There can be no doubt that water scarcity is going to become a critical issue in the survival of human populations across the globe.
In 2015, Iran’s former agriculture minister issued a dire report on the nation’s water resources.1
The report’s authors warned that in less than 25 years, as many as 50 million of Iran’s 83 million people will have to be relocated due to depleted water resources. Already, millions of Iranian farmers have abandoned their farms due to water shortages. These people have been forced into impoverished urban neighborhoods, their ancient way of life destroyed forever. According to water expert Seth Siegel, Iran has the worst water future of any industrialized nation.1
Until ten years ago, Israel faced a water crisis that threatened its existence. Both Iran and Israel are located in regions that have few sources of water, low rainfall, and rapidly growing populations. Yet today Israel has more than enough water to meet all its domestic, farming and industrial needs, and even has a surplus that Israel now sells to neighboring countries.
The differing Iranian and Israeli experiences are a result of a vast difference in governance between the two countries. This becomes clear when we consider the ways in which Iran and Israel have managed their water resources.
In 1979, Iranian clerics led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Iranian monarchy and assumed control of the Iranian government. In order to solidify their power, the ruling clerics created a military force separate from the Iranian army, a force that is under the command of generals appointed by the Supreme Leader. That force is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).2 Beginning in 1987, the clerics gave the IRGC control of large construction projects all over Iran. The IRGC began a program of dam construction. Since then, the IRGC has constructed over 600 dams (compared to just 13 dams constructed during the 38 year reign of the previous government).
These dams provide cheap or free water to large landowners who are favored by IRGC leaders and who belong to favored ethnic groups. (Although Iran’s leaders are Persian, half of Iran’s population is a mix of other ethnic groups). This has enabled Iran to feed a rapidly growing population. But it has done so at the expense of the future. Damming Iran’s rivers and diverting their water flows reduced the regular flooding that had always replenished the country’s underground aquifers. Today those aquifers are depleted or running dry. Despite this, many farmers have dug wells without government permits and they continue to draw water, without cost, from these wells. In order to ensure the food supply, the Iranian government looks the other way. Because the government subsidizes fuel costs, farmers often leave their pumps running, even after their fields are irrigated, thus further depleting the aquifers. There are few incentives to conserve.
The effects of these irresponsible water policies are now plain to see. Lake Urmia, once an expansive 2,000 square mile lake, is now almost gone. The once mighty Zayandeh River, which cuts through Iran’s heartland, is almost completely dry.3 It is the same with many other lakes, rivers and streams.
Iran has taken a few steps to address the problem. For example, it has constructed a few desalination plants. A suburb of Teheran with a population of 1.6 million people has instituted water rationing and more rationing schemes will be needed. But these efforts have been too few to make a dent in the upcoming water crisis.
It didn’t have to be this way. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, many Israeli water experts worked alongside Iranian engineers to modernize Iran’s water infrastructure.4 Had this continued, it would have put Iran on a path to water sustainability. But when the clerics took over in 1979, the Israeli water experts were expelled from the country. Most of Iran’s water experts fled the country, were imprisoned or executed. Iranian environmentalists, who sounded the alarm about water mismanagement, were labeled counter-revolutionaries and imprisoned.
Even in the face of a looming water disaster, the IRGC continues its damn-building program and more damn projects are in the works. I imagine that the IRGC leaders and wealthy landowners have been so enriched by the current water policy that they are loathe to relinquish their cash cow.
Prior to the Jewish re-settlement of Palestine, which began in 1891, the area was sparsely populated. There was some farming in the Jezreel Valley, but the rest of the country was undeveloped and consisted mostly of swamp and desert. Jewish immigration, that accelerated in the early 1900s, began to change all that.
The Zionist pioneers who led the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and later, the Jewish state, were careful planners. They dreamed of re-establishing the ancient Jewish home in Israel, a dream that encompassed the in-gathering of millions of Jews from Europe, the Arab countries and elsewhere. The pioneers were acutely aware that in order to do this they would have to work a miracle. They would have to develop the water resources of a new nation that was largely desert, had a small average annual rainfall, and almost no water infrastructure.
From the start, the pioneers were presented with a challenge. After the First World War, Palestine was administered by a British Mandatory Authority. In May of 1939, as millions of Jews in Europe sought desperately to escape European anti-Semitism and the looming threat of Nazi Germany, the British Mandate authorities issued a White Paper that severely limited the number of Jews permitted to immigrate to Palestine. The British argued that the anti-Jewish immigration quotas were necessary because there was not enough water to accommodate a growing population in Palestine (although their action had more to do with satisfying Arab objections to Jewish immigration). In an effort to show that the land could absorb Jewish immigrants, Jewish leaders developed a national water plan that incorporated a variety of water resources and modern water management strategies. Although this plan did not convince the British to allow greater Jewish immigration, when the state was founded in 1948 its leaders already had a national water plan in hand.
Part of the Zionist vision was to bring agriculture and forestation to the vast Negev that constitutes over half of Israel’s land area. The Negev was a wasteland. Even before the state’s founding, the Jewish pioneers dug deep wells in the Negev to tap its ancient aquifers. This enabled the pioneers to establish eleven farming communities in an area previously thought uninhabitable by anyone other than nomadic, non-agricultural tribes.
