Review of Seth Siegel's "Let There Be Water"

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Review of Seth Siegel's "Let There Be Water"

Arthur Hessel

Mavens, November 18, 2016

Last year, a book by Seth Siegel was published with the title "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World". Siegel is neither an Israeli nor a water expert; he's a lawyer in New York, a writer on many subjects and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke a year ago at the annual meeting of American Associates, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in New York, and I was fascinated by what he said. I picked up a copy of his book, and my fascination increased.

I read from inside the front cover:

"The U.S. government predicts that forty of our fifty states - and 60 percent of the world's land surface - will soon face alarming gaps between available water and the growing demand for it. Without action, food prices will rise, economic growth will slow, and political instability is likely to follow.

"Let There Be Water illustrates how Israel can serve as a model for the United States and countries everywhere by showing how to blunt the worst of the coming water calamities. Even with 60 percent of its country made of desert, Israel has not only solved its water problem; it also has an abundance of water. Israel even supplies water to its neighbors - the Palestinians and the Kingdom of Jordan - every day"

Why is water scarcity an increasing problem?

First, the population is growing. We now have over seven billion people on the planet. By 2050, it will be over 9 billion.

Second, more of the world's population has left poverty and subsistence, and moved into some definition of middle class. And this means that more and more people use more and more water. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of middle class people, by some estimations, will almost double. This means more showers, green lawns and an animal diet.

Third, of course, is climate change. And growing desertification in so many areas, including much of Africa.

Fourth, in spite of the plethora of environmental movements around the globe, much of the world is cursed by tainted, contaminated water. Water that cannot be used for all purposes.

And finally, fifth, there are leaks. So much water is now carried in aging infrastructure pipes that leaks in some American cities can range to 25 to 30 percent of water flow, and in some large foreign cities, up to 60 percent.

Because of the geography of Israel, water has always been a major concern. We know this from scarcity of water during the British occupation and early days of the state, from concentration on water even in early Israeli music, and from the many references to water and rain and dew in Jewish religious and biblical tradition.

So, as opposed to here in the United States and so many other places, where water seems to belong to whoever owns the land where it is found, in Israel a decision was made quite early to nationalize all water - all water in Israel is owned by the population in common, and all water usage is regulated and controlled by the government, acting on behalf of the Israeli people. This was codified quite early, in a series of laws that still are maintained in force. These laws stem from the 1950s: (1) you cannot drill for water without governmental approval, (2) all water distribution had to be metered, and (3) no surface water, rain water or even sewage water coming from a private home, could be diverted without the government approving. And, regarding agriculture, no animals could drink from a water supply without a license. In 1959, an even broader law was passed making it clear that, in no instance, was water a private resource, and in no instance could it be used or distributed without government license.

"Shimon Tal, Israel's water commissioner from 2000 to 2006, provides a vivid illustration of how completely water is under the power of the state in Israel. 'Of course, the government controls all of the water in the Sea of Galilee and of course it controls all of the aquifers,' he says, 'But if you put a bucket on the roof of your house at the start of the rainy season, you own the house and you own the bucket, but the rain in that bucket is the property - at least in theory - of the government. Without a license to collect that rain water, you are technically in violation of the Water Law. Once the rain drop hits the ground, or the bucket, it is owned by the public.'"

OK, says Siegel, this was during the days of a socialist-leaning Israel. What about today, when the Start Up Nation is, in many respects, as capitalist as they come, and where so many state entities have been privatized? The answer is - there has been no change in the laws regarding water, and there has been no movement from any sector of society to change those laws.

What started all this thinking about water management? According to Seth Siegel, it was general concern about British intentions during the 1930s and the British White Paper of 1939, the document that tried to appease the Arab population by drastically reducing the amount of Jewish immigration into Palestine. One of the rationales given by the British at the time was that Palestine could only hold 2,000,000 people before its water resources would be unable to serve its inhabitants, for industrial, agricultural or personal use. The Zionist leaders in Palestine needed to find information to argue against the British position - and to establish how many people could live in Palestine if a Jewish state was ever a fact. This is when the Zionists began to think about how to better manage the water resources of the area - of course today, there are about 12 million people in what was British mandated Palestine, and there is no shortage of water.

Siegel points to Simcha Blass, a Polish born water engineer who set to work to figure out how to control Palestine's water during the 1930s and 1940s and Levi Eshkol (who eventually became the third prime minister of Israel) as his partner in the Zionist movement. Blass and Eshkol, and others, had created a water company in 1935, which they called Mekorot, to identify new water resources in the country to be able to serve in particular the agricultural enterprises in the Jezreel Valley and Galilee. These areas where, at this time, the chief agricultural areas of Palestine, and most water had been coming from wells drilled near the Mediterranean coast. But how to sustain the areas farther north, or near Tel Aviv, or even the Negev?

