As frightening and insurmountable as it may seem like the chronic and growing shortage of water, there are solutions at hand that can save us from the 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 to both cities and farms. That country is Israel. And with drought becoming the new normal, politicians would do well to take a look at what Israel has done and begin the process of creating their own water-resistant societies that are less dependent on rains that may not return. never again.
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 have often led to world-changing discoveries.
Israel became a nation in May 1948, but decades earlier, while under the control of the British Mandate, the Zionist leadership began to prioritize excellence in the water, along with defense and immigration policy. In most countries, the (non-romantic) issues of water infrastructure and technology are in the hands of mid-level officials and younger cabinet members. But reading the diaries of the founders of Israel means seeing the daily interest, bordering on obsession, for the correct water policy. For example, long before desalination took off in Israel, the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, often wrote about the prospect of “desalinating the sea” to “make the desert 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 large water-poor countries can. Likewise, having a long coastline and most of its population within easy reach of the country’s desalination plants offers opportunities not available everywhere.
But some of what Israel does, everyone can do, at least in theory.
First, Israel charges the real price of water. (Although the cost is subsidized for those who receive social assistance; everyone else pays full price.) Using market forces, consumers, farmers and industry are always looking for ways to conserve water, or to use the technology that leads to the most efficient use of water. In most of the world, water is heavily subsidized, which leads to a huge waste of water due to overuse. For example, because at full market price it is cheaper to fix leaky pipes than to waste water, Israel has an unusually low loss factor of around 7-8%. In the United States, too, there are communities with water networks that lose up to 50% of the water that passes through them.
Israel’s success in the water is also linked to the decision to put the country’s water administration in the hands of apolitical technocrats. Their job is to provide water of the highest quality to as many people as possible. Price is one factor, but not the only one. By comparison, in some cities in the United States, mayors know that their constituents may see an increase in water tariffs as a de facto increase in taxes. This translates into a suppression of water tariffs and, with it, the impossibility of modernizing facilities with the best equipment and software and the difficulty of 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 the soil by flooding fields with water – was discouraged by the government, ending the practice. Yet, worldwide, 85% of irrigated fields use flood irrigation, a practice that dates back to ancient Egyptian times 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 United States 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 abundant and inexhaustible as the sun or the air. In Arizona, for example, 89% of the irrigation used is flood irrigation, and in the rapidly depleting states of the Colorado River Basin, there are up to six million acres that continue to waste trillions of gallons annually. flooding the fields.
Fittingly, Israeli technology could come to the rescue in the southwestern United States. Low-cost gravity-powered drip irrigation, developed by an Israeli scientist, has already been implemented on thousands of acres in Arizona and elsewhere. (Full info: I work with this scientist’s company.) The technology saves half of the water previously needed for flood-irrigated fields, improving yields and reducing the need for water-polluting fertilizers. This new approach is similar to the more familiar form of drip irrigation invented in Israel over 60 years ago. But this system uses gravity as an energy source, eliminating the continuous consumption and expense of external energy.
It is said that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. That might be the case, but it’s cheaper and smarter for every water-stressed region and country to transform how they use their water. This has to start by changing the way we think about our water. And in this, any country – rich or poor, large or small, landlocked or with a long coastline – can learn from what Israel has done.