How Israel Is Solving the Global Water Crisis
Israel could not have made the desert bloom without its incredible innovations in water technology. As the world becomes more aware of the importance of conserving water, they are turning to Israel for exports and expertise.
The world is in a water crisis, one that will grow more severe in the coming decade. Water shortages will soon lead to increasing political instability, displacement of populations, and, more likely than not, political unrest and war.
Though this water crisis overlaps with the more widely-discussed problem of climate change, it is different in many ways. It is more acute and more concrete, in that it focuses on a single resource without which humanity cannot live. Its causes are less controversial. Its dimensions are more easily measured. And its catastrophic effects are playing out more clearly and more quickly.
It is also a problem that can be decisively solved without anything remotely resembling the economic restructuring and political acrobatics required to address climate change. Fully effective solutions to the water crisis have already been found. They only need to be implemented.
The world’s water problem is being caused by multiple simultaneous factors: Reduced rainfall, increased population, and the rapid development of impoverished societies have all come together to deplete the amount of water available to humankind. None of these causes are going away. Solutions will come only from changing the way we find and use water.
To make sure supply stays ahead of demand, we need to talk about where we get water, how we use it, and what happens to it afterwards. We need methods for procuring usable water, not just from lakes and rivers and rain, but also from the sea and our own waste. We need farming methods that use much less water, and better ways to prevent leakage and contamination. We need policies that encourage all of these things without undercutting economic growth and our way of life. If we had to start today, it would take decades to come up with the answers.
But we don’t have to start today. All these solutions have been in the works for more than half a century.
The country that has dedicated the greatest resources, innovation, and cultural attention to the problem of water scarcity is Israel. Founded on a dry strip of land smaller than New Hampshire, saddled with absorbing millions of immigrants, Israel has been worrying about water for a very long time. Today, it leads the way in solving problems of water supply, spearheading efforts to deal with water leakage, farming efficiency, recycling waste, desalination, pricing policy, and education. This has resulted in a water revolution unlike anywhere else on earth; a revolution not just of technology, but of thought, policy, and culture. For this reason, Israelis will be at the heart of any effort to solve the global water crisis.
In fact, as a new book shows, they already are.
In March 2012, a skinny, bespectacled man with black wavy hair and a soft New York accent named Seth M. Siegel sat in on a briefing by an American intelligence official. It was about the looming global water crisis. The previous month, the U.S. government’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a terrifying report with a jarringly simple title: “Global Water Security.” Using data from across the intelligence community, the report painted a stark picture of decreased rainfall, depletion and degradation of groundwater, contamination, and continued waste. All of these would combine with great increases in water usage into a perfect, waterless storm. The report listed the following “Key Judgments”:
During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives.
Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.
Looking deeper into the report, these predictions turn out to be understatements. More than half the earth will soon be facing shortages. Aset of maps provided by the National Intelligence Council shows that, by 2025, parts of the world whose water supplies will be “severely,” “extremely,” or “exceptionally” affected include the entire western half of the United States, a swath of the Middle East from Egypt to Pakistan, the whole of India, and about three-quarters of China. A decade from now, billions of people will face a severe crisis if nothing is done.
Alarmed to the soles of his feet, Siegel set out to tell the world. His lifelong interest in Israel—he spent a year there as a grad student after finishing Cornell and, more recently, became deeply involved with AIPAC—had taught him that Israelis were worried about water. Soon he discovered something that few Israelis were even aware of: Through decades of research, testing, and determination, Israelis had already cracked the nut. The subject of his book quickly changed. He now wanted to tell the world about how Israel had solved one of humanity’s biggest looming problems.
The result of his efforts is the newly published Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World. I spent some time with him in New York, where he introduced me to a few of the Israelis bringing about the water revolution.
When you think of Israeli innovation, you might conjure up images of teams of unshaven ex-army intel officers, led by an energetic young start-up genius, coming up with new applications for commerce or cybersecurity or maps, angling for that eight- or nine-figure exit.
