I was born and bred in Manchester, a place where more often than not, it rained. This climate had certain advantages. Without it, the cotton trade would never have begun, damp weather being essential for cotton spinning. ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ appeared all over Lancashire and Liverpool was nearby to facilitate the import of raw cotton from the States and to export Lancashire’s textiles world wide. A second successful industry created by the weather, not unexpectedly, was the manufacture of raincoats and umbrellas.
It was something of a shock to my system therefore, when, in 1976, the UK was subjected to a heatwave and drought that lasted for months. The earth became rock hard, reservoirs and rivers dried up, trees perished, grass was no more to be seen and forest fires could not be extinguished because of lack of water. 15 consecutive days in June and July exceeded 30C and five days exceeded 35C.
Water standpipes, one for every 20 households, were erected in many parts of the country where residents queued patiently to fill their buckets, recreating a national spirit not experienced since the Blitz. 20 million people were subjected to a hosepipe ban forbidding the watering of gardens or cars. Those with dirty cars were seen as patriots, but heaven help anyone who secretly contravened the rules and crept out at night to water their flower beds. Vigilante groups were constantly on watch.
A Minister for Drought was appointed who urged everyone to “Bath With A Friend” provided only five inches of water was used. He also consulted aboriginal rainmakers who instructed him how to perform a rain dance on behalf of the nation. This evidently worked, as in late August there were massive thunderstorms followed by endless rain throughout September and October.
Around this time I made my first visit to Israel. I travelled to a land that was 60 percent desert. I recall how responsible Israelis were about conserving water. Army reservists were ordered to save it and I was regularly admonished by friends not to wash dishes or brush my teeth under a running tap. To this day, Israel’s continuing concern about water is evident by the daily press reporting on the current level of the Sea of Galilee.
Israel’s expertise in water management goes back to the 1930s and to one person in particular, Simcha Blass. As one of the founders of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, it was he who planned the first modern aqueduct in the Jordan Valley and the first water pipeline to the Negev in 1946. The pipes installed were previously used by the London Fire Brigade during the Blitz and were bought by Blass after WW2.
Israel’s nascent economy was founded upon agriculture. This produced considerable economic growth, but ironically this success, in tandem with a tenfold population increase, placed a massive strain on the country’s water resources. Traditional methods of irrigation involved flooding of fields, but the downside was that much of it evaporated. Some reached the aquifers but as use of pesticides increased, toxic waste entered the food chain through the water.
Blass’s major contribution was undoubtedly the early work he did on drip irrigation which proved to be one of the most outstanding inventions to emerge from Israel. His early experiments led to a highly sophisticated system, patented in the early 1960s when, In cooperation with Kibbutz Hatzerim, the Netafim Irrigation Company was established. Using this system, minute amounts of water are dripped onto each plant. Crop yields increase, food prices drop and the aquifers are unpolluted. The system is so finely tuned that sensors can identify a plant’s water stress and accurately regulate the levels of water it requires. Today Israel’s desert is the only one in the world that is shrinking and Ben Gurion’s dream to see ‘the desert bloom’ has become a reality.
However, in 2006, Israel faced its worst drought for 900 years and by 2010 the Sea of Galilee, upon which Israel relied for fresh water, dropped almost to the ‘black line,’ at which point salt infiltration would have permanently harmed the lake. Israeli hydrologists and agronomists took measures to dig deeper wells, repaired leaks as they occurred and developed ways of reusing sewage for crops. Today 85.6% of sewage is recycled.
But the area in which they made massive strides was desalination. This was originally an expensive option until the Sorek Plant — the largest reverse-osmosis desalination plant in the world — made huge advances in both design and materials — in particular in membrane technology.
Sorek have established further plants in Israel with more to follow. 55% of the country’s domestic water now comes from desalination at a cost of 58 US cents per thousand litres. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic, the Sorek Plant is the cheapest in the world.
Israel is now in a position to assist other countries facing water problems. The implications for its economy are evident. Israeli produced desalination plants have been constructed in California, and their hydrologists have proven that, in spite of climate change, it is possible to harness Mother Nature to transform a country from one suffering from drought to one with more fresh water than it needs.
In 2018, a ‘Water Knows No Boundaries’ conference will take place where scientists from Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will share experiences. Hopefully this will create a bridge where joint ventures can bring peoples together working for the common good.
Writing this reminded me of how central a role water is in so many cultures. Some years ago, I went to Varanasi in India and watched the devoted burying their dead and bathing in the river Ganges.
I also visited the river Jordan where Christians braved the cold to be baptised. On both occasions, their devotion was palpable and a truly significant experience. The same is true of other cultures — Baha’i, Buddhism, Hinduism,Islam, Shinto,Sikhism, Rastafari and Zoroastrianism.
In Judaism, washing goes back to the Torah, the intention being to recreate a state of ritual purity. Hands must be washed before meals and also after visiting a graveyard. The mikveh — a bath containing living water – from river, spring or sea — is where women are cleansed after their monthly periods. Converts to Judaism use it as part of their conversion procedure and it is also used for washing newly acquired utensils. The ceremony of ‘Tashlich’ is another occasion when at New Year observant Jews symbolically cast off their sins into flowing water.
Living in Jerusalem we are accustomed to seeing religious observance in many guises.
However, one event that I found deeply moving was watching a group of ultra-religious schoolboys rushing fully clothed into the fountains at the Teddy Kollek Park. For 20 minutes, they ran in and out, splashing and squealing with delight and having a rare old time, watched over by their benign teachers. It was heartwarming to see that, despite the strictures that religion can sometimes place on people, there is still room to permit a show of exuberance as demonstrated on that cold March day. My main concern was how the children, now soaked to the skin, would manage to get back home without catching pneumonia. Perhaps an indication of my abiding concern as a Jewish mother!