Holidays and the Environment: From Shavuot to Dairy to Desalination

It's a tradition on Shavuot to eat a dairy-based meal. But that has environmental implications.

To prevent public gatherings during COVID-19, Lag BaOmer took place without bonfires, resulting in a significant reduction in air pollution. Now, Shavuot will be the first holiday to be celebrated after most restrictions have been lifted in Israel

Shavuot, meaning “weeks” (in reference to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot), will begin at sundown this Thursday. Shavuot was celebrated as an agricultural holiday during Biblical times, where the ancient Israelites completed the harvest of wheat and offered two loaves of bread from the grains that they had harvested that season.

Over the centuries, a custom of eating dairy products emerged amongst Jewish communities around the world. While there are many reasons for this peculiar custom, some say that it originates from a verse in Song of Songs where the Bible is compared to milk and honey. As Shavuot is also considered to be a celebration of the Israelite nation receiving the Torah, it would seem appropriate to include a dairy-based meal as part of the celebration.

52 liters of water for a single liter of milk

Did you know that the dairy industry is quite notorious for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater contamination, inefficient land use, and the overuse of antibiotics? Or that the production of milk requires significant amounts of water? Researchers found that 52 liters of water are needed to produce just a single liter of milk. In light of climate change and the continual depletion of natural water resources, this would seem like a potential issue for water scarce countries and regions.

Luckily, Israel no longer suffers from water deficits since it began implementing technological solutions to its water management program in the early 2000s. Since then, through the use of desalination and wastewater recycling technologies, Israel currently supplies approximately 50% of its water needs from both of these inventions, thus, no longer solely relying on its natural resources.

Today, Israel is producing more than 604 MCM of desalinated water every year and treats 93% of its 500 MCM of annual sewage, which is primarily used for irrigation in agriculture.

This has reduced the amount of stress placed on natural water resources, which were mainly supplied by the Kinneret, and the mountain and coastal aquifers. No longer having to extract from natural supplies has also enabled environmental rehabilitation of water resources that had been exploited for decades.

The Cost of Water

However, these technologies do not come without a cost. While desalination has been supplying Israel with approximately 25% of its water demand, it is an energy-intensive process and produces harmful byproducts that affect marine life.

On average, for any amount of water entering a reverse osmosis desalination facility, half of it is turned into potable (drinking) water, while the other half is turned into a hypersaline brine that gets pumped back into the ocean. This hypersaline brine affects ocean environments in two ways – by reducing oxygen levels and increasing salt content. Since hyper saline brine is highly concentrated, it is denser than seawater and sinks to the bottom of the seafloor, disrupting marine ecosystems.

For now, Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, is redirecting some of the hypersaline brine from some of the seawater desalination plants into evaporation pools to produce salt. However, the costs of doing so are relatively high. They are also in the process of “examining innovative technologies for the treatment of the brine.”

Recycled wastewater also comes with its own challenges. While it is cheaper than desalination and prevents some sewage from otherwise being dumped into waterways, concerns have been raised about the potential contamination of microorganisms and traces of pharmaceuticals that have not been filtered out of the treated water. Due to these concerns, recycled water is only permitted for agricultural use in Israel. However, researchers have shown that eating produce irrigated with recycled water, has led to elevated levels of carbamazepine – an antiepileptic drug – in urine samples.

Israel has definitely solved its water crisis for the time being through the use of innovative water technologies. However, it must continue to develop novel solutions to address the challenges of desalination and wastewater reclamation.

Isaac Misri, ZAVIT* Science and Environment News Agency

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