The Secret of Israel's Water Miracle and How It Can Help a Thirsty World
From holistic management to advanced toilets, Israel has pioneered ideas that can help the planet manage its increasingly threatened water sources.
by Ruth Schuster, www.haaretz.com, Jan 19, 2016
The world's problem with water isn't that it's disappearing. The water is there. The problem is that in many areas, growing populations have less and less water per capita because of crumbling infrastructure leading to massive leaking; short-sighted and self-interested water management, leading to egregious waste, and polluted groundwater.
Can ideas from Israel really help solve these problems at a planetary level?
Yes, because in a process lasting decades, Israel achieved something unique. It largely separated its water consumption from Mother Nature. Israel doesn't have some one-stop-shop magic solution, neither desalination (which it didn't invent) nor some breakthrough dreamed up by geniuses in garages. What it has is holistic, centralized water management, designed over decades, from which thirsty areas from California to Egypt can cherry-pick ideas, argues Seth Siegel, author of the best-selling book "Let There Be Water". Why reinvent the wheel when one can emulate it?
Israel should have been a water basket case," says Siegel, listing its problems: 60% of the land is desert and the rest is arid. Rainfall has fallen to half its 1948 average, apparently thanks to climate change, and as global warming progresses, Israel and the whole Levant are expected to become even drier – and from 1948, Israel's population has grown 10-fold.
During that time, the country's economy grew 70-fold. But instead of starting to waste water, as happens when a society becomes wealthier, it used its new affluence to implement what Siegel calls "the Israel model" of water management.
Israel uses its groundwater and lakewater, yes. But key to its water security are efforts such as drilling deep wells, massive desalination, reusing treated sewage for farming, finding and fixing leaks early, engineering crops to thrive in onerous conditions, discouraging gardening, making efficient toilets mandatory, and pricing water to discourage waste...and then there's the holy grail of Israeli water innovation: drip irrigation.
Drip, also called micro-irrigation, was the first watering innovation in thousands of years. Instead of flooding the fields with prodigious amounts of water and fertilizer, much of which get wasted, small amounts of both are dripped directly onto the plant's roots.
Netafim, which makes drip irrigation technology, says the technique saves 25%-75% pumped water compared to flood, on average. So,the farmer uses less water, fertilizer and sometimes pesticides, and is happy. The aquifers suffer less chemical pollution. The crops yield more (about 15%, say Netafim and some experts) and food prices drop, so the consumer is happy...These days there are even technologies to fine-tune drip, for instance sensors that, when stuck into a tree, measure the actual plant's water stress, rather than that of the soil by the root. As drip involves no aquifer recharge to speak of, less fertilizer, pesticides and lord knows what other horrible chemicals leak into our groundwater. Massive influxes of fertilizers and pesticides causing hormonal disruption are being blamed for anything from micro-penises among Floridian alligators to gender-fluid fish and other unnatural horrors...
Another key to water conservation is to exploit wastewater. Israel treats almost all its sewage and reuses the water in agriculture. Egypt may not have the resources to build giant desalination plants but it could affordably treat sewage rather than dump it into the Nile, and plant "advanced" crops that grow well in onerous conditions.
They could also train plumbers and engineers. "Cairo has a phenomenally bad problem of broken water pipes," says Siegel. Pipe leakage is about 20%-30% in Western Europe; in Cairo it's about 50% and in Israel it's 9% to 10%, making it second in the world after Singapore. Israel has smart technologies to find leaks and solutions that don't involve tearing up whole streets to replace pipes.
Maybe Cairo [and Michigan and other U.S. states] should also subsidize dual-flush toilets, which are the only type available in Israel. "Does one flush make a difference? Nah. But multiply by 8 million Israelis peeing six times a day, or 80 million Egyptians, and we're talking about real water," Siegel says.
Realizing its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the "water equation" and made itself all but independent of Mother Nature. But it's lonely in that. Making bad matters worse, climate change has begun to hit hard. Changing governance, raising money and installing technologies takes time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast.
The world doesn't need to take the 70 years during which Israel has been solving its water problem, says Siegel: Israel did the work already. The world can emulate it. But it has to get a move on before the water runs out.
Ruth Schuster, Haaretz Correspondent
Israel, the 100th smallest country, with less than 1/1000th of the world’s population, can lay claim to the following:
- The cell phone was developed in Israel by Israelis working in the Israeli branch of Motorola, which has its largest development center in Israel.
- Most of the Windows NT and XP operating systems were developed by Microsoft-Israel.
- The Pentium MMX and Centrino microprocessors were designed and developed, and produced in Israel. If you use an up-to-date computer, Israel made it possible.
- Voice mail technology and AOL Instant Messenger were developed in Israel.
- Both Microsoft and Cisco built their only R&D facilities outside the US in Israel.
- Israel leads the world in the number of scientists and technicians in the workforce. With over 25% of its workforce employed in technical professions, Israel places first in this category as well.Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation in the world.
- Israel has one of the highest rates of per capita patents filed each year.
- According to industry officials, Israel designed the airline industry’s most impenetrable flight security. US officials now look to Israel for advice on how to handle airborne security threats.
- When the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya was bombed in 1998, Israeli rescue teams were on the scene within a day – and saved three victims from the rubble.
- In proportion to its population, Israel has the largest number of startup companies in the world. In absolute terms, Israel has the largest number of startup companies than any other country in the world, except the US.
- Twenty-four percent of Israel’s workforce holds university degrees – ranking third in the industrialized world, after the US and Holland. 12% hold advanced degrees.
- Israel has the highest average living standards in the Middle East.
Biotech and Medical Advances
- On a per capita basis, Israel has the largest number of biotech startups.
- Israeli scientists developed the first fully computerized, no-radiation, diagnostic instrumentation for breast cancer.
- An Israeli company developed a computerized system for ensuring proper administration of medications, reducing the risk of human error from medical treatment. Every year in US hospitals, 7,000 patients die from treatment mistakes.
- A new acne treatment developed in Israel, the ClearLight device, produces a high intensity, ultraviolet-light-free, narrow band blue light that causes acne bacteria to self-destruct, all without damaging surrounding skin or tissue.
Israel’s Givun Imaging developed the first ingestible video camera, so small it fits inside a pill. Used to view the small intestine from the inside, the camera helps doctors diagnose cancer and digestive disorders.
Making A Greener World
- Israel is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees, made more remarkable because this was achieved in an area considered mainly desert.
- In southern California’s Mojave desert, an Israeli company was the first to develop and install the world's first a large-scale solar-powered and fully functional electricity generating plant.
- Israel has more museums per capita than any other country.
A Beacon of Freedom
- Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.
- Relative to its population, Israel is the largest immigrant-absorbing nation on earth. Immigrants come in search of democracy, religious freedom, and economic opportunity.
- In 1984 and 1991, Israel airlifted a total of 22,000 Ethiopian Jews at risk in Ethiopia.
- Israel was the first nation in the world to adapt the Kimberly Process, an international standard that certifies diamonds as “conflict-free.”
- For more on Israel's remarkable achievements, click here.