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. A set 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.
This report is not an outlier. According to the Global Water Partnership (GWP), an organization founded by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, “The increasing pressures of climate change, population growth, urbanization, and evolving energy needs are together putting unprecedented pressure on our finite freshwater resources. We’ve got to do something about it now.” An Oxford University report from April of this year, funded by the GWP and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, determined that water shortages were already costing the global economy half a trillion dollars a year, not including the cost of environmental damage.
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 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.
Tomatoes grown with seeds from the Israeli agricultural firm Hazera. Photo: Hazera Seeds Ltd. / YouTube
Tomatoes grown with seeds from the Israeli agricultural firm Hazera. Photo: Hazera Seeds Ltd. / YouTube
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 has joined 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 our way of life. But what if we could do more than that? What if we could get more water to begin with? Here, too, Israel is leading the way.
Israelis, despite all their success in lowering demand, have grown so much in population and economic development that they now go through about the same 500 billion gallons per year that nature has given them. As the population and economy keep growing, they’re going to use a lot more. But they’ve long known this day was coming, and for decades they’ve been looking for answers. In recent years, they’ve made major breakthroughs, turning both seawater and sewage into something they can use.
Israelis are very aware of how little water there is in its biggest single source, the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret. Until recently, the legendary lake (which a rabbi I know once called “the largest thing in Israel”) supplied about a third of the country’s water use. Every day the evening news would report on its water level. It was such-and-such centimeters above the Red Line, until it went below the Red Line and it turned out there was also a Black Line, beyond which you couldn’t draw any more water, period. Israelis also learned that the country’s underground aquifers—which combined to produce the other two-thirds—were being depleted and could potentially be destroyed if too much water was drawn. Years of drought meant that Israel really could run out of water. There were massive TV campaigns advocating conservation, featuring supermodels whose faces would suddenly get dry and crack, a powerful metaphor for the beauty of life that can vanish in an instant when the water runs out.
In the last decade, however, a country that until only a few years ago was floating the idea of importing water from Turkey on barges, has now fulfilled a dream nearly a century in the making: Water independence.
Employees of the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant walk amongst the plant’s pipes and tunnels. The central filtration plant at the Eshkol site in Israel is the fourth-largest plant in the world, and the first of its kind in the country. It was constructed in June 2007 by Israel's National Water Company, Mekorot. The plant filters water pumped from Lake Kinneret. Photo: Moshe Shai / Flash90
Employees of the Eshkol Water Filtration Plant walk amongst the plant’s pipes and tunnels. The central filtration plant at the Eshkol site in Israel is the fourth-largest plant in the world, and the first of its kind in the country. It was constructed in June 2007 by Israel’s National Water Company, Mekorot. The plant filters water pumped from Lake Kinneret. Photo: Moshe Shai / Flash90
The most dramatic factor in this achievement has been the successful construction of desalination plants along Israel’s Mediterranean coast. It’s long been understood that seawater has a lot of, well, water in it, and that the planet has a huge amount of seawater in it. The oceans contain about 97.5 percent of the world’s water. Israel has a long coastline, and the nation’s founders, including the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, were consumed with the possibility of taking the salt out of salt water. With the help of the U.S. government and the Jewish National Fund, Israel invested in different ideas for desalination, including freezing water to separate it from salt or heating water so its vapor could be condensed as fresh water in the same way water rises from the ocean and then falls as rain.
“Desalination has the feel of science, engineering, and alchemy combined,” writes Siegel. “The ancient Romans tried to purify seawater for their army, but their efforts never went far. During World War II, American scientists also began thinking about ways” to remove salt from seawater. In February 1964, President Lyndon Johnson gave a major speech about directing America’s resources toward finding the holy grail of affordable desalination, comparing the nation’s efforts to Israel’s—much to the fury of the Arab world. He even invited Israel’s Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to the White House for talks on the subject. But these efforts were hampered by high costs and the Vietnam War. The first experimental desalination plant in Israel didn’t go online until the 1980s. But by then, a major technological breakthrough was already in the works.