For 40 years, Simcha Blass worked on this problem. First, he was asked to develop a hypothetical plan to give the British to show how the land could support a greater population. His concept had four elements:

First, he thought that there was probably a great deal of water beneath the Negev, and that with deep drilling this water could be made available very quickly for agricultural use.

Second, he thought water could be taken from the Yarkon River, near Tel Aviv.

Third, he proposed bringing water from the north to the south through a massive underground piping system. This would eventually become what is known as the National Water Carrier. He also identified rivers in what is now Jordan and Lebanon, which were draining water into the sea unnecessarily and which, if they could be harnessed, could support a large population.

Fourth, he suggested that storm water could be trapped and utilized, sewage could be treated and reused, and even thought of building a canal from the Mediterranean coast down to the Dead Sea.

The first test of Blass's theories occurred in the Negev in 1946. Ben-Gurion of course believed in the future of the Negev. But it would have no future unless it was located in the portion of Palestine that the UN would recognize as a Jewish state. In order to create facts on the ground, he authorized the illegal (under British rule) establishment of 11 outpost farms in the Negev. Sneaking in by night, the Zionists created each farm which had everything but water. Blass's deep drilling for water began, and water was discovered at one location. Blass also was able to procure enough concrete piping to bring the water to the other eleven locations. With the existence of the farms, the discovery of the water and successful transport of the water, and perhaps with something more, the authorities were convinced and the Negev became a key part of the Jewish settlement of the partitioned land.

Once Israel was declared a sovereign state, and even before the fighting ended, Ben-Gurion and Eshkol were intent to implement more of Blass's plan. They worked out an extensive agreement with the West German government for reparations. The start to building the water infrastructure was made possible by the receipt of the reparation money.

But the infrastructure was of limited value without a reliable source of water from the north. Here the United States got into the act, as President Eisenhower appointed the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Eric Johnson, to work with the various states in the middle east to determine a fair allocation of water from the Jordan and other sources. Working with Blass, the Arab states became willing to allocate a larger amount of water to Israel than they originally proposed, on the theory that excess water would otherwise be wasted and spilled into the sea, but that Israel had developed ways to utilize it.

In part with American money, and in part with the proceeds of the sale of Israel bonds, the waters of the Yarkon River was harnessed to serve agricultural services, and the National Water Carrier was built, with great fanfare and great inconvenience to bring water south from the north. It opened in 1964.

According to Siegel, the construction of this massive project did more than just bring water to areas which needed it - it helped create a can-do spirit in the country. "The country's new system not only improved water reliability, access and quality overnight, it also served as a great inspiration for the young nation. Whether landing a man on the moon, or rebuilding after a terrible hurricane, large infrastructure projects that are completed on time and on budget give the larger public a feeling of civic pride and enhance national identity. They also provide a widespread sense that other communal challenges can be overcome and can unify a country....."

The project also provided a boost to the economy, and thousands of jobs. It enabled 120 billion gallons of water to flow through the pipelines, and providing a greening of the area south of Tel Aviv almost all the way to Beersheba.

Again, Siegel: "From a country which could barely feed itself when it had a much smaller population, today it is not only self sufficient in fruits, vegetables, dairy, and poultry, it also exports billions of dollars of high quality, water intensive product each year."

Of course, once the system is built, it must be maintained. Under the 1959 law, the system was to be maintained through a water commissioner and Water Council, placed under the ministry of Agriculture. As time went on, other ministries became involved. From Siegel:

"A roll call of the different parts of the government claiming a piece of water governance gives a feel for the scope of the administrative problem. The Finance Ministry set water prices, except for the price paid by the farmers. The Agriculture Ministry set that price. (The Interior Ministry played a role in setting household prices.) Sewage and its treatment were under the control of both the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Environmental Protection both had input into the criteria for water quality and safety. The Interior Ministry, aside from its role in setting domestic prices, controlled the distribution of water within municipalities. The Ministry of Justice was involved in the adjudication of water disputes. The Defense Ministry had oversight involving security of water resources in the West Bank. The Foreign Ministry was the address for water resource sharing with the Kingdom of Jordan. The Knesset Finance Committee also had oversight."

