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Israel’s Water Revolution and Its Overflow for the World

With drought and other water scarcity issues making headlines in China, India and the US, it is clear that quenching the planet's growing thirst will be an enormous challenge in coming years
Children play in a water fountain near the Old City's Tower of David, Jerusalem, on April 17, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)
Children play in a water fountain near the Old City's Tower of David, Jerusalem, on April 17, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)

With drought and other water scarcity issues making headlines in places like China, India and in the United States — especially in California — it is clear that quenching our world’s growing thirst for water will be an enormous challenge which all of us will face in the coming years.

My country, Israel — situated in the arid Middle East — was until recently one of those countries facing a dire water crisis. From the nascent days of the state, Israel was faced with the challenge of supplying enough water for its burgeoning population. Many said it couldn’t be done.

Yet today, on the heels of a 7-year drought, Israel has achieved the impossible: water-independence. Israel now produces 20% more water than it consumes, surpassing the needs of more than eight million citizens, leaving enough water to export to its neighbors and a wealth of knowledge to export throughout the world. Furthermore, the water sector in Israel is almost economically self-sufficient.

To help share Israel’s technological know-how to drought-struck California, Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry will be hosting the Israel-California Water Conference this June 29th in Marina Del Ray. The conference aims to promote a comprehensive and practical approach toward a sustainable water future for the state. By bringing together leaders from the California and Israeli business communities, government authorities, academia, and a wide spectrum of water technology experts, the ICWater Conference hopes to accelerate technology partnerships, explore project finance and business models and promote policy initiatives that will position California as a leader in water stewardship.

Below is a look at five cornerstones of Israel’s water revolution, much of which can be applied to the Golden State’s own water challenges. Our hope is that California and other states around the world will begin their own water revolutions as well, ushering in a new age of water management and conservation across the planet.

  1. Education and Conservation: Israeli children are taught in preschool the importance of conserving water. Only use as much water as you need, they are told, because every drop is precious. The knock-on effect of teaching water conservation to children is that not only will they carry these values throughout their lives, but they also influence their friends, parents and grandparents to conserve as well. And this type of education extends beyond our youth. During Israel’s latest drought, which peaked in 2009-10, the Israel Water Authority ran a TV ad campaign (Hebrew) encouraging Israelis to conserve as much as possible.
  1. Wastewater Reclamation and Reuse: Israel currently reuses 86% of its wastewater (slated to reach 95% by 2025), using the processed water to serve the country’s significant agricultural sector (Spain comes in a distant second, reusing around 25% of its reclaimed water). 60% of Israel’s fruit and vegetables are grown using recycled, purified water. This significantly frees up other water resources for drinking and other uses. The entire process is very clearly regulated and supervised by the Israel Water Authority and the Israeli Ministries of Health and Agriculture.
  1. Government Policy: Keeping in mind that water is a precious commodity belonging to all its citizens, Israel passed legislation early on declaring that by law, every drop of water that falls from the sky or is found in its lakes, seas or underground aquifers belongs to the State. Individuals, farmers and businesses in Israel do not have rights to water from rivers or lakes on or next to their property, nor or any other natural water rights. This legislation innately led to centralized control of the country’s water resources and greatly reduced endless inefficiencies created by competing water districts. Other actions that the government has taken to provide for a secure water supply include the development of a nation-wide water collection/ reservoir system and a mandatory requirement where any new toilet installed in Israel is “dual-flush,” cutting almost in half the amount of water used per person per flush — a significant amount of water saved from going down the drain. Admittedly, many of these steps cannot be applied in places where the system is structured otherwise, but the benefits of centralized control over this precious commodity need to be recognized, and, when possible, implemented.
  1. Water and Agricultural Technology: Israel’s reputation as the “Start-Up Nation” extends to innovations in water and agriculture technology, areas in which our country is considered a world-leader. For example, drip irrigation was invented in Israel and has become the local standard for watering crops, with upwards of 75% of Israeli farms using the technology. Drip irrigation is far superior than any other process with 90-95% efficiency and a noted increase in crop yield. These advances are catching on around the globe. Israeli drip systems account for 50% of the world’s low-pressure irrigation systems. Nevertheless, despite its proven benefits for water conservation and increased yield, only 5% of farms worldwide use drip irrigation (many using outdated flooding techniques instead).
  1. Desalination: Another significant Israeli contribution to the global water challenge is desalination. Israel is a world-leader in desalination technology. Israeli companies built and operate five desalination plants providing over 25% of the nation’s water supply and 80% of household water — one of the key factors in helping solve our water crisis. This has not gone unnoticed by the world. Israeli companies have installed more than 350 desalination plants in close to 40 countries, including the new Carlsbad plant in San Diego, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, producing enough water to meet the needs of approximately 400,000 people.

Israel’s water revolution was based on necessity. We understood that if significant measures were not taken to fundamentally change the way we consume and manage this precious resource, our future would run dry. Israel, on the frontlines of the global water revolution, is eager to work with countries worldwide so that we all have enough water for generations to come.

About the Author
Oded Distel is the Founder and Director of Israel NewTech, Israel’s world-renowned National Energy & Water Program at the Ministry of Economy & Industry. The pioneering program has spearheaded Israel’s water and energy eco-system since its founding in 2007. Israel NewTech brings all stakeholders – start-ups, entrepreneurs, companies, multinationals, academia, regulators, policy makers and investors - together to cooperate in order to deliver smart solutions for global challenges in the Cleantech arena.
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