A worker maintains the equipment at the water desalination plant in Ashkelon. Photo: Edi Israel / Flash90
A worker maintains the equipment at the water desalination plant in Ashkelon. Photo: Edi Israel / Flash90
The invention of reverse osmosis (RO) can be traced to an American Jew named Sidney Loeb. He was born in Kansas and studied for his Ph.D. at UCLA in the early 1960s. Loeb discovered that salt and minerals could be separated from the fresh water by pushing the seawater through membranes. Tom Pankrantz, editor of the Water Desalination Report, calls him the “father of reverse osmosis,” comparing him to the Wright Brothers. Moved by the Six-Day War and the love of a woman, Loeb ended up in Israel, where his expertise was quickly put to work. Loeb’s invention made it possible to turn seawater into fresh water for about half the cost of any other methods. He lived long enough to see Israel’s first industrial-sized reverse-osmosis desalination plant launched in 2005.
Since then, Israel has built four more RO plants, with still more planned. In 2014, these plants supplied about half of Israel’s drinking water. This was more than all the water being pumped from the Sea of Galilee a decade ago, and a higher percentage than any other country. Suddenly, Israel has become immune to the intense droughts that have plagued the Middle East, and already has the capacity to increase production as demand rises. Over the last 10 years, desalination plants using reverse-osmosis technology have sprung up around the world.
What does this mean for the world? It means that, suddenly, water scarcity has become something you can solve simply and decisively. All you need is a coastline and a lot of money, but nothing beyond the financial capacity of any national government. For the cost of a few fighter jets, you can build a world-class RO plant and pump the water into the system. Suddenly, water has transformed from a problem of natural resources to a problem of finding the political will and the budget. Today any country that doesn’t have enough water has only its leaders to blame.
Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a deal with California Governor Jerry Brown to encourage water-tech cooperation between Israel and the drought-plagued Golden State. This year it was announced that San Diego County would benefit from the opening of the hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, with the facility designed by an Israeli company. California is not Israel; its vast expanses and decentralized authorities will make it hard to replicate Israel’s success in pricing and management. But desalination is a major step forward—at the very least, an insurance policy against destroying California’s underground water sources through over-drawing. Combine this with Israeli irrigation technology and other elements tailored to the state’s unique needs, and the revolution will be felt there, too.
“For us, water today is just like food was in ancient times,” says Ilan Cohen, former advisor to Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert. “It became a paradigm shift when man could grow his own food… Today we are in a period like the dawn of agriculture. Prehistoric man had to go where the food was. Now, agriculture is an industry. Until recently, we had to go where the water was. But no longer.”
But Israelis have led the way in another revolution in water technology: The recycling of waste. Now, you probably don’t want to hear about how what goes out through our toilets can be reused to grow carrots, but listen carefully anyway. When gritty New Yorkers take a shower, the runoff ends up in the East River. In Washington, D.C., a rainstorm hits the streets and washes away all the dirt and garbage and spilled beer and political bile into the sewers, and from there it all ends up in the ocean. American wastewater is treated minimally to prevent environmental damage. In some countries it’s not treated at all, polluting rivers and oceans.
In Israel, however, fully 85 percent of that highly purified sewage gets reused for agriculture. Another 10 percent is used to increase river flow and fight forest fires. Only five percent is released into the sea. The country with the second-highest use of recycled water is Spain. They recycle about 25 percent.
Like the others, this Israeli innovation long predates the dotcom era, going all the way back to the 1950s. Understandably, farmers were a bit squeamish at first about using sewage for food production, and a huge amount of work had to go into figuring out how to keep both the food and the sources of fresh water—some of them in aquifers beneath the farms—free of toxins. The big breakthrough came in the 1970s, when seven municipalities in the Tel Aviv area experimented with pumping wastewater into sandy dunes about eight miles south of the city. The sand, it was hoped, would act as a natural filter, directing the water over time into a nearby aquifer. It worked. The treated water (known as “effluent water”) was pumped further south, where it is now used in agriculture. The natural process takes about six months to a year, but what comes out the other end is nearly fresh, usable for anything but drinking. By the 1990s, Israel had built a vast series of treatment facilities and a reservoir infrastructure capable of treating, storing, and delivering reclaimed water from the sewage of nearly every municipality in the country. “Reclaimed water transformed Israel’s water profile,” Siegel writes. “And no less than with the role of drip irrigation and specially bred, drought-resistant seeds, the comprehensively treated sewage water changed the agricultural landscape, permitting Israel to feed itself and to be an agricultural exporter of significance—whether in years of rain or scarcity.”