But measured by their long-term impact on the world, Israel’s most important innovators just might be in the agricultural sector—wiry, sun-baked engineer types who specialize in geology and the chemistry of water and the biology of crops. Over half a century, they have turned the country into a global leader in the water sphere, with water-tech exports reaching $2.2 billion in 2013. This is a lot for Israel, but still a trifle compared to its future potential.
A few basics about water usage: First, only about one-fifth of global water use is by households and individuals. Another 10 percent helps run power stations. The rest, about 68 percent, is employed by farmers, who often use massive amounts of water to grow crops, as well as feed and water animals. Every bite we take out of a cob of corn, a slice of pizza, barbecued chicken, or garden salad represents a quantity of water needed to make all its ingredients. On a daily basis, that’s many times the water we use for bathing, drinking, and washing our cars.
This means that before we put a brick in our toilet tanks or let our cars go unwashed, we first need to tackle the way farming works. If you think of water as a quantifiable natural resource like oil, rather than a ubiquitous part of nature like air or rocks, you quickly find that the amount of water humans are wasting is staggering—and that Israel has found ways to cut it dramatically. While many of these methods are already being put into place especially in Europe and the U.S., no country has made the transition like Israel.
Israel has become a global leader in the water sphere, with water-tech exports reaching $2.2 billion in 2013.
For most of human history, agriculture was about overcoming the irregularity of rainfall through what’s called “flood irrigation.” This uses as much water as it sounds. Essentially, tons of it is poured into fields or trenches. Think of ancient farmers schlepping buckets from a river to nearby fields. Modern sprinkler systems use less than that, but are still wasteful. A huge amount is lost to evaporation, blocked by leaves, or simply misses its mark.
Then one day in the early 1930s, a young water engineer with a heavy Polish accent named Simcha Blass made an incredible discovery. He noticed a row of trees that had been planted at the edge of a farm in the center of the country. The trees were all exactly the same, except for one at the end of the row, which was about twice as tall and bushy. He walked over to the base of the tall tree and found that a metal water pipe had sprung a tiny leak, and was dripping into the soil near the tree’s roots.
Blass was deeply shaken by what he’d seen. “The drop of water that grew the gigantic tree refused to leave me,” Siegel quotes him as saying. “It stayed trapped and sleeping in my heart.” Blass went on to other things, playing a decisive role in the creation of Israel’s National Water Carrier in the 1950s, which transported fresh water from the northern Sea of Galilee to Israel’s coastal plain and then further south to the Negev Desert. The Carrier had immense significance for the Zionist project: Without fresh water, there could be no significant Jewish communities built in the south. By the time he left public life in 1959, Blass had already dedicated his life to solving Israel’s water problems.
It was only then that Blass turned his attention back to the big tree. He came to realize something that would change Israeli agriculture forever: A tiny amount of water in the right place could make a plant grow a lot bigger and faster than a large amount thrown at it by rain or floods or sprinklers. So the question became: How do you deliver it to each and every plant in a way that is cost-effective?
One word: Plastics. Anyone who’s traveled around Israel has seen them. They are long, tough, black or brown plastic tubes, a little less than an inch in diameter. They lie on the ground wherever there are public shrubs, flower beds, or, if you’ve been to a kibbutz, among the crops. They have little holes in them where drops of water come out. They’re usually folded over at the end, with a band of black plastic holding them tight. These plastic tubes are the vanguard of the revolution.
Blass’ invention was little more than tubes hooked up to a timer and carefully calibrated. It took a long time to be taken seriously, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that some folks at Kibbutz Hatzerim, in the desert near Beersheba, started a company called Netafim that began manufacturing these systems and, in the 1970s, exporting them around the world. Blass was rewarded handsomely for his work, but his name has been largely forgotten, even in Israel. “It’s incredible that so few people have heard of him,” Siegel laments. “If Norman Borlaug can get the Nobel Prize for discovering miracle wheat in the 1970s, Simcha Blass should be a household name for what was a much bigger discovery.”
