Haaretz Review of Let There Be Water

Haaretz Review of Let There Be Water

Drip irrigation being used in Israel. Credit Avishai Finkelstein

The Secret of Israel’s Water Miracle and How It Can Help a Thirsty World

India for one is encouraging drip’s adoption through subsidies, says author Seth Siegel

By Ruth Schuster

This article was orignially published January 25, 2016 and re-upped for Indian Prime Minister Modi’s historic visit to Israel

The world’s problem with water isn’t that it’s disappearing. The water is there. The problem is that in many areas, growing populations have less and less water per capita because of crumbling infrastructure leading to massive leaking; short-sighted and self-interested water management, leading to egregious waste, and polluted groundwater. Can ideas from Israel really help solve these problems at a planetary level?

Yes, because in a process lasting decades, Israel achieved something unique. It largely separated its water consumption from Mother Nature. Israel doesn’t have some one-stop-shop magic solution, neither desalination (which it didn’t invent) nor some breakthrough dreamed up by geniuses in garages. What it has is holistic, centralized water management, designed over decades, from which thirsty areas from California to Egypt can cherry-pick ideas, argues Seth Siegel, author of the best-selling book “Let There Be Water”. Why reinvent the wheel when one can emulate it?

“Israel should have been a water basket case,” says Siegel, listing its problems: 60% of the land is desert and the rest is arid. Rainfall has fallen to half its 1948 average, apparently thanks to climate change, and as global warming progresses, Israel and the whole Levant are expected to become even drier – and from 1948, Israel’s population has grown 10-fold.

During that time, the country’s economy grew 70-fold. But instead of starting to waste water, as happens when a society becomes wealthier, it used its new affluence to implement what Siegel calls “the Israel model” of water management.

Israel uses its groundwater and lakewater, yes. But key to its water security are efforts such as drilling deep wells, massive desalination, reusing treated sewage for farming, finding and fixing leaks early, engineering crops to thrive in onerous conditions, discouraging gardening, making efficient toilets mandatory, and pricing water to discourage waste. The state preached water conservation (note the TV ads not to be a pig in the shower) – and then there’s the holy grail of Israeli water innovation: drip irrigation.

The jury and the drip

Drip, also called micro-irrigation, was the first watering innovation in thousands of years. Instead of flooding the fields with prodigious amounts of water and fertilizer, much of which get wasted, small amounts of both are dripped directly onto the plant’s roots.

Netafim, which makes drip irrigation technology, says the technique saves 25%-75% pumped water compared to flood, on average. So,the farmer uses less water, fertilizer and sometimes pesticides, and is happy. The aquifers suffer less chemical pollution. The crops yield more (about 15%, say Netafim and some experts) and food prices drop, so the consumer is happy.

Everyone is happy, except some academics, who would like proof. Prof. Frank Ward of the New Mexico State University Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business does, for one. “What we have found is that as a consequence of putting water on the crops more precisely – actual water consumption can go up,” Ward told Haaretz.

Man has been irrigating his fields by flooding them since farming was invented over 12,000 years ago. Some of the water soaking the land is used by crops, some evaporates, some sinks in and recharges the  aquifer.

Everyone and his dog agrees that drip irrigation is one of “Startup Nation” Israel’s greatest inventions. Actually it was invented by a former government official named Simcha Blass, who sold the rights to  Netafim. The company says that compared with flood irrigation, drip even causes rice and tomatoes to emit less greenhouse gases and nitrous oxide – emissions of which have been associated with deadly algae blooms. These days there are even technologies to fine-tune drip, for instance sensors that, when stuck into a tree, measure the actual plant’s water stress, rather than that of the soil by the root.