This was all changed in 2006 with the creation of the Israel Water Authority, which took all regulatory authority out of the political realm and put it in the technocratic realm. Two other things occurred. In 2008, the price of water was raised by about 40 percent for all users, raising quite a ruckus for a period of time. But the thought was that the system needed to be maintained, and needed to be independent of political allocations, while making sure that all the fees generated were used to maintain or improve the system, and could not be siphoned off for other governmental usage. Similarly, municipalities had been given a share of the fees in return for their maintenance of the system within their boundaries; this was ended for much the same reason, to the dissatisfaction of many local mayors, with authority given to 55 municipal water companies, under the general control of the Water Authority. This has proven to be very helpful not only in the maintenance of facilities, but in the diminution of loss of water through leakage. Now, all fees go to maintenance of the distribution system, residents are much more active in reporting leaks (leaks in Israeli cities are not 30 to 60 percent - they are more like 10% and going down). One more interesting quote:

"...Jerusalem has a water system that goes back hundreds of years and a history to the dawn of time. In fact, the municipal water corporation there is called Hagihon, a reference to a siege of the ancient city of Jerusalem that was broken twenty nine hundred years ago by the construction of a tunnel to the Gihon spring.

"Hagihon started as a pilot project in 1996 and this head start over other municipalities may account for its operating at a sophisticated level of service. Every pipe in the large system serving Israel's biggest city and its environs has an ID card with a profile and a leak history. Using robotic cameras, the insides of Jerusalem's sewer pipes are checked to be sure there are no cracks that would allow raw sewage to leak into the ground. Long before they become problematic, water and sewage pipes are replaced, exactly the way the Water Authority hopes all of these well funded water corporations will act. Despite the many parts of the Jerusalem water system that go back to the pre-State era - and a few even to the Ottoman period - water leaks are only thirteen percent in Israel's capital with many of the city's modern sectors being at six percent."


So this is the story of Israel's water system. But it is not the entire story of Israel and efficient water usage. I don't have time to go into all of the innovations discussed in Siegel's book, but let me list a few.

1. The development of drip irrigation - having plants irrigated by membranes with small holes that let out only measured amounts of water designed to help the plant grow best - very different from relying on rain (where it exists) or on normal irrigation techniques used elsewhere in the world. (Drip irrigation was invented, by the way, by the very same Simcha Blass working with Kibbutz Hatzerim on the manufacturing process.) Drip irrigation saves 40 to 70 percent of water used for crops. While not heavily used world wide, its use is spreading, particularly in many underdeveloped countries and in China and India.

2. The provision of fertilizers and nutrients through the drip irrigation process, and by controlling the amount of fertilizer used, there is no fertilizer run off and as a result no algae infiltration in lakes and rivers that you now find in so many places.

3. Specially breeding plants that require less water, and developing plants which thrive on formerly useless brackish or salty water.

4. Developing methods to find more underground aquifers, particularly brackish aquifers that can be used on the crops developed to thrive on this type of water.

5. Seeding clouds, especially above the Sea of Galilee to keep water levels high.

6. New ways to treat and reuse waste water. In most of the world, including the US, waste water is wasted - some treated, virtually none reused. In Israel, 85 percent of waste water is both treated and reused, and 95 percent is treated. This started in the 1950s, when the seven major municipalities making up greater Tel Aviv, decided to work together to send their waste water to one site south of Tel Aviv for treatment and reprocessing. The facility was not completed until 1973 and the entirely new methods developed there for treating the sewage has led to an additional and very large source of water for Negev agriculture.

7. The development of large reservoirs for the retention of the treated wastewater until it is reused. This process was originally designed for the retention of rain and flood water - but Israel does not do much of this now, maintaining only those facilities constructed prior to 1980. It proved too expensive. Many of the reservoirs have been funded by the JNF.

8. The only negative about reusing sewage is that Israel is creating less sewage than it used to. The population and the society in general is so water conscious that the amount of wastewater generated, particularly residentially, is less than in other developed countries. For example, dual flush toilets, short showers,

9. Continual improvements in sewage treatment, making it ever more efficient, using much less energy, and coming up with ways to divide sewage more easily into different types, which require different treatments. (And there are treatments that still must be developed - more efficient ways to remove salt during the treatment process, and various pharmaceutical agents.)

10. Desalination. Desalination is probably the largest component of Israel's production of usable water, and its history and science would constitute a subject for a presentation of its own. While Israelis did not invent either the concept of taking the salt out of sea water, and did not build the first desalination apparatuses, Israeli scientists were involved in popularizing the process and refining the way desalination was taking place, introducing the concept of reverse osmosis into the process, thus creating not only an effective way to desalinate water, but an economical one. Not surprisingly, concentration on the desalination of water was one of the prime goals of David Ben Gurion. You could probably guess that. What you may not know is that the most important individual who shared his goal, and who worked with him to try to accomplish it, was Lyndon Johnson. And the most prominent Israeli was Levi Eshkol, Israel's third prime minister.

