November 20, 2019

How Israel’s desert became a fecund source of water

“Making the desert bloom” is one of the stirring and enduring tropes of Zionist history. So it makes sense for a drought-afflicted country like ours to turn to Israel for an example of how to solve the water crisis. That’s exactly what Seth M. Siegel has done in “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a fact-filled and wholly fascinating account of the Jewish homeland’s ways with water.

Siegel, an attorney, environmental activist and author, starts with the fundamental proposition that the water crisis is a global crisis. He argues that the shortage of clean water will affect not only food and energy production but also whole economies, and California and the American West are only the first places at risk. “Water shortages may not occur everywhere,” he writes, “but hardly anyone will remain unaffected for long.”

Significantly, as Siegel points out, California and Israel have much in common, if only because much of the land in both places consists of deserts or semi-arid terrain and because the population in both places has grown enormously. When it comes to water, however, the similarities end. “Israel not only doesn’t have a water shortage, it has a water surplus,” he writes. “It even exports water to some of its neighbors.”

Israeli water policy, as it happens, is deeply rooted in Jewish religious tradition. “The religious culture that carried the Jewish people for two thousand years from exile to national rebirth is filled with reverence for water in the form of rain and dew,” he explains. But it was the early Zionist settlers, mostly secular and highly practical, who set themselves to solving the problem of water shortage. Indeed, one of the characters in Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” is made to predict “that the water engineers of his imaginary Jewish homeland will be its heroes.”

Seth M. Siegel

Water soon passed from the pages of fiction to facts on the land. For example, the familiar folk song “Mayim, Mayim” — “Water, Water” — borrows its lyrics from a passage in the Book of Isaiah, but the words were set to music only in 1937, when years of unsuccessful drilling at a kibbutz finally brought forth water. And Israeli water law is based on the communalist values of the early generations of chalutzim: “Unlike in the U.S., where water is a personal property right, in Israel all water ownership and usage is controlled by the government acting in the interest of the people as a whole,” Siegel writes. “Israel’s water system may be the most successful example of socialism in practice anywhere in the world today.”

“If you put a bucket on the roof of your house at the start of the rainy season, you own the house and you own the bucket,” explains former Israel water commissioner Shimon Tal, “but the rain in that bucket is the property — at least in theory — of the government.” 

The man who made it happen is Simcha Blass, a now-mostly forgotten figure who made aliyah from Poland in the early 1930s and recognized that water was an essential ingredient in preparing the land to receive the millions of endangered Jews who were still trapped in Europe. Working with Levi Eshkol, the future prime minister of Israel, Blass “would develop grander water plans and execute projects which, cumulatively, would open ever greater parts of the country to productive use of the land and the production of more food for a soon-to-be-growing nation.”

His boldest plan was as an ambitious system of water storage and transportation that was inspired by the damming and diversion of the Colorado River. The earliest phase of the project was built with war-surplus pipes that had been used to fight fires in London during the Blitz. When completed in 1964, the so-called National Water Carrier provided Israel with the infrastructure for collecting, allocating and using water as a vital national resource.

But the real key to solving the water problem was to make the most of the limited supply of water that was available. Starting in the 1930s, Blass sought to replace wasteful flood and sprinkler irrigation with drip irrigation. A co-op was established to develop new strains of plants that would thrive with less fresh water or with otherwise undrinkable salty water. New sources of water were found in the Negev, and new techniques for desalinization of seawater and brackish water were invented. Remarkably, Israeli water engineers devised ways to process sewage into water for agriculture with the result that “over 85 percent of the nation’s sewage is reused.” Ironically, treated sewage is actually a better source of usable water than rainwater: “Unlike the volume of rain, which changes from year to year, the amount of sewage being turned into reclaimed water is consistent, reliable and predictable.”

A secondary benefit of Israeli water policy is that the quality of water in Israel’s rivers has actually improved. The Yarkon River near Tel Aviv was once so foul that athletes who fell into the water during a bridge collapse at the Maccabiah games in 1997 were poisoned by the toxins. “While environmental laws and enforcement of regulations helped bring Israel’s rivers back to life, what may have helped most was that Israel developed new water sources,” Siegel explains. “This new abundance in water — and the now unceasing demand for sewage to treat and reuse — took pressure off all of Israel’s rivers.” 

Rather less cheerful is the role of water in Israel’s troubled relations with Jordan and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, all of whom “have a common destiny in jointly held aquifers and rivers.” Even here, however, Siegel sees the glass of water as half full. Israel may be “a water superpower,” but the Jewish state is willing to export water to the Jordanians and Palestinians, “and often at prices less than is charged in Israel.” And he points out that “the Palestinians also have something of interest to the Israel” — that is, fresh supplies of sewage from Arab towns and cities that the Israelis can process into a new supply of usable water.

The whole point of “Let There Be Water,” as it turns out, is to show how the hard-won successes of Israeli water technology and policy can be used by countries and regions outside of Israel, starting with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries and extending around the globe: “The world now knows that Israel has answers to their water problems,” observes Ilan Cohen, a former government official. Thus does Siegel show us that Israel — once again but in an entirely new way — can be a light unto the nations.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.