How much of a difference does drip irrigation make? It depends on various factors, but conservative estimates suggest that you can save at least 40 percent of your water on a per-acre basis. But that’s before you take into account how much more productive the plants become. Just like the tree that grew much taller, crop yields are double or more when using drippers. In fact, researchers in the Netherlands have found ways to get yields of over 550 percent above traditional irrigation. So assuming that the most conservative numbers are correct, water efficiency and crop yields combine to save you more than 70 percent of the water required for any given crop. In a world getting thirstier and thirstier, that’s revolutionary.
There’s another huge advantage to getting away from flood irrigation, which is especially important in the United States: Saving our existing groundwater sources from contamination. Across America, farmers are fertilizing their crops with chemicals. Then they flood their fields. Then the phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers combines with the water and makes its way into fresh-water sources like lakes, streams, and aquifers. That’s bad. Then it stimulates algae growth in the lakes, killing fish and plants, and making the water undrinkable. That’s worse. “The biggest source of pollution today in the U.S. isn’t chemicals in the air,” Siegel points out, “it’s runoff from farms contaminating the water supply.”
What if we grew vegetables that tasted better, so that people would eat more of them and, as a result, less meat and poultry, which requires much more water to cultivate?
But Israeli innovations in agriculture aren’t just about using less water; they’re also affecting which crops we grow. And that, it turns out, depends a lot on finding seeds that can use less fresh water to grow more food.
Every plant has parts we don’t actually need: Stalks, roots, leaves. All that non-consumable vegetation uses up water. What if we could grow wheat with short stalks instead of tall ones? Tomatoes with fewer leaves and fruits more closely bunched together? What if the water remained closer to the surface, so plants don’t need to grow long roots to reach it? And thinking bigger, what if we grew vegetables that actually tasted better, so that people would eat more of them and, as a result, less meat and poultry? Not only would our diets be healthier, we’d use less water. “The water required to grow a pound of beef is about seventeen times as much as for a pound of corn,” Siegel tells me.
Seed-breeding may sound futuristic and vaguely creepy. But farmers have been doing it for centuries, and Israelis have been working on developing drought-resistant seeds since 1939. As the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine reached a crescendo, Palestinians decided to boycott Jewish farmers, refusing to sell them seeds. Fearing for their future, Zionist farmers banded together and, through a cooperative called Hazera, began to think about what kind of crops would need to be grown in order to accommodate a huge increase in population in a land with scarce water resources. “By 1959,” Siegel writes, “Hazera began exporting its surplus seed inventory to countries with climates similar to Israel’s. Soon thereafter, it evolved into a global business with offices around the world.”
Israel today is a seed-breeding giant, competing in world markets, with a specialty in water-efficient crops, including the short-stalked wheat and closely-bunched tomatoes. Israelis are on the ground in Africa, too, helping provide water-efficient seeds to subsistence farmers. They’ve also invested heavily in research into genetically modified seeds (GMOs) that include a wide variety of water-efficient vegetables, most of which aren’t marketable yet because of a still-widespread public resistance to GMOs in Europe and elsewhere.
But there’s another area of seed selection where Israeli research has made a big difference in water use: The discovery, dating back to the 1950s, that there are plenty of crops that don’t need to be grown only using fresh water. They do just fine using brackish water, the salty stuff lurking beneath the sands not just of the Arava and Negev deserts, but in trillions of gallons across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as California, Arizona, and Texas. Let There Be Water tells the story of crazy Israelis braving pre-air-conditioning heat as they drilled for that saline water in the desert. Now over 400 farms use the stuff. I did my time on Kibbutz Ketura back in the 1980s. It was about half an hour north of Eilat, and was so hot that work in the fields stopped at around 10 am. We thought it was really neat to go out and play softball in 115-degree heat (lots of Americans on that kibbutz). And I had no idea that the Galia melons and onions I picked were part of a revolution.
