(From left): Prof. Israel Schechter, Dr. Avi Ostfeld and Prof. Yechezkel Kashi.Israel Schechter is a man with a dark secret. The Israeli scientist thinks he knows how a terrorist organization could conceivably contaminate a major American water supply, causing death and panic among the population.
That’s why he’s been working day and night ever since the idea came to him, in an effort to develop a system that could prevent such a debilitating attack from succeeding. And the researcher, from Israel’s famed Technion Institute, has some very heavy backers behind him, including NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and GWRI (the Grand Water Research Institute) which are financing the interdisciplinary research.
According to Schechter, who for the last 15 years at the Technion has focused on application of laser technology for detection of materials, the ‘secret’ method he discovered emerged as a result of a role-playing exercise.
“A couple of years ago, I read on the Internet that in the US the FBI had uncovered a plot by al-Qaida to poison water resources in the States. And I began thinking, we in Israel have our own enemies close by – why don’t they try something like that?” he told ISRAEL21c from his Haifa office.
“So, I started to think like a terrorist – what should I do in order to perpetrate such an attack? And after some calculations I found out… that it’s not possible. You would need such a big quantity of chemical material that it’s just not practical. Even in a small reservoir, the volume of water is huge, and if you want to achieve a fatal concentration, you’d need such a big quantity that it would become a severe logistical problem.”
Just as he was beginning to breathe a sigh of relief, however, Schechter had a lightning bolt moment.
“I realized there was a small trick that could actually enable such an attack. It’s something nobody has thought of before, but considering I thought of it, it’s just a matter of time until somebody else does.”
The secret? Only a handful of a certain type of poison could be put into water sources and cause human fatalities despite the dilution factor. “Even if a terrorist used this idea, not that many people would actually die as a result – maybe 10 a day. But terrorists don’t care who or how many people they kill. What they want to create is panic,” said Schechter.
“Even though the chances are low you would die, every time you would take a glass of water you’d worry. They don’t care about killing a million, they just want to create havoc. Think for a second if this happened in New York, with its residents terrified to drink the water.”
Schechter quickly came to the conclusion that his secret was an ideal tool for terrorists, and something must be done to prevent it. He shared his discovery with some hand-picked colleagues at the Technion, and their reaction spurred him into immediate action.
The first response was from the Grand Water Research Institute, which established a ‘research-focus’ on water monitoring. This project also included Prof. Yechezkel Kashi of the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering whose focus is on rapid identification of pathogenic bacteria in water such as cholera, and Dr. Avi Ostfeld whose expertise is determining where to place the instrument.
“Then, I went straight to the top – to Mekorot, the national water carrier and the Israel water commissioner, because I didn’t want the idea to be leaked. When they heard what I was talking about, they said, ‘OK, start working on this project as soon as possible. You will get the money you need,'” recalled Schechter.
With a mandate as he puts it “to detect such a terror attack -and also to prevent it,” Schechter began to develop a device and monitoring facility that can not only detect chemical poisoning of water but neutralize it as well.
“I like to use tricks from physical chemistry and laser technology and apply them to detection of materials. It’s important in this day and age for environmental protection to have online monitoring, and lasers are quite useful for that. In the past, people would just take samples to the lab, but today that’s not enough. You need to make a decision fast, you can’t wait two days for the results,” he explained.
In parallel to Schechter’s work on chemicals, Kashi and his group at the Technion have succeeded in identifying DNA sequences that represent a wide variation of bacterial strains. They have developed technology based on these sequences for accurate identification of bacteria.
“This gives us the ability to determine the identity of specific bacteria,” Kashi explained. “Now, we are developing a scanner that is rapid, specific and sensitive in identifying specific bacteria.”
The question of where to place the scanning and monitoring devices that Schechter and Kashi are developing, falls to Ostfeld, of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Together with the Tel Aviv Municipality engineer and a colleague at the University of Arizona, he built a mathematical model that simulates water flow, pressure, and contaminant movement in a water system for the 100,000 water lines of the city of Tel Aviv.
“Water supply systems are built over tens, sometimes hundreds, of kilometers,” said Ostfeld. “They are made up of pipes, tanks, pumping units and consumer connections. It is impossible to physically protect them. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to intentional intrusion of contaminants.”
“You need a model of the water transportation system, and to identify what are the key points in the network of pipes to place detectors in order to stop the water flow,” added Schechter. “Otherwise, just identifying that the water’s been contaminated is not good enough.”
As the team delved into its work, however, team members realized that some of the advanced instrumentation they required for their research was too expensive for the budget they had received. So Ostfeld approached NATO, which encouraged the group to submit a proposal.
Shortly afterwards NATO provided the funding to buy the additional instrumentation. “It became apparent that water distribution systems in the US, Israel and the rest of the world’s developed nations are totally exposed, said Schechter. “It is not possible to have guards at all of them. A committee of experts studied the problem and presented recommendations to the US Congress. In light of this, the Congress budgeted $608 million towards solving this problem.”
Schechter is hopeful that within a short time, the team will be able to establish a beta site operating in Tel Aviv.
“It will be the first city in the world to be protected from an attack on its water supply,” said Schechter, who is confident that at the end of the research stage, the results will be implemented at water installations throughout the US.
And then Schechter’s secret will remain unknown.