In a speech to AIPAC in March, the Israeli leader told the story of an African woman who used to walk “eight hours a day to give water to her children — four hours one way to a well, four hours back.”
Now, Netanyahu says, an Israeli firm has designed a device that produces clean drinking water from ambient air, literally transforming her life. Netanyahu calls it “technology that improves on Moses.”
“You remember Moses?” Netanyahu quipped. “He brought water from a rock.
“They bring water from thin air,” he said. “They bring water to Africa, to millions of people in Africa — Israeli technology.”
The news of a seemingly miraculous water-generation device came as no surprise to Yehuda Kaploun and Ed Russo of Miami, Florida-based WaterGen USA. They’re the executives running the Israeli company’s U.S. affiliate, who had just witnessed the technology’s impact in the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
In August WaterGen CEO Russo, who for decades served as the chief environmental expert for Donald Trump and the Trump Organization, led a humanitarian WaterGen relief caravan into a sweltering, powerless Port Arthur, Texas.
In some respects it was like entering an undeveloped country.
“There were cars floating in the reservoirs,” Russo recalls. “The waste dumps in the area had overflowed, the sewage treatment plants overflowed … it was an absolute mess.”
A boil-water notice had been issued, but many of the town’s 43,000 residents failed to also use bottled water to brush their teeth, wash their vegetables, and prepare their food.
“They were just getting sick all over the place,” Russo said.
In the midst of the chaos, Red Cross facilities coordinator Kevin Berges got a call from an emergency-response manager telling him to check out a company that had just arrived in town and was claiming it could make clean water literally out of thin — or preferably humid — air.
Shortly after arriving on the scene, he witnessed the WaterGen technology Netanyahu had touted. Imagine a supercharged, high-tech HVAC machine that removes water from the atmosphere while producing crystal-clean drinking water devoid of impurities — and as a byproduct, leaves the air cleaner and less humid.
He said the water “tastes like it’s off a glacier. It’s the second-best tasting water I think I’ve ever had — glacier water is the only thing better, I think.”
How much water? Between 160 and 1,600 gallons a day, depending on the size of the unit being used. Prices range from less than $1,000 for a household model that produces up to 30 liters of crystal clear water daily, to over $100,000 for the large-scale unit to be installed, for example, on the rooftop of an office building. Individual companies can lease water-generation systems that cost less than the water deliveries that would otherwise be needed to replenish the break-room water cooler.
No wonder then that Berges soon told his colleagues at the Red Cross: “We need to buy some of these.”
“They are self-maintained, self-running, you don’t have to do anything,” says Berges. “Now we don’t have to bring in a pallet of water a day for each shelter. We can just plop one of these things down and it will make a couple of hundred gallons a day, which is a huge logistical load off of us.”
WaterGen USA President Yehuda Kaploun explains that the company got its start when the Israeli military needed a way for tank crews and other military personnel to obtain water without exposing themselves to enemy fire when leaving their vehicle or encampment.
Now, a device designed to help the Israeli military is being put to humanitarian use. Disputes over water sources continue to be a source of conflict around the world, but WaterGen officials hope to be part of the solution.
Kaploun suggests the company bears a moral responsibility to use its technology to save lives, especially in Third World countries.
“You have 1.7 million children dying each year from waterborne diseases,” he says. “People are drinking tainted water in the world without knowing it. We’re a business but we also have a humanitarian strategy, which is to try and reach as many people as quickly as possible.”
The United States has water issues of its own. Beyond natural catastrophes, there are legal battles between states over sources of water, and the rampant problem of heavy metals and other contaminants leaching into tap water in Flint, Mich., and other U.S. cities. Also there is increasing concern that traces of pharmaceuticals are showing up in water supplies nationwide.
In the United States, Kaploun and Russo envision what they call a “decentralized water supply,” where each home, office, and business can generate its own potable water for drinking and cooking. Municipal water supplies would only be used for cleaning, flushing toilets, and irrigation. Among other benefits, decentralizing the water supply would make it much harder for evil-doers to sow terror by poisoning city reservoirs, they say.
According to WaterGen design engineer Avi Peretz, drying air to produce water is no problem. The trick is doing it in an energy-efficient, economically practical manner.
By playing with the laws of physics and pioneering a small plastic evaporator, Peretz says, WaterGen was able to design a system that can produce water with just 300 watts of electricity — about the amount of power used by a strong light bulb. That’s about a third of the energy consumption of the best HVAC systems.
One of the company’s strongest selling points is the pristine quality of water drawn from the air.
“We have a huge, huge advantage compared to water from the ground,” says Peretz. “Water from the air, the molecules themselves, will be almost pure.
“Water from the ground has been contaminated by sewage, chemicals, by heavy metals. Human beings are contaminating ground water all the time.
“When we test the water from the air, however, it will be completely clean — the molecules themselves. So this is our biggest and huge advantage: Our source is much cleaner than the groundwater source — our source is cleaner and our water is cleaner.”
The company calculates it can produce a liter of water for about 2 cents. That’s a modest price to pay for abundant, clean water drawn out of the air. And for those living in the growing number of countries where clean drinking water is a precious commodity, it is a life-changing technology.
“We can alleviate tremendous amounts of suffering,” Kaploun says.