Review: “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World”

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Let there be waterBy G. Tracy Mehan III

Editor’s note: G. Tracy Mehan III was the head of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes from 1993 to 2001. His review of this book by Seth M. Siegel (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99) first appeared in The American Spectator.

My first encounter with cutting-edge Israeli technology occurred while working on Great Lakes issues in the 1990s. An irrigation district in Michigan’s “thumb” wanted to take water from Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, by then rife with zebra mussels, an invasive and nuisance species. The state regulators insisted on a 100-percent exclusion standard for the protection of inland waters. The district managed to locate a new technology, a filtration system fitted with a 40-micron mesh screen that met the need.

This new technology was manufactured by Amiad Filtration Systems, a company started in 1962 by the Kibbutz Amiad, a collective farm in the Upper Galilee, and, originally, a developer of a hydraulic power system to unclog irrigation hoses. I learned history of Amiad only after reading Seth Siegel’s Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, an enlightening, instructive account of Israel’s rise as a “water superpower.”

“Israel is the only country in the world which has less area covered by desert today than fifty years ago,” writes Siegel. “A satellite photo of Israel dramatically demonstrates this, showing built-out cities throughout the country and a large green swath across across the Negev desert.”

Sixty percent of Israel is desert and the rest semiarid. The story of Israel’s success is intimately bound up with the early Zionist desire for a Jewish homeland in a very dry part of the world as well as its relentless focus on water management and technology at the heart of its domestic and foreign policy if not its very existence.

While many of the lessons learned from this book may apply only to Israel, with a population the equivalent of New York City, there is much that is transferrable to the rest of the world including the United States. At the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 to forge a strategic partnership on economic and technological innovation, water most notably, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posited this fact and a question: “Israel doesn’t have a water problem, and you may ask how is that possible?” Indeed, Israel’s rainfall was now half of what it had been when the State of Israel was founded in 1948. Yet, the population had grown tenfold. GDP had grown 70-fold, and there is an adequate surplus that can be exported to its neighbors as an instrument of diplomacy or technical swaps with its neighbors for new sources of water. The explanation, according to Netanyahu, was to be found in Israel’s recycling of sewage for agriculture, drip irrigation, prevention of leaks, and desalination. Necessity, once again, was and is the mother of invention and has made Israel a major player in the global water business whether in Asia, Africa, or the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

While American, especially Western state water law is evolving rapidly in the face of rapid growth, drought, and climate variability, the government of Israel very quickly asserted sovereignty and absolute control over both surface water and groundwater very early in its history. Moreover, national planning and the removal of water management from political control are now the rule rather than the exception as is the case in the United States.

Again, the Israelis live at the margin in terms of national security and the harsh conditions of the desert, and the socialist roots of the early Zionists created a receptivity to greater state intervention into water policy than would be possible in an Anglo-American political and legal culture. That said, the Israeli government has shown amazing adaptability in utilizing the best capitalist technique in creating enterprises successfully competing for business around the world. It also pursued Thatcher-like privatization in many other industries. The story Siegel tells is very nuanced, which one might expect from a well-educated, innovative population that has little margin of error given the tough neighborhood in which it resides.

Israel does it all: traditional long-range transport of water; full-cost pricing; reuse of sewage, 85 percent versus 8 percent for the U.S.; drip irrigation, 75 percent of its irrigated fields; new seeds for water-efficient crops; and desalination, 5 desal plants developed on its coast in less time than it took to get California’s Carlsbad operation up and running and which an Israeli company built, too. And while Israel, like all developing countries, was not very interested in environmental issues at first, it now has more than enough water to begin restoring its riverine systems before it is too late and maintaining adequate water levels in the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake now serving as a reservoir.

Let There Be Water is a very useful, accessible introduction to Israel’s achievements in water planning, management, technology and the commercialization of all three but does read, at times, like a chamber of commerce promo piece. However, the author may be forgiven his evident pride in that nation’s resilience and excellence. The basic facts speak for themselves, and the reader is compelled to recognize Israeli accomplishments on their own terms. The notes reveal the author’s familiarity with both the primary and secondary literature which is augmented by interviews with over 220 individuals, everyone who is or was anyone in the Israeli water sector.

The reader might wish for more discussion by Siegel of the potential human health issues surrounding Israel’s great reliance on wastewater reuse for agricultural irrigation. But he correctly praises its economic rigor in managing water as a commodity as well as a natural resource. There are no subsidies for any stage of the water production cycle, and full-cost pricing applies not just to municipal and industrial use but also to irrigation water for agriculture.

“The effect of introducing real pricing for farms and homes almost immediately changed usage levels,” writes Seth Siegel. “With no rationing or limit on supply, real pricing induced consumers to cut their use of household water by sixteen percent. Farmers didn’t need a phased-in, multiyear step-up pricing schedule to give them time to transition to new crops. They began changing their water-use patterns in the first growing season after the announcement was made.”

“Israel has shown real pricing to be the most effective conservation tool of all,” argues Siegel.

At the heart of Israeli success is that country’s ability to unleash and channel its best minds on the problem of water scarcity. “Until the last few years, the old paradigm had been that if you needed more of it, just add more capacity,” writes Seth Siegel. “Drill more, pump more, and more pipes.”

“The new paradigm is to increase the efficiency of water use-to make every drop count and to reuse each drop as many times as possible. To change thinking about water from a resource-shortage problem to a scientific-innovation one, especially in conservative industries like agriculture, utilities and infrastructure, you need entrepreneurs and a culture that challenges conventional wisdom.”

Let There Be Water is a fine contribution to the cause of the new water paradigm and comes none too soon for a growing world population and economy.

G. Tracy Mehan III

G. Tracy Mehan III

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.

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