At the kibbutz where I lived for my first years in the country, there was an outside faucet where I’d fill the crew’s water jugs on the way out to the orchards. Above the faucet was a sign that said “ Haval al kol tipa .”
Before I appreciated the finer points of idiomatic translation, its message was the ungainly “A pity on each drop” rather than the more utilitarian “Each drop counts.”
Yet to this street-trained Hebrew speaker it still made perfect sense.
We were located near Rehovot but because of the funnel-like topography and resulting meteorological patterns, we’d await the weather forecast for Kiryat Gat, on the very edge of the Negev, rather than for the much greener coastal plain. As a result, come mid-October just about everyone on the kibbutz paid attention to the wind, and when it was coming from the southwest or west we’d glance up from time to time for signs of fat, dark, beautiful rain clouds.
On overcast days in the winter, a close friend of mine was in charge of a heating device that sent silver iodide particles skyward to help form water droplets, a process known as cloud seeding. She would keep an ear glued to Reshet Bet in hopes of hearing the Meteorological Service’s directive for farmers in our area to “light your stoves.” In the summer I’d take good care of the orchard’s drip irrigation, making sure the filters, hoses and outlets weren’t clogged and the control system was distributing sufficient water to the fruit trees – but not a drop more than was absolutely necessary.
To stretch a popular aphorism, you can take the boy out of the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy, so yes, you could say that as long as I’ve lived in Israel – and I’m closing in on 40 years in these parts – I’ve been acutely aware of the country’s precipitation. This holds true especially for the yoreh , a biblical term for the season’s first real rain, historically a time for rejoicing among all Israelis, and not just those working the land.
This year’s yoreh apparently arrived last weekend (something that should particularly satisfy the religious among us, coming as it did just hours after they recited the traditional Simhat Torah prayer for rain). But I have to admit that I was a bit startled by the almost total indifference, especially in light of the fact that last winter was one of the driest in memory.
I SUPPOSE this is a good sign. It means rain is not so crucial to us anymore.
When, after all, was the last time you heard what once were almost daily news reports about the level of the Kinneret, which for years provided only a small part of our water yet reigned supreme as the quintessential barometer of its supply? We can thank those who invented drip irrigation. We can thank the infrastructure planners who helped us reach a level where we’re now recovering some three-quarters of our waste water for use in agriculture.
And we can thank the advertising gurus who came up with those strange but statistically effective public service announcements that helped us picture our very faces drying up, cracking and falling in desiccated chips to the floor.
But mostly, it’s thanks to the desalination facilities that have sprung up here over the past decade or so.
There are now five (the plant near Ashkelon is said to be the largest in the world) and they use a process called reverse osmosis, where seawater from the Mediterranean is forced under high pressure through a series of membranes that essentially filter out everything but the basic water. The liquid continues through to the other side, where it’s mineralized to freshwater standards for reasons of nutrition and taste. It’s then disinfected and sent to our taps, which previously were dependent solely on the whims of the weather but today receive about three-quarters of their flow from these facilities.
The direct advantages of desalination are clear, although another benefit could be more peaceful relations with our neighbors in this thirsty region.
Those who don’t read history might be surprised to learn that one of the causes of the Six Day War was actually water, with tensions building already in the early 1960s over Syrian efforts to divert some of the all-important headwaters of the Jordan River, and Israeli military attacks to frustrate them. And nowadays, one of the main bones of contention between Israel and the Pales - tinians is control of the mountain aquifers, much of which are well beyond the Green Line. It is those underground reservoirs that have come to provide much of the water that otherwise would have to be pumped from the Kinneret.
All in all, desalination is a development on par with our offshore gas and oil discoveries, which, according to pro - jections, could make us an exporter (al - though whether we’d be invited to join OPEC remains to be seen). What it does is remove one more layer of angst that has always accompanied life here.
On the downside, of course, is desalination’s energy needs. While the plants here are considered to be highly efficient, they still require electricity for the pressurization process, adding to the already heavy demand on the country’s power grid (although when you compare it to the need to run our TVs and clothes dryers, it’s an energy credit well-spent).
Also, the plants are privately owned.
Just as the government has always been wary about selling its last shares in El Al – which historically has been the country’s sole lifeline to the outside world when most everyone else wimps out at the first whiff of war – there is some - thing about a basic commodity like water being in the hands of capitalists that makes me a bit uneasy.
Overlooking that uneasiness, though, I guess we will now have all the water we need. It’s just one more thing we can take for granted – though to the pioneer in me, this is sad. That’s because in our house, water was a great way to teach the kids about conservation. For a while my son was quite proud to take what we called a “navy shower,” where you run a short spurt to wet yourself down, shut it off to soap up and then run another short spurt to rinse off, just as sailors do at sea. There was a sense of pride and satisfaction at shutting the taps and knowing you were doing something whose importance went way beyond you and your immediate family.
I also wonder what it will do to our culture, which has been quite water-centric over the many decades of the Zionist endeavor.
Remember the energetic Israeli folk dance often referred to as Mayim, mayim (Water, water)? It was performed to an exuberant melody with lyrics taken from the Book of Isaiah: “With joy shall you draw water from the wells of salvation.” And how about the countless songs and poems that mixed the blessing of winter rains or the beauty of the Kinneret into the saga of the pioneers and their quest for a Jewish utopia? I’m curious as to how the first ode to desalination will go.
THOUGH I LEFT the kibbutz for city life long ago, I have to admit that I harbor a fantasy of retiring back to the fields to labor among the crops (as long as my aging bones allow) and to look lovingly at the earth as the provider of our sustenance.
Should that fantasy come to fruition, will I start paying attention to the direction of the winds come mid-October, and look skyward in search of those gorgeous cumulonimbuses? Will I step outside to joyfully soak in the yoreh, grateful that once again the prayers of the devout have been answered? Or will I just moan about the inconvenience of it all and head inside to dig out the umbrellas for the coming months of miser - able inclement weather? It is, I guess, the double-edged sword of progress.