Today, nearly half the water used for agriculture in Israel comes from highly treated waste.
Yet in Siegel’s mind, the biggest single source of our global water crisis is not in the climate or the lack of adequate technology. It is, rather, in our own minds.
“Look in front of you,” he challenged me from across the table at a friendly Italian restaurant near his office in midtown Manhattan. “You have three cups there. Your coffee cup is empty. Your glass of Diet Coke? Nearly empty. But the glass of water is still almost full. Why is that? Because water is free. If you had to pay for it, you’d relate to it very differently. Did you ever take two sips of a glass of wine at a restaurant and then leave? Bet you never did.”
I looked at my glass of water with mixed feelings.
“The problem is, water isn’t free. A lot of money goes into bringing you that glass of water—from finding water sources to drilling to cleaning wastewater to maintaining the systems that deliver it. You know what would happen if you had to pay what it really costs? You’d be a lot more careful about how you use it. You’d relate to it as the limited resource that it really is.”
It’s amazing how easily the concept can click. It’s what Israelis call “switching the diskette”—adopting a different idea that results in very different principles of action. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, I’d been told that water is more or less free, like the air we breathe. The urgency of fixing a leak was proportional to the noise it made, not the water it wasted. But water isn’t free at all. In fact, it’s heavily subsidized, and we pay for it in taxes. That’s a huge problem.
The Israeli solution? Change the way water is priced.
It’s something you learn about in an introductory economics course: In a free market, prices carry important information between producers and consumers, telling us when something is scarce, when we need more of it, and where. If bad weather makes a bad bell pepper crop, we pay more for bell peppers that year. Some farmers, seeing an opportunity to make more on the high prices, will grow more bell peppers. Then the increased supply will bring the prices down. And so on.
When government subsidies cause prices to be much lower, however, we lose that information and our behavior becomes distorted. Water costs money, but we act as though it doesn’t, and we waste it in huge amounts.
Case in point: Buried deep beneath the lush forests and rolling mountains of upstate New York is the longest tunnel in the world. Cutting through bedrock at depths that reach 1,200 feet, the Delaware Aqueduct stretches from the Catskill mountains east-southeast across the Hudson river before turning south to New York City. Built in the 1940s, it delivers about half the city’s fresh water; water so clean it’s been called the “champagne of urban water.” It’s a thing with New Yorkers, to order tap water in a restaurant, because they can.
The Delaware Aqueduct is leaking. A lot. Can you imagine this? Thirty-five million gallons a day. Pouring out of the pipes, into the bedrock, into the ground. How much is 35 million gallons? Go to Niagara Falls. Surround yourself with the roaring vastness of water falling in unthinkable amounts, reminding you of how small you are. Now start counting. If you count out not 10 or 20 seconds but a full 60 seconds, then you have seen what 35 million gallons of water looks like. It’s enough water to provide the daily needs of half a million people. Now imagine all this fresh “champagne” leaking out of the system, day in and day out, for years that become decades. Authorities have known about the leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct since at least 1980, and haven’t fixed them yet.
Because the tunnels are so deep and fixing them is so costly, nothing was done about it until a public campaign erupted in the mid-2000s around the town of Wawarsing, New York. The leaks flooded the streets and damaged the town’s buildings and homes. “The water just shoots up right out of the cracks in the floor,” said one resident. It destroyed the local wells and wreaked havoc on the town, even during the driest weather. Finally, in 2013, New York began work on a $1.5 billion project to fix some of the leaks and build a bypass for the rest of them. It will be completed in 2021.
The world may be full of water, but usable water for humans is not free. The costs of the human water cycle are enormous, a fact Americans are only now beginning to understand.
Why would a modern, civilized place take four decades to repair a massive breach in the delivery system of its most precious commodity? Why was the vast leakage itself not enough of an impetus to fix it? Partly because competing authorities wanted to shift blame and get others to pay for the fix, as always happens. But the biggest reason is that, simply, water is not seen by most Americans as a precious commodity at all. “If water is free, but infrastructure is expensive,” Siegel asks, “why fix the leak?”
