The wonder of water

Gains from new technology have been wiped out by greater extravagance of water use.

Water 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Water 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Spring is here, the song of the turtle dove is heard in the land, almond trees blossom and the winter in Israel that's just passed brought a mere 65% of average rainfall. This is the fifth consecutive winter to yield below-average rainfall here. Some scientists are pointing the finger at global climate change, which is projected to reduce rainfall in Israel by 30% in the coming decades and cause serious water shortages worldwide. Others say that it's too early to establish such a connection. In any case, the trend is alarming. We are heading into a serious water crisis. As we look forward to six months of cloudless summer skies, the Kinneret, Israel's main water source stands 60 cm below the level of a year ago, and three metres below where it was this time four years ago. It is close to the lowest "red line." When it falls below that level, pumping any more water from the Kinneret risks irrevocably polluting our main reservoir. Why are we in this mess? After all, Israeli water engineers have always been ingenious in maximizing our access to the water sources available. Last week I was hiking through Nahal Amud in the Galilee with a group from Hazon and the Heschel Centre, two leading Jewish environmental organizations. We found ourselves standing in a stone-filled limestone wadi directly on top of the National Water Carrier. The National Water Carrier is a five-feet-in-diameter concrete pipeline that conveys a third of Israel's drinkable water from the Kinneret to the centers of the country's population, and the thirsty Negev beyond. Built in the '50s and '60s, it was a triumph of Zionist ingenuity. During its construction, half of Israel's cement output went into building the pipeline wall. The National Water Carrier is a man-made miracle as awe-inspiring in its way as the sheer walls of the wadi we were walking through. Beneath our feet lay the artery which, by pumping precious life-blood to the heart and extremities of Israel, has made possible the building of this country. Today too, Israeli technology enables us to make the most of our limited water resources. Two major desalination plants at Palmahim and Ashkelon opened in the past decade now provide a sixth of the country's water. But here's the problem: That's exactly the amount by which water consumption has grown in Israel over the same period. Since 2000 national water use has risen by 134 million cubic metres, to a total of 796 million today. As living standards have risen, the gains from new technology have been wiped out by the greater extravagance of our water use. That's why technology, though necessary and admirable, is unlikely to solve this problem by itself. We can always find ways to consume the blessings that technology yields. WHAT WE lack is an appreciation of water. For water is abundant yet priceless. It is mundane yet virtually miraculous in its unique combination of properties for supporting life. Its high capacity for absorbing heat plays a key role in stabilizing the earth's climate. Water has a thermal conductivity four times higher than any common liquid, which enables living creatures, including us, to distribute heat evenly throughout their bodies. Its unusually high surface tension enables large plants to draw it up for their nourishment. The rabbis were keenly aware of the wondrousness of water. They repeatedly compared water to Torah, the most precious spiritual substance. Just as water is free but indispensable to physical life, so too is Torah free, yet essential to spiritual life. (This was before the era of American day school fees!) Just as water cleanses and purifies, so does Torah. Just as water flows from high places and accumulates in low, so too Torah is found with the humble and not with the haughty. (Talmud Taanit 7a). To avert future crises, we will need to recover a deeper appreciation for water, so that we learn to use and manage it more wisely. In particular we will need to get into the habit of consuming less. It can be done. In the face of the water shortage of the early '90s public campaigns to conserve and reduce water usage cut consumption by 15%. Everyone knows the list of necessary measures: take shorter showers, use a bucket and not a hose pipe to wash your car, use the mini-flush lever on your toilet, don't leave the tap on when you wash the dishes, water the garden at night not at mid-day etc., etc.; all eminently feasible steps. But when the last major crisis passed, water usage bounced back to previous levels and then beyond. Recently I had the opportunity to go with colleagues from Bet Av's environmental Beth Midrash and visit one of Israel's leading poskim (rabbinical decisors). The rabbi's apartment was frugal and bare, apart from wall to wall, overflowing book cases. I asked him whether there was any halachic basis for requiring people to conserve water. The posek looked at me as if I had just enquired which direction is up. "Of course," he replied. "We should always consume only as much as we need of the blessings that God puts into the world." Most of us cannot live as simply as this rabbi. But we can share his gratitude for the blessing of water and learn to use it with an appreciation of its preciousness. The author, a rabbi, is co-founder of Jewish Climate Initiative.