Nor did I realize that the potent sweetness of the produce was not just because they had been freshly picked. “As the plant absorbs the salty water,” Siegel writes, “there is a change in the plant’s cell structure. The amount of water in the cell declines, but the natural sugars increase. This produces sweeter fruits and vegetables with a better texture.” I swear to you, before I moved to Israel, I thought of cucumbers as a tasteless, seedy filler for salads. I had no idea they could be eaten by normal people.
Could my adoption of a “Mediterranean diet” have something to do with Israel’s water revolution? I’d grown up in the U.S. despising vegetables, most of them flavorless, big, waxy things that had been pumped with water to make them look good in the supermarket. In Israel I discovered something entirely different—smaller, flavorful produce. When I came back to the U.S. years later, the hardest part was figuring out how to eat without filling my diet with meat and high-preservative bread.
Could we all live healthier lives, while making a serious dent in our use of fresh water resources, if a lot of those vegetables from the West Coast were grown smaller and sweeter, using saline water from the desert?
But enough about cukes. Let’s talk about gadgets. Where do are all those Israeli programmers and high-tech gurus fit into the water industry? It turns out that you’ll find them less in farming and more in dealing with the complexities of urban water supply. In cities around the world, huge amounts of water are lost to leakage, waste, irregular pressure, and delayed repairs. Israel, on the other hand, has gone in a different direction, turning the country’s urban water management into something out of a science fiction movie.
Probably the most advanced system is employed by Hagihon, the public company that runs Jerusalem’s water system. With over 700,000 residents, Jerusalem has by far the largest population of any single city in Israel; Hagihon serves over a million Israelis. The holy city is especially challenging, with its mountains and valleys making water pressure unreliable. And as anyone who’s lived in Jerusalem knows, its residents aren’t exactly homogeneous. They are a cacophonic mix of secular-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and Palestinian Arab communities, meaning water use habits are highly inconsistent.
In the last few years, Hagihon has hired a whole range of hi-tech companies to give Jerusalem one of the most advanced water systems in the world. The biggest problem is finding and fixing leaks. Every day, sensors in the pipelines, powered by little hydroelectric pinwheels, record the sounds of rushing water in 10-second increments. Then they transmit them, via the cellular network, to a central computer that analyzes the sounds and crunches the data—because it turns out flowing water in a pipe sounds different when there’s a leak. GPS-guided robots crawl through sewers looking for leaks, too. Hagihon can track down small leaks in the infrastructure and get them fixed well before they ever become big ones, saving a huge amount of water. Starting this year, they’ll be fixing leaks by injecting a special putty that plugs them automatically, like the can of foam you have in the trunk of your car to fix flat tires. So for the first time ever, leaks can be fixed without waiting for a team to dig a hole in the ground.
Hagihon uses GPS-guided robots to crawl through sewers and fix leaky pipes.
But fixing leaks isn’t the only way Jerusalem uses high-tech to deal with its water issues. World-class cybersecurity experts protect the system from sabotage. In a computerized world, a single terrorist hacker could destroy a whole city’s water system by manipulating pressure levels or purification systems. Number-crunchers analyze huge amounts of data from specialized water meters to discover irregular water use and flag it for inquiry. Their gadgets are so sensitive that they can catch a shower left on in someone’s home. In one case, they noticed a spike in water flow on a street corner early on a Sunday morning. When they sent a team, they found that somebody had hooked up a hose to a fire hydrant in order to fill his swimming pool, stealing water that he had probably convinced himself was “free.”
How successful has Hagihon been? Successful enough to bring Jerusalem’s overall water losses down to around 11 percent, with more developed neighborhoods as low as 6 percent. By comparison, most European countries are around 20-40 percent. The state of California passed a law in 2009 mandating that its cities get the number down to 20 percent by 2020. Less developed countries suffer from a much higher rate of loss—in Cairo it’s around 60 percent—and the demand for Israeli knowhow is growing. Recently, Hagihon has added consulting to its portfolio, and hasjoined with two other companies, including another Israeli one, to revolutionize water technology in the city of New Delhi, whose population of 16 million people is twice that of Israel.
All these methods point to the possibility that we can dramatically reduce our demand for water without sacrificing
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