OpinionFrom startup nation to watertech nation
From startup nation to watertech nation
"Israel’s leadership in water may be the most important contribution to go forth from Zion," writes Seth M. Siegel
The past summer made it yet clearer that the climate crisis is intensifying. The drought and extreme heat waves that afflicted North America, Europe, and Asia harmed global agricultural output, deepening fears of hunger and food insecurity in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
A few examples. For the first time in its history, China issued nationwide drought warnings, the United States declared drought conditions in many states, and in the United Kingdom, the mercury rose to an unprecedented 40 degrees Celsius. Satellite photos of Britain and western Europe confirmed a state of aridity unknown in this part of the world in living memory.
Some say that this widespread lack of water poses an existential threat to humanity. But it may be more accurate to say – at least, for now – that the lack of innovation in water is an even greater existential threat.
Whether directly (due to failed harvests and deeper poverty) or indirectly (due to higher food prices and the costs that come with instability in key regions), water scarcity affects the world’s entire population. In this dire situation, it is comforting to know that Israeli innovation can offer some relief. Going back even before statehood in May 1948, Israel has been developing unique policies, innovative technologies, and smart governance in water. What Israel has demonstrated is that even chronic water shortages can be managed successfully.
Key to this success has been awareness on the part of the country’s political, academic, and business leaders that a problem can morph into a crisis and a crisis into a calamity without ongoing, focused action. In most countries, the subject of water infrastructure and related technologies rests in the hands of mid-level officials and junior cabinet ministers. In Israel, however, the nation’s founders dealt with this situation on a daily basis as they developed and implemented forward-looking water policies. In my 2015 book “Let There Be Water,” I describe how the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, often wrote about the possibility of extracting the salt from seawater in order to “make the desert bloom” – and this occurred long before desalination was more than wishful thinking or science fiction.
And even before that, in the first half of the 20th century during the pre-State days of the British Mandate in Palestine, the Zionist leadership decided to prioritize excellence in the handling of water resources, alongside dealing with pressing security and immigrant absorption issues.
Today’s leaders, too, are familiar with water-related issues, to an extent that may be unparalleled anywhere else in the world. When I came to Israel for the launch of the Hebrew-language edition of my book, I was invited to meet with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with then-Education Minister (and future Prime Minister) Naftali Bennett. Both of them possessed unusual insight into this vital topic. This serves to illustrate how deeply knowing and caring about water is rooted among the country’s decision makers.
Those decision makers have assured Israel’s success in addressing water scarcity with more than just awareness and concern. They have adopted a multi-pronged approach, refusing to rely on just a single strategy or technology. Despite the extra expense of this intentional redundancy, Israel’s “All of the Above” approach to water assures greater sensitivity to changing conditions and resilience in the face of adversity. Moreover, it opens the door to innovation and risk-taking that often leads to game-changing breakthroughs.
Desalination is, of course, one of Israel’s leading solutions to water scarcity. The five existing desalination facilities supply the equivalent of about 80 percent of the country’s household water. The mastery of this technologically complex process assures Israelis that as the nation’s population grows, the construction of additional desalination plants will continue to make sure that taps never run dry in Israel. In addition, by purifying nearly 90 percent of the country’s sewage and reusing it in agriculture, pressure to use precious fresh water is removed – giving policy makers yet more flexibility in their water planning.
Whether from desalination, purified sewage, or natural water sources, agriculture uses vast amounts of water, usually 70 percent of a country’s available water. In some Middle East countries, such as Egypt and Iran, more than 90 percent of available water is used. Because of this, Israel utilizes market forces to encourage rational use of water by city dwellers and by farmers, all of whom have to pay the full unsubsidized price for their water.
As important, Israel discourages the flooding of agricultural fields, which is the world’s most common form of irrigation. In its place, Israel has long encouraged the use of drip irrigation, a technology that saves about half of the water that is used in flood-irrigated fields. It isn't a surprise that drip irrigation was invented in Israel, or that nearly every improvement in drip irrigation also has come out of Israel.
At a time of ever-greater water scarcity and a growing world population needing more food, every country facing water scarcity is fortunate to have Israel as a model for how to overcome water challenges. For example, 89 percent of Arizona’s agriculture is flood irrigated at the very same time that the flow of water from the Colorado River – which supplies most of those fields – has been reduced. Just in time, Israeli professor and soil physicist Uri Shani came up with a completely new approach to drip irrigation which requires no external energy, running only on ever-renewable gravity. The new method resembles the well-known drip irrigation that was invented in Israel in the 1960s. But because it uses gravity as its source of energy, the new system, manufactured by N-Drip, the company started by Professor Shani, eliminates the need for external energy sources and leads to significant cost savings.
The N-Drip system is already found on thousands of acres of farmland in Arizona, in the southwest, and in more than 15 countries around the world. The technology saves half the amount of water that was previously required for flood irrigation. It also improves crop yields, and reduces the need for fertilizers that pollute water supplies.
There are many Israeli entities that deal with solutions for water scarcity, including giants like Netafim, which has made and sold pressurized drip irrigation products for more than 65 years; Mekorot, the national water management company which offers consulting services to water companies around the world and which through its Shafdan division treats much of the wastewater that provides most of the country’s re-purposed agricultural water; and IDE Technologies, the great innovator in desalination, which specializes in advanced water treatment solutions. And every year, a flock of younger Israeli water startups enter the Israeli market, addressing some aspect of the water process.
Israel has created a renowned system of innovation and problem solving in a wide array of fields from computer technology to cyber security and from new medications and life-saving medical devices to cutting-edge military systems. All of these are important and make the world more efficient, safer, and healthier. But in each of these, other countries also have advanced companies producing important products. In water, Israel leads the world in innovation and the model of a water-revering culture. For an ever-drier world, Israel’s leadership in water may be the most important contribution to go forth from Zion.
Seth M. Siegel is the Chief Sustainability Officer at N-Drip and the author of New York Times bestseller “Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World.”