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  • Writer's picturePeter Yolles

What can Israel's water story teach us?

Updated: May 8

OK, so it seems Israel has figured out how to move from water scarce to water abundant in one generation. Can the rest of us?

Israel National Water Carrier

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising since Jews lived sustainably in this land for thousands of years until they were driven out by the Romans in 70 AD. Back then, residents of Jerusalem collected rainwater which was stored in underground cisterns, or transported via tunnels from wells from outside the walls.

In 1994, while in grad school, I visited three sources of the Jordan River (Hasbani, Dan and Banias springs) upstream of Lake Kinneret, which are located in the Golan Heights and which were at risk from Syrian intervention. Back then, Israel relied on risky water sources such as the Jordan River, Lake Kinneret and the coastal aquifer. The Jordan River provided a third of Israel’s water supply which was transported through its National Water Carrierto Tel Aviv, the agricultural areas along the coastal plain, and into the Negev desert as far south as Beer Sheva. Groundwater was at risk because of unchecked pollution, which I learned about while attending the first Israeli-Palestinian conference on the environment in Jerusalem.

Israel’s national water infrastructure grid. Source: Fanack based on Tal, 2006.

So, what does water abundance mean for Israel? What are its effects on the systems, on the people and the politics? Today, the Jordan River supplies just 10%, replaced by a combination of desalination and wastewater recycling. Six desalination plants provide 85% of Israel’s drinking water, with two more under construction, and up to 30 more being planned. Over 90% of municipal wastewater is recycled and repurposed for agriculture enabling agricultural expansion in formerly arid desert lands.

Water also shares its water wealth with its neighbors. Israel sells 100 million cubic meters per year to the Palestinians. And the National Water Carrier literally runs in reverse with desalinated water. In addition, a $264 million pipeline is being built to replenish Lake Kinneret (at elevation minus 696 feet), which was the original but diminished source of the National Water Carrier and the Jordan River. To demonstrate its water abundance, Israel recently agreed to trade 200 million cubic meters of desalinated drinking water with Jordan in exchange for 600 MW of solar power capacity.

My Israeli tour continued southward to Ben Gurion University (BGU). Based in Beer Sheva with satellite campuses in Sde Boker and Eilat, BGU is located in the geographic center of the country, in the Negev desert, home to 60% of the land of Israel proper, and the spiritual home of Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion. BGU is pioneering technologies to help Israel live in a hotter, drier world. Thirty years ago, researchers at BGU literally invented the modern desalination technology of reverse osmosis. Today, the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the Sde Boker campus is tasked with finding ways for Israel, and people of other desert lands, to thrive in a hotter climate. With dry land composing 47% of the world’s land area and hosting more than 2 billion people, this is a critical effort.

Can California and other desert lands replicate the Israeli water story?

Israel has addressed several desal risks in the last few years, holding up desalination elsewhere. The energy demand (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) for desalination remains considerable, which Israel solved through its discovery of the Leviathan natural gas field, the largest in the region. Critics of desalination contend that brine disposal can be harmful to marine organisms by increasing the salinity above the livable range. However, recent Israeli analysis indicates that the observed effect of salinity from brine disposal in the Mediterranean is much less than predicted, with fewer negative impacts on marine ecosystems.

So will Israel’s equation of water efficiency + desalination + recycling for irrigation + clean energy grid + digital = water sustainability for human use? Will natural aquatic systems benefit too? We will see.

For more on Israeli water policy, see Seth Siegel’s book Let There Be Water.

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