Opinion: The country that is showing the world how to save water

As daunting and insurmountable a challenge as chronic and growing water scarcity may seem, there are solutions that can save us from a crisis.

A small country in one of the world’s driest regions is among those that have developed policies and techniques to bring water to cities and farms alike. This country is Israel. And as droughts become the new normal, policymakers would do well to take a look at what Israel has done and begin the process of creating their own water-resilient societies that are less dependent on rainfall that might will never come back.
This all-from-the-top approach creates resilience to this intentional redundancy, but also opens the door to the innovation and risk-taking that have often led to world-changing breakthroughs.
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Israel became a nation in May 1948, but decades earlier, while under the control of the British Mandate, the Zionist leadership began to prioritize excellent water quality alongside defense and immigration policies. In most countries, the (unromantic) issues of water infrastructure and technology are in the hands of mid-level officials and junior cabinet members. But to read the diaries of Israel’s founders is to see the daily obsession, bordering on the obsession, with getting water policies right. For example, long before desalination began 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, about the land area of ​​New Jersey, it can do things more easily than arid countries with huge dimensions. Likewise, a long coastline and most of the population within relatively easy reach of the country’s desalination plants offer opportunities that are not widely available.

But some of what Israel does anyone can do—at least in theory.

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First, Israel calculates the real price of water. (Although the costs are subsidized for those receiving social assistance, everyone else pays full price.) Consumers, farmers and industry are always looking for ways to conserve water or use technologies that result in the most efficient ones by harnessing the forces of the market Use of water possible. In most parts of the world, water is heavily subsidized, resulting in huge water wastage due to overuse. For example, since at full market price it is cheaper to fix leaky pipes than to waste the water, Israel has an unusually low leak factor of around 7-8%. Even in the US, there are communities with water mains that lose up to 50% of the water that flows through them.
Israel’s water success is also linked to its decision to place the country’s water management in the hands of apolitical technocrats. Their job is to provide the greatest number of people with the highest quality water. Price is a factor, but not the only one. In comparison, mayors in some US cities know that their voters might view an increase in water rates as a de facto tax increase. This leads to suppressed water rates and hence an inability to modernize facilities with the best equipment and software and difficulties in attracting and retaining highly skilled engineers.
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Israel also differs in its approach to agriculture from much of the world. Decades ago, flood irrigation — which drenches the soil by flooding fields with water — was discouraged by the government, effectively ending the practice. Still, 85 percent of the world’s irrigated fields use flood irrigation, a practice that dates back to ancient Egypt and the flooding of the Nile basin.
While it may be assumed that this wasteful and unsustainable method is only used in less developed countries, here in the US we irrigate millions of acres in California, Texas and even the arid Southwest. Farmers have little incentive to switch to water-saving technologies because they can continue to use water as if it were as plentiful and inexhaustible as sun or air. In Arizona, for example, 89% of irrigation is irrigated by flooding, and states in the rapidly depleted Colorado River Basin have as many as 6 million acres that continue to waste trillions of gallons annually from flooding fields.
Appropriately, Israeli technology could come to the rescue in the US Southwest. Inexpensive, gravity-fed drip irrigation, developed by an Israeli scientist, has been used on thousands of acres in Arizona and elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I work with this scientist’s company.) The technology saves half the water previously required for flood irrigation fields, while improving yields and reducing the need for water-polluting fertilizers. This newer approach is similar to the more familiar form of drip irrigation, which was invented in Israel more than 60 years ago. But this system uses gravity as an energy source, eliminating ongoing external energy consumption and costs.

It is said that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. That may be so, but it’s cheaper and smarter for any region or country facing water stress to change the way they use their water. This has to start with changing the way we think about our water. And every country – rich or poor, big or small, landlocked or with a long seashore – can learn from what Israel has done.

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