Thirsting for more

Seth M. Siegel takes a comprehensive look at Israel’s role as a "water superpower."

Seth M. Siegel (photo credit: TALIA SIEGEL)
Seth M. Siegel
(photo credit: TALIA SIEGEL)
Capturing Israel’s revolution from thirsting wasteland to thriving wellspring, Seth M. Siegel meticulously traces a fledgling nation’s quest to emerge as an international “water superpower,” in his new book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water- Starved World.
Setting the tone for the 260 pages to follow, Siegel begins his work by drawing a stark comparison between the attitudes of Israelis and Americans toward water – an awareness of a precious resource ingrained in childhood education versus a relative nonchalance. A critically scarce resource that has held a central place in Israeli folk music and literature, Theodor Herzl’s original Zionist writings and even in the Bible, water has always been considered a precious commodity in the Land of Israel – which Siegel effectively conveys throughout his book.
Presenting another significant difference between water policy in the United States and in Israel, the author looks at how water became a public resource rather than a private one, noting that even unlicensed rainwater collection in a bucket would technically be illegal in the Jewish State. “Israel’s water system may be the most successful example of socialism in practice anywhere in the world today,” he writes.
A lawyer by training who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur and water and community activist,” Siegel traces the entire history of Israel’s water sector – from the creation of the Mekorot national water corporation in the late 1930s, to the passage of Israel’s initial three Water Laws in the 1950s, to the establishment of the National Water Carrier in 1964. He moves on to discuss the regulatory intricacies of Israel’s water policy, and how pricing incentivized people to value the resource. In the modern era, the author addresses the 2006 establishment of the Water Authority as well as the creation of local water corporations, which control day-to-day water municipal use and manage technical glitches.
Shifting to the country’s technological advancements in the water sector, the author focuses on the development of drip irrigation – the original concept of water engineering pioneer Simcha Blass at Kibbutz Hatzerim’s Netafim that evolved into a global agricultural necessity. In addition to highlighting the technical benefits of drip irrigation, honed by engineer Rafi Mehoudar, Siegel points out that the innovation “also helps socially by reducing poverty through building greater capacity, and improving the status of women, who are less obliged to spend their days hauling water.”
The author devotes full chapters to examining how Israel has become a world leader in both sewage treatment and desalination, first taking a look at how the country attained an impressive re-use level of more than 85 percent of its sewage today.
Siegel explores the mechanisms big and small that have led to a reinvention of the country’s attitude toward sewage, from its tertiary treatment plants to the mandatory adoption of dual-flush toilets.
Careful not to paint the picture as perfect, however, he acknowledges the high salinity and presence of pharmaceutical residuals in reclaimed wastewater – the effects of which are still being studied. But ultimately, Siegel looks at the situation as one of “waste to ‘wow!,’” noting that “Israel is the only country in the world which has less area covered by desert today than 50 years ago.”
Following his intensive look at the development of Israel’s unrivaled sewage treatment, Siegel thoroughly explores Israel’s journey toward desalinating seawater – the politics, the financing and the development of a water source that “has entirely transformed the water profile of Israel.” He takes a look at the technology’s transformation over the past few decades and its growth into a massive industry.
While mostly focusing on the unparalleled benefits that desalination has brought Israelis, Siegel acknowledges that because desalination creates a manufactured resource, the resultant water “will always be more expensive” than natural sources.
He therefore stresses that desalination alone cannot succeed in solving a country’s water issues.
In addition to examining how Israel has generated new sources of water, Siegel explores the country’s recent path toward rehabilitating many of its formerly contaminated natural rivers – a path he suggests was prompted by the Yarkon River bridge collapse in 1997 in which four Maccabiah Games athletes died due to pollution exposure. From there, some of the other cases he cites are the Beersheba River cleanup as well as the ongoing effort in the Jordan River. He warns, however, that the decades of damage inflicted upon many of Israel’s natural water resources do not enable a quick and easy cleanup process.
DESPITE THE many challenges that Israel has faced, Siegel is optimistic that “Israel is likely to long continue to be the ‘Start- Up Nation,’ but it may also mature into a ‘Resource Nation.’” In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, Siegel discusses this statement, and the idea that many Israelis fear an academic “brain drain” could pose a threat to the very concept of the “Start-Up Nation.” To this notion, the author responds that opportunities may change from year to year in a non-linear fashion and that “an ebb and a flow” is natural.
“Israel serves as magnet for intelligent and curious people with bold ideas, and it is still a place where innovators can succeed,” he says. “It’s deeply embedded in the culture – trying new ideas, innovating. I think that will continue to grow.”
As for solving issues like the expensive nature of desalination, Siegel says that as the technology gets installed increasingly around the globe, the price will naturally fall. Powering the facilities with new renewable technologies like wave energy could provide possible solutions toward lowering high electricity costs associated with operation of such plants.
In a chapter on business and innovation, Siegel demonstrates how thriving sophisticated water technology firms rose from socialist kibbutzim, securing top-notch places in the global market. The question remains “what’s next?” for the Israeli water industry today and what will the future be for the small water firms eager to reach the international community, but oftentimes unable to raise necessary funding.
