While chronic and growing water scarcity is a daunting and insurmountable challenge, there are solutions available that can save us from the crisis.
A small country in one of the world’s driest regions is among those that have developed policies and techniques for providing water to both cities and farms. That country is Israel. And with drought becoming the new normal, policymakers would be wise to take a look at what Israel has done, and begin the process of creating their own water-resilient societies that are less dependent on rains that may never return.
This “all of the above” approach leads from this intentional redundancy to resilience, but it also opens the door to the innovation and risk-taking that has often led to world-changing breakthroughs.
Israel became a nation in May 1948, but decades earlier, under the control of the British Mandate, the Zionist leadership began prioritizing excellence in water, along with defense and immigration policy. In most countries, the (non-romantic) issues of water infrastructure and technology are in the hands of middle-level officials and smaller cabinets. But to read the diaries of Israel’s founders is to see a daily interest, bordering on obsession, in getting the water policy right. For example, long before desalination began in Israel, the country’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, often wrote about the possibility of “desalinizing the sea” so that “the desert will bloom.”
Not everything Israel does is relevant everywhere. Because of its small size, roughly the land area of New Jersey, it can do things more easily than other water-poor countries of vast dimensions. Also, the long coastline and the fact that the majority of the population is within easy reach of the country’s salt facilities, offers opportunities not available everywhere.
But some of what Israel does, everyone can do, at least in theory.
First, Israel charges the real price for water. (Although the cost is subsidized for welfare recipients; everyone else pays full price.) Using market forces, consumers, farmers, and industry are always looking to save water, or use technology that leads to the most efficient use. it is possible to use water. In most of the world, water is heavily subsidized and this leads to water being wasted through overuse. For example, since it is cheaper to repair leaking pipes than to waste water at the full market price, Israel has an unusually low leakage factor of around 7-8%. Even in the US, there are communities with water mains that lose up to 50% of the water that passes through them.
Israel’s success in water is also linked to its decision to place the country’s water administration in the hands of apolitical technocrats. Their job is to get the highest quality water to as many people as possible. Price is a factor, but not the only one. By comparison, in some US cities, mayors know that their constituents may see a rise in water rates as a de facto tax increase. This reduces water rates, and with it the inability to modernize facilities with the best equipment and software, and the difficulty in attracting and retaining highly skilled engineers.
Israel is different from the rest of the world from an agricultural perspective. Decades ago, flood irrigation — flooding land with water — was discouraged by the government, effectively ending the practice. However, worldwide, 85 percent of irrigated fields use flood irrigation, a practice that dates back to ancient Egypt and the flooding of the Nile River basin.
While you might think this wasteful and unsustainable method is only used in the least developed countries, here in the US, we irrigate millions of acres in California, Texas, and even the arid Southwest. Farmers have little incentive to switch to water-saving technology because they can continue to use water as if it were as abundant and inexhaustible as the sun or air. In Arizona, for example, 89% of the irrigation used is flood irrigation, and in the states of the rapidly depleting Colorado River basin, there are about six million acres that continue to waste trillions of gallons annually by flooding fields.
Conveniently, Israeli technology can come to the rescue in the US Southwest. Developed by an Israeli scientist, low-cost, gravity-fed drip irrigation has already been deployed on thousands of acres in Arizona and elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I work for this scientist’s company.) The technology saves half the water previously needed for flood-irrigated fields, improves yields, and reduces the need for water-polluting fertilizers. This new approach is similar to the more popular form of drip irrigation invented in Israel more than 60 years ago. But this system uses gravity as the energy source, eliminating the constant use and expense of external energy.
It is said that the wars of the century will be fought over water. That may be so, but it is cheaper and smarter for each water-stressed region and country to transform how they use their water. That must begin to change the way we think about our water. And in that, every country — rich or poor, big or small, landlocked or with a long sea coast — can learn from what Israel has done.