As frightening and as insurmountable a challenge as chronic and growing water shortages may seem, there are solutions at hand that can save us from crisis.
A small country in one of the driest regions in the world is among those that have developed policies and techniques to provide water in cities and farms alike. 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 to begin the process of creating their own water-resilient societies that are less dependent on rainfall that may never return.
This “all of the above” approach leads to resilience from this intentional redundancy, but it also opens the door to innovation and risk taking that has often resulted in world-changing breakthroughs.
Israel became a nation in May 1948, but decades before, while 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 (unromantic) subjects of water infrastructure and technology are in the hands of mid-level officials and more junior cabinet members. But to read the diaries of Israel’s founders is to see the daily interest, bordering on obsession, on getting the water policy right. For example, long before desalination took off in Israel, the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, often wrote about the prospect of “desaling the sea” in order to “make the desert bloom.”
Not everything Israel does is relevant everywhere. Because of its small size, approximately the land area of New Jersey, it can do things more easily than can water-poor countries of vast dimensions. Likewise, having a long coastline and most of its population within relatively easy reach of the country’s desalination facilities, provide opportunities that aren’t available everywhere.
But some of what Israel does, everyone can do — at least, in theory.
First, Israel charges the real price for water. (Though the cost is subsidized for those receiving social welfare; everyone else pays the full price.) By use of market forces, consumers, farmers and industry are always looking for ways to conserve water, or to use technology that leads to the most efficient use of water possible. In most of the world, water is deeply subsidized which leads to enormous wastage of water due to overuse. As one example, because at full market price it is cheaper to fix leaky pipes than to waste the water, Israel has an uncommonly low leak factor of about 7-8%. Even in the US, there are communities with water mains that lose up to 50% of the water flowing through them.
Israel’s success in water is also tied to the decision to put the administration of the country’s water in the hands of apolitical technocrats. Their job is to get the highest quality water to the largest number of people 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 well as a de facto tax increase. This results in suppressed water fees, and with it the inability to modernize facilities with the best equipment and software, and difficulty in attracting and retaining highly skilled engineers.
Israel also differs from much of the world in its approach to agriculture. Decades ago, flood irrigation — which soaks soil by flooding fields with water — was discouraged by the government, effectively ending the practice. Yet, around the world, 85 percent of irrigated fields use flood irrigation, a practice that goes back to the time of ancient Egypt and the flooding of the Nile River Basin.
While this wasteful and unsustainable method may be thought to be in use only in less developed countries, here in the US, we flood irrigate millions of acres in California, Texas, and even in the parched southwest. Farmers have little incentive to switch to water-saving technology because they can continue using water as if it were as abundant and inexhaustible as sunshine 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 as many as six million acres that continue wasting trillions of gallons annually by flooding fields.
Fittingly, Israeli technology may come to the rescue in the US southwest. Low-cost, gravity-fed drip irrigation, developed by an Israeli scientist, has already been deployed on thousands of acres in Arizona and elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I work with this scientist’s company.) The technology saves half of the water previously needed for flood-irrigated fields while improving yields and reducing the need for water-polluting fertilizer. This newer approach is similar to the more familiar form of drip irrigation invented in Israel more than 60 years ago. But this system uses gravity as its energy source, eliminating ongoing external energy use and expense.
It’s been said that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. That may be so, but it is cheaper and smarter for every water-stressed region and country to transform how it uses its water. That has to start with changing how we think about our water. And in that, every country — rich or poor, large or small, landlocked or with a long seacoast — can learn from what Israel has done.