The world may be full of water, but usable water for humans is not free. The costs of the human water cycle are enormous, covering sourcing, ensuring quality, building and fixing infrastructure, pumping, treating waste, fixing damage, meters, enforcement, and customer service. But when consumers don’t feel the cost because of massive subsidies, they have a hard time keeping the costs down. And when that numbness is reflected in the decisions of large-scale agribusinesses that would otherwise be incentivized to come up with water-saving innovations, or politicians who should be held accountable for its mismanagement, all shielded by a cultural myth that water is free, you end up wasting huge amounts.
That’s why California is in a water crisis. That’s why the Great Plains are next.
In the late 2000s, Israel undertook a nationwide experiment in the centralization of water management. Management of water resources was placed under a single national Water Authority. Although by law all sources of water (even rain) have been considered government property since the country’s founding, in 2008 a new law was passed requiring the whole water system to be revenue-neutral. This meant that the entire cost would be covered by consumers. There’s still a little mucking with the prices, as households pay extra so that farmers can pay less. But that’s not so bad, since if the farmers had to pay more, consumers would end up covering it in higher food costs, which is not politically sustainable and disproportionately hurts the poor.
Soon, everyone knew just how much water was costing the country. The next year, private consumers suddenly saw a 40 percent increase in their water bills. People grumbled. But household water use went down immediately by over 15 percent. Farmers, too, immediately adopted more water-efficient methods. Former water commissioner Shimon Tal explained,
For the few years before the price mechanism was used, we were in the middle of a terrible regional drought. The Water Commission had an ongoing and aggressive consumer education campaign on why everyone had to save water. It was a real success. Consumer usage dropped 8 percent. Then we used price as an incentive. Almost overnight, consumers found ways to save nearly double the amount of water they had saved because of our years-long education campaign. It turned out that price was the most effective incentive of all.
Israel is the only country on Earth with something resembling real pricing for water use, and has proven that it’s possible to accelerate solutions through smart pricing.
Yet while real pricing is new, the idea that water conservation is a state of mind goes back much farther, again dating to Israel’s early years. Live with an Israeli, and you’ll discover that water scarcity is deeply important to them. Here’s a fight I’ve had a bunch of times with my wife, in which I am obviously boneheadedly wrong: When I brush my teeth, I keep the water running the whole time. She stomps over and turns it off. “I’m still brushing!” I warble through the foam. But she is Israeli, and has learned from childhood that haval al kol tipa. Loosely translated, it means, “Every drop counts.” Every Israeli you meet has had it drummed into them that faucets shouldn’t be left on. Water conservation has been a part of elementary-school education in Israel for generations. In the 1980s, Israel became the first country on earth to mandate dual-flushing toilets, and every Israeli knows that you press a different button to flush after you pee. It’s just a part of the culture.
Despite my strong belief that people and governments should take responsibility for preserving the natural world, I have never been an environmental activist. I do believe companies should be punished for polluting, and citizens should be taught to clean up after themselves. My problem has always been with the radicalism that defines so much environmental activism. It indulges in tiresome stereotypes about Western greed, storms the offices of the people and agencies who are often working to solve the very problems being protested, and builds narratives that inevitably cast anyone promoting economic growth as a villain. I find myself never quite trusting its data or its prescriptions or its predictions. It doesn’t help that the predictions rarely come true.
The water crisis is different. This isn’t about blame. To the contrary, one of the biggest causes of the water shortage is the tremendous success that markets have had in bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into a lifestyle that consumes much more water. And it’s hard to blame subsistence farmers who are just following traditions and doing what they know. If you can boil the problem down to one sentence, it would be this: If every political decision-maker and major consumer on earth internalized the fact that usable water is a limited, quantifiable resource rather than just a gift from the heavens, the revolution would take hold.
Nor is there cause for panic or doomsday predictions and their attendant radical distractions. This is more like sailing towards a devastating storm you can see clearly on the horizon: There is time to change direction, the course around the storm is clear, and no one seems to be disagreeing with the existence or danger of the storm.