The State of Israel Secures Its Water Future
Just prior to independence, Israeli water experts drafted a three-phase plan to develop the new state’s water resources. The first part, the deep Negev wells, had already been completed. The second phase called for water from the Yarkon River in the center of the country to be brought by pipeline to the Negev. In phase three, water from the Sea of Galilee and other parts of the water-rich north was to be brought south. All parts of the plan were implemented early in Israel’s history.
Before construction of this infrastructure, most farms and communities had relied on local wells without any national control. Israel’s leaders realized that water was so crucial to the nation’s survival that the only way to secure an adequate supply was to nationalize all water sources—wells, rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers. In 1959 they passed a comprehensive national water law that gave the government control of all water sources. The abiding principle was that “the water belongs to everyone.” Control of water passed from city mayors and other politicians who served special constituencies, to a national Water Commission, not subject to political pressure. This ensured that water was allocated where it was needed.
A number of additional principles guided Israel’s water policies. Through public campaigns and school curricula, the state inculcated respect for water conservation. Israelis became known for taking quick showers and otherwise conserving water. In many countries around the world, the cost of water is subsidized by the government. For many years this was also the practice in Israel. These subsidies encourage waste. Beginning in 2010, all Israelis pay the true cost to deliver water to each home, farm, factory and business. This has encouraged household users to economize, and farmers and other businesses to maintain their water systems and search for water-saving innovations and technologies.
Another Israeli principle is that water fees must be used only to maintain and develop water resources. This has ended the practice by which local governments diverted water revenues to help pay for other parts of their budgets.
Israel’s water planners also had the foresight to build redundancy into their water resources. Thus, rather than rely on just one or two water sources, Israelis created a water system that draws from a variety of sources: wells that tap underground aquifers, lakes, rivers, rainwater capture in reservoirs, treated sewage, and desalination.
Because the future is never certain, Israel’s water planners also rely on long range plans to assure a constant supply for Israel’s growing population.
Israel has also become known for scientific achievement and innovation. This has extended to the field of water resources and management. Technological advancements that have been invented and used by Israelis include: reverse osmosis techniques to desalinate brackish and sea water; development of seeds for crops that grow with less water; drip irrigation; sewage treatment to yield usable reclaimed water; a comprehensive system of reservoirs to store water; designs for highly efficient water appliances such as double-flush toilets; techniques to monitor the amount of water consumed; and technology to detect and repair water leaks.
The result of all these policies and innovations has been that Israel has gone from a water-poor country with limited prospects to a growing country with a secure water supply guaranteed into the foreseeable future. In recent years Israel has had a water surplus, enabling it to sell water to some neighboring Arab countries.
But Israel’s greatest contribution has been its invention and export of new water technologies. For example, the Israeli invention of drip irrigation enables crops to be grown with a fraction of the water normally required and has dramatically reduced the use of fertilizers. (Less fertilizer is used because it goes directly to the plant roots and is almost entirely absorbed by the plant). This has meant that fertilizers, which previously ran off into streams, rivers and lakes, no longer pollute these water sources. And the cost of growing food has been reduced as well, helping to alleviate hunger and food scarcity. Landscapers all over the world also use drip irrigation, resulting in enormous water savings.
Israel has also shared with the world its highly efficient technologies for desalinating seawater and for converting sewage into water useful for agriculture. In this way, Israel’s success story is becoming a success story for the world.
No one can predict the future. But there can be no doubt that water scarcity is going to become a critical issue in the survival of human populations across the globe. Nations like Iran, that abuse and neglect its water resources, will not fare well. Nations like Israel, that plan and innovate for the future, will thrive.
I wonder what will happen as Iran’s water shortages become critical.
Millions of Iranians will suffer from geographic displacement and shattering of their historic ties to the land and its communities. Many will struggle to feed themselves. Will they attempt to overthrow their government? Can they successfully do so in the face of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which will protect its interests at any cost? Will the ruling clerics follow their apocalyptic ideology and attempt to bring about a world-wide war in order to usher in a new age of Islamic world dominance? Will they initiate this war to deflect the anger of Iran’s suffering citizens and to retain power?
In a few years Iran will possess nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to any part of the world. This will make it even more difficult to unseat the ruling clerics.
There is, of course, another way. If Iran were to set aside its belligerence to Israel and the West, they could, with Israel’s help, begin to incorporate new water technologies that would save their nation.
Sadly, this is unlikely.
Since I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, Cape Town, a South African city, announced that it was close to running out of water for its nearly 3.8 million residents. On January 18, 2018 the city government announced new and severe water restrictions. It is now likely that on April 21, 2018 the city will shut off residents’ water taps and require users to collect their water allotments at official water stations.
Like Iran since 1979, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has been hostile to Israel. And like Iran, the South Africans have refused Israel’s offer of help. They may regret this decision as the water crisis worsens.
With world-wide population growth and climate change, the Cape Town water crisis is likely to be repeated in many other parts of the world. This will make Israel’s expertise in water management vital to the stability and survival of many nations.
- Siegel, S.M. Forget the Politics. Iran Has Bigger Problems. Washington Post, May 16, 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from:
- Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Wikipedia. Retrieved June 9, 2017 from:
- Rezaian, J. Iran’s Water Crisis the Product of Decades of Bad Planning. Washington Post, July 2, 2014. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from:
- Siegel, S.M. Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World. St. Martin’s Press: New York. 2015, pp. 202-208.