whole have gone through a rapid metamorphosis since Israel’s start. In the last century, they have slowly become dependent on the welfare state and are still working to reverse the damage. The Bedouins were traditionally a communal and self-sufficient people. In the last 50 years, they have been rapidly thrust into the Israeli economy and have struggled to adapt to subsequent health issues and the need for job specialization...The Wadi Attir project is a groundbreaking approach to sustainable desert agriculture combining traditional Bedouin methods with cutting edge technology. It is a partnership between the Bedouins of the Negev and the Sustainability Laboratory. The main initiative is an integrated technology system utilizing wind and solar energy, state-of-the-art drip irrigation system, bio-gas production system, wastewater treatment system, and composting facility...The Wadi Attir project is uplifting Bedouin communities of the Negev with great success and truly embodies the marriage of innovation and tradition that is so characteristic of Israel as a whole.” — Kelly Gebman (GET: Water student participant, 2019)

As much as progress has been intertwined within the country’s history, Israel continues to make impressive strides in the fields of technology and sustainability.

On the trek, students met with a founding member of Wadi Attir, a program that approaches the topic of sustainable desert agriculture by combining traditional Bedouin methods with current technology.

Wadi Attir’s aim to uplift marginalized communities such as the Bedouins demonstrates how such projects in Israel can bring about progress on both social and technological fronts.

New Tech Start-Ups

“Investment in Israeli technology has led to creativity and innovation in areas including agritech, fintech (technology used in finances), and artificial intelligence, which has become the focus of hi-tech start-ups in Israel. SNC’s mission is to connect these start-ups with governmental organizations and other businesses.” — Valeria Apolinario, Caroline Webster (GET: Water student participants, 2019)

The group’s final stop was at Start-Up Nation Central in Tel Aviv, which is a platform that enables investors to invest in Israeli startup industries. Here, they were met by Uri Gabai, the VP of Strategy at Start-Up Nation Central, who spoke about Israel’s innovations and SNC’s mission.

Though this was a clear demonstration of Israel’s economic and technological success, students were especially intrigued by Gabai’s commentary on the demographics of start-ups and his advice for future thinkers and problem solvers. 

“Aside from their economic and technological success, the demographics of the people working in these start-ups in Israel remain mostly homogenous. As a group of very diverse, mostly female [students] in STEM, this was not a pleasing statistic to see. As we absorbed the meaning of the statistic, Uri delivered this message to us: be bold. There is no reason why this should be the case, as women have equal creativity, knowledge, and intelligence to bring to every field. We need to push forward and demand our place in the future.

Uri’s second message to us was to never stop learning… [As] rising sophomores and juniors, [we] have time left in our formal education. [Even] after we graduate, …we should never stop asking questions and our curiosity should never wane. With so many opportunities to learn and grow, stagnation is impossible.

Our main take away from Start-Up Nation? The hi-tech world is advancing daily, and it is up to us to dive in and immerse ourselves. We will not just become part of the story: we will write it.” — Valeria Apolinario, Caroline Webster (GET: Water student participants, 2019)

The Significance of GET

The Global Engineering Trek to Israel provides a plethora of experiences and interactions for students to expand upon in their future endeavors. While themed on water management, the program transcends technological boundaries to recognize the interdisciplinary knowledge that is required to grasp the breadth and possibility of addressing real world problems in all engineering challenges.