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How Israel is Defying the Global Water Shortage

How Israel is Defying the Global Water Shortage

Seth Siegel, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the bestseller Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World (Thomas Dunne Books), warns that we are on the brink of a global water crisis, and that California’s drought is only the beginning. The U.S. government predicts that 40 states and 60% of the earth’s land surface will soon face alarming gaps between the supply and growing demand for water. Israel stands in defiance of this water emergency. Your book calls for immediate action.  How close are we to a crisis?

Seth Siegel: In the near term, it depends on where you live. California, South Africa, western China, parts of India, and other drought-stricken places around the world still have water, but without immediate government intervention, many will run out within the next two or three years. Moving slowly on this issue will cause a ripple effect, resulting in higher food prices, social instability, uprisings, and mass migrations.

You write that Israel has become “a growing global influence as a water superpower.” How did that happen?

From the start, Israel’s government made water a key existential priority, no less than military defense, and its leaders have taken extraordinary measures to ensure that the nation’s future is not hobbled in any way by a scarcity of water. Israel has accomplished this in a number of ways, including smart legislation and regulation, technological innovations, and conservation.  

What are some of Israel’s innovations in water conservation?

Intent on reducing water loss from cracks and leaks in the pipes of municipalities, Israel has upgraded its underground monitoring systems. In the past, streets had to be dug up to replace monitors when their batteries ran out. Now it relies on technologies developed by companies like HydroSpin, which has created a miniature turbine that fits inside the water pipes and powers the monitors with the energy produced by the movement of water through the pipes.

Another company, Aquarius Spectrum, uses submarine sonar technology to listen for underground leaks between the quiet hours of 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning, and then it calculates the best time to make repairs to minimize interference to local businesses.

In these and other ways, Israel has reduced water loss from leaks to 10%, saving about nine billion gallons a year. In comparison, the average loss from leaking pipes in the developed world is about 33%, and in the less developed world, about 50-60%.

How has Israel engaged in what you’ve termed “hydro-diplomacy?”

Starting in the 1950s, Israel began using its water expertise as a door opener in one country after another. For example, Israel established diplomatic relations with China by sharing water know-how and technology. Israel also uses water training as one of the major means of engagement with the less-developed world. Many of these countries still vote against Israel in the United Nations, but those countries’ water needs offer a vehicle for establishing diplomatic relations and opportunity for ongoing dialogue.

Even some countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel invite water professionals and companies into their countries to work quietly on irrigation solutions and other water projects

How would you respond to those who accuse Israel of having made the desert bloom by diverting water from the Palestinian territories?

I would say it’s an outrageous falsehood. Israel’s success is not based on natural water, but on manufactured desalinated water from its five plants, wastewater treatment (more than 85% of the nation’s sewage is reused for agriculture), and smart technologies. There is a dispute with the Palestinians over only one of many aquifers, but the fact is that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a legally-binding treaty, set forth in the Oslo Accords, which specifies the amount of water that Israel provides to the Palestinians every year. In a world of shrinking water resources, the Palestinians have a guaranteed supply of healthy, clean water.

You write that Judaism has always revered water, as evidenced by the fact that the word “water” appears 600 times in the Hebrew Bible. Was that attitude shared by the secular Zionist pioneers who created the Jewish state?

The first generation of secularists all came from religious homes. The first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as a youth attended a heder and later a yeshiva (traditional religious schools) in Poland; he talked about water all the time, according to Shimon Peres, his close aide. Ben Gurion was captivated by the idea of turning seawater into freshwater for homes and farms.

One of the most enduring songs and dances of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) was “Mayim Mayim” (Water, Water). The lyrics come from the Book of Isaiah (12:3): “With joy, you shall draw water from the springs of Salvation.” It was set to music and choreographed in 1937 to celebrate the discovery of water at a collective farm.

Today, Israel has no fear of running out of water – in a nation that is 60% desert, that’s something to celebrate.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 3/02/2016

Categories: Environment, Israel, Living in Israel
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