Siegel feels that the water-foodenergy nexus is really the “next” item on the table. Whether large or small firms succeed in tackling these issues, any developments made in the near future are likely to be incremental rather than quantum leaps. The slow-butsure progress that researchers make – “a little bit here, a little bit there” – has the potential to add up to worthwhile steps forward for the Israeli water industry.
“As water becomes more and more a focus of universities and investment capital, I think you’re going to start seeing more innovation coming in,” he adds.
“I think that’s going to become a global phenomenon.”
Going so far as to describe Israel as “a water superpower” in a chapter that follows, Siegel focuses on the interactions of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in the sector. Optimistically, he asserts that “dialogue over water can be a vehicle for confidence-building measures that can lead to progress in some of the other areas of dispute.”
Despite ongoing intensive conflict over the precious resource, Siegel describes how many Palestinians actually see Israel’s expertise in the sector as a potential benefit to the territory, citing former Israel Water Commission head Shimon Tal. He likewise calls the 1967 Six Day War “a turning point for Palestinian access to underground water in the territory,” as this was the period in which Israel gained control of the West Bank and overhauled the infrastructure within its bounds.
Problems between the two governments may persist, but Siegel views the simultaneous – and often quiet – collaborative advances in the water sector as opportunities for further peace-building between Israel and the PA on a larger scale. Already for years, he notes, the two have been conducting joint agricultural workshops to provide Palestinian farmers with Israeli farming and water management know-how.
While describing the situation in Gaza, in comparison to that of the West Bank, as an ever-worsening crisis, Siegel lists a number of possibilities in which the coastal strip could also be saved by Israeli innovation or water sales. A failure to move forward with such ideas could not only leave the people of Gaza in ruin but could also create “a humanitarian crisis on [Israel’s] doorstep,” he writes.
Although his outlook remains largely optimistic, Siegel describes how the Palestinian Authority’s leaders have often come to politicize water in recent years, at times avoiding cooperation with Israel at the expense of their citizens. The author stresses that he by no means intends to blame one side versus the other, and expresses hope that joint progress will continue.
“Politics should be taken out of the water for the greater good of the people, but at the same time, water can help improve the political situation,” he says.
IN THE same chapter, Siegel also looks at the recently signed deal between Jordan and Israel, commonly known as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Project, in which the two countries agreed this February to share the potable water of a future Aqaba desalination plant and pump the residual brine to the Dead Sea. In return for Israel’s share of the desalinated water in the South, the country would increase its water sales from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) to its neighbor in the North.
While Palestinian Authority officials, who were participants in the project’s December 2013 memorandum of understanding, did not officially sign the final agreement, Siegel told the Post he was confident that they would remain involved nonetheless. The memorandum stipulates that by joining in the partnership, the Palestinians would be eligible to receive additional sales of water from Israel.
“Everyone has so much to gain from making [the deal] happen,” he says.
“What’s great about it is that if anyone pulls out, everybody gets hurt.
“The Palestinians’ water future is very much tied to Israel’s success,” he added.
Focusing on the historic nature of the collaboration, the author only briefly touches upon the concerns about the project expressed by environmentalists.
As Siegel writes, the currently approved program is slated to serve as a pilot for a much larger-scale plan. However, many environmentalists argue that the smaller mix of brine and Dead Sea water can neither serve to replenish the dwindling Dead Sea nor serve as an indicator of the environmental effects of mixing much larger quantities of water.
When asked about the issue, Siegel emphasizes that there is plenty of room for further examination along the way, before the pilot program evolves into a larger plan. “By building it in stages, you will learn what you need to learn,” he says.
Stepping out of the immediate region, Siegel goes on to explore the history of and future opportunities associated with Israeli water hydro-diplomacy, stretching to Iran before the fall of the shah in 1979 to China today. He also examines Israel’s role in helping less-developed countries build water infrastructure, particularly looking at governmental and NGO efforts in Africa and Asia. Interestingly, he notes that such international collaborations have progressed to include even wealthy and water-rich countries, as well as US states like California that are prone to drought.
“Just as the Israel of the 1950s was a model for many poor countries in their use of water, the Israel of today – an affluent society with advanced water governance and policies – can serve as an example for rich countries and regions,” he writes.
Asked by the Post who his ultimate intended audience for Let There Be Water might be, Siegel lists policymakers, college professors, journalists, the investor community, those interested in Israeli-Palestinian issues and concerned citizens – including communal and environmental organization members.
“My goal is to get the policy of conservation going, so the more people writing or talking about it – I consider a win,” he says.
Due to the great depth at which the author explores the multitude of historical milestones, technological developments and political hurdles that have built Israel’s water sector, Let There Be Water is sure to accomplish this goal while interesting a wide range of readers.
The final portion of Siegel’s work provides a short but effective summary and analysis as to “how Israel did it” – how the country ultimately transformed a situation of dire drought into one of water abundance, and how Israelis still value the resource as a precious public commodity nonetheless.
“With a water crisis at hand, the time to act is now,” he adds. “Israel has shown how.”