A faucet and toilets are presented in a classroom in the ecological village in Nitzana. Students there learn about desalination and how to save water. Photo: Chen Leopold / Flash90
A faucet and toilets are presented in a classroom in the ecological village in Nitzana. Students there learn about desalination and how to save water. Photo: Chen Leopold / Flash90
But the fundamental change in course needs to happen, and soon. Water is a measureable commodity, but unlike oil and copper, usable water is something we cannot live without. There are no alternatives. Like national security, water is not a place for governments to step aside and allow the market to do its magic. Control of water is the control of life and death. Siegel, himself a successful businessman with no qualms about the importance of markets, compares the role of government regulation of water to the need for traffic lights and speed limits. “There’s a limited amount of space on the roads,” Siegel says, “and if we want to avoid fatal accidents and horrible jams, we need government to direct the traffic.”
In the U.S., however, authority over water is distributed among overlapping, conflicting government bodies. Cities, counties, states, and the federal government all have a say, and rarely is the interest of politicians aligned with long-term, comprehensive thinking that can bring positive change. Lines of authority are blurry, and the question of which state or local authority should pay for a given project is often the reason such projects are not undertaken. A more effective way to handle political responsibility over water would be to create empowered authorities that cross state lines and match the natural sources of water. Think of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which governs transit into and out of New York City. While every government agency is implicitly prone to mismanagement, corruption, and waste, in the case of water, accountability can be aided by the simplicity of the desired outcomes. They can be easily measured in how much usable water is found, lost, and recycled, and at what cost.
It’s also crucial that this battle for new thinking about water be kept separate from the larger, politically complex issue of climate change. While part of the water crisis is a result of it, and therefore subject to international power struggles and different attempts to assign blame, for the most part every nation can and should take responsibility for its own failures, because every country has the resources to fix the problem, if it has the will to do so.
But what makes Let There Be Water especially important is not just the story of innovation in the face of crisis, but the story of the people who innovate. The “start-up nation” didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There was something profoundly innovative about Zionism from its earliest days, a combination of classic Jewish problem-solving with the Russian romantic swagger that wanted to make the desert bloom. It saw not just infinite possibility but also a need to affirm life exactly in the place where death awaits.
Siegel, however, is very much an American. For him, the story isn’t just about the technology or the national achievement, but very much about unique individuals. Pioneers.
The book is full of them. Aside from Blass and Loeb, we learn about Walter Clay Lowdermilk, an American sent by the U.S. government to study soil samples around the world. “He traveled across Africa in the 1930s, was despondent about the state of farming, and arrived in Palestine in 1939 and fell in love with the Zionist farmers. His book Palestine: Land of Promise became a huge bestseller. It was open on FDR’s desk when the president died. It changed the way people looked at the Zionist project,” Siegel tells me. Today’s pioneers include Sivan Ya’ari, who has launched a nonprofit called Innovation: Africa that deploys a combination of Israeli technologies—solar power, irrigation, and communication—to allow hundreds of thousands of villagers across rural Africa to create workable farms that can take them out of poverty.
It is the story of individuals—the “crazy ones,” as Steve Jobs put it in a famous Apple ad years ago—that forms the energetic core of the book, and Siegel seems to come alive when talking about them. A man who sold his company in 2001 and dreamed of life as a writer and activist, Siegel had been inspired early in life by the writings of Theodor Herzl (“a visionary and prophet”) and traumatized by the 1973 Yom Kippur War’s implications for the question of Jewish vulnerability. “Having Israel not just as a refuge but as a vibrant homeland, a light unto nations, had tremendous appeal to me. When I went there in the 1970s, it was obvious that the promise was already there.” Today, as that promise is being fulfilled, Siegel too has found his moment as someone uniquely positioned to tell the story to an American audience always hungry for new heroes.
For American Jews, the Zionist story always had something of this in it, a special appeal to young idealists in a post-pioneering America, who in the 1950s and 1960s rebelled against the comfortable inertia of their own communities and sought meaning in building the Jewish state—or, for that matter, in fighting for the Civil Rights movement or Soviet Jewry. A lot of the innovations in Siegel’s book, it turns out, were funded in part by American donors to the Jewish National Fund, which is best known for planting trees in Israel, but has lately made its biggest impact TheTower