The plans of Johnson and Ben Gurion and Eshkol were upset by the 1967 war, and by the war in Vietnam, when other issues became much more important for both countries. After the war, thoughts turned once again to expanding desalination, led by a number of Technion scientists. The Israeli cabinet, now that privatization and capitalism was becoming more pronounced in the country, determined that the program to build desalination plants should be privatized, and they chose a consortium of Israel and French companies to handle the job, determining that they had the scientific expertise, the financial wherewithal, and the management experience to carry it through. And this consortium decided to use the reverse osmosis process, new and experimental but very promising, developed by an American named Sidney Loeb, who was a chemical engineer at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Now there are five desalination plants in operation, on or near the Mediterranean coast, producing enough pure water that, were it not diverted for agricultural or industrial use, would be sufficient to take care of 95% of Israel's domestic water needs. And not only is it used for Israeli agriculture and industry, the availability of desalinized water has made it possible for Israel to arrange water sharing agreements with Jordan and with the Palestinian Authority (1994 and 1995).

11. And finally, there's the clean up and protection of Israeli river water. First, there was the clean up of the , in north Tel Aviv, and second, the cleanup and reconstitution of the rivers in and near Beersheva, where a river park twice the size of Central Park is being built as we speak. Part of it has been opened now for a few years, and parts won't be opened for a few years to come. The culmination will be a lake - in the middle of the city in the middle of the desert. After all, once the country satisfied its needs for water, and there was water left over, why not worry about the environment, or about people's need for recreation?


The last portion of the book deals with Israel's export of water and water technology. Again, we don't have time for a detailed analysis, but Siegel tells the story of a man named Booky Oren, who convinced the Israeli government that there was money to be made from Israel's water expertise, and that there just was not that much global competition. Israel of course is known as the Start Up Nation, and one of the fields where there has been much innovation is water and water management, including water filtration system to unclog irrigation hoses developed at Kibbutz Amiad, which formed a company now listed on the London Stock Exchange that "spends millions of dollars each year on R & D, and still develops products for agriculture, but also for offshore drilling operations, desalination plants, and for filterning the ballast water of commercial ships...." And then there is Kibbutz Evron, which developed a way to turn on and off irrigation flow remotely (done for safety reasons on border farms) and then developed a system to regulate the flow of drip irrigation remotely at set amounts and set times.

In addition to kibbutzim, government agencies have spun off water oriented companies. And entrepreneurs were not far behind. The Atlantium group makes equipment to purify water that is used by industries, particularly food industries, in 150 countries. High tech entrepreneur Amir Peleg has developed a system that can spot leaks in underground pipes. HydroSpin has developed a way to use the energy created by the flow of water in underground pipes as sources of mini-electric charges. And there are others, some sponsored by government funded incubator programs.

And then there's the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan. Water, of course, knows no boundaries. The entire water system of Israel - the rivers, the aquifers, the lakes, are shared by the Palestinian territories and the kingdom of Jordan. And looking beyond this immediate region, you have other water stressed countries that cannot cope with increasing populations, even if the current chaos didn't exist. Plans for water usage must be regional - not just national. And, the case has been that, in this region, cooperation on water seems to continue regardless of the political situation, providing stability in one of the world's most unstable areas.

Israel, as we have seen, made a lot of improvements to its water system in years preceding 1967. After the 1967 war, Israel saw that the neighboring Palestinian territories - Gaza and the West Bank - had not had anything near the same degree of progress. They saw that only 4 of the West Bank's 700 cities had running water and that only 10 percent of the population of the West Bank was connected to a working plumbing system. Today, 95% of the Palestinians of the West Bank have running water, and about half of that water comes from Israel.

But things are changing, according to Siegel. The Palestinian Authority, under pressure from Hamas, as part of the continuing rivalry between the two, has begun to use water as a weapon against Israel, rather than as a tool of cooperation. There is no longer cooperation on building or improving water systems in the West Bank or Gaza, as Hamas has taken the position (apparently adopted by the Palestinian Authority) that any cooperation with Israel on any matter is in fact a sign confirming the role of Israel in Palestine, while Hamas, at least, denies the legitimacy of Israel in any way. This, for example, delayed the provision of water to the new developing city of Masri, a middle class Arab city in the West Bank. Israel wanted protocols followed, the PA refused to meet with Israeli water authorities, and bad publicity came about until Israel on its own decided to provide water for the city.

The situation in Gaza is worse, because it is not connected to either the West Bank or Israel, and most of the water comes from a shallow aquifer which is easily polluted. Because Gaza City only provides water sporadically, many people have dug their own wells which both drain and pollute the aquifer. And you need to add to this Gaza's failure to treat its sewage. And beyond that to the infiltration of sea water into the aquifer, vastly increasing its salinity. And there has been some damage to water infrastructure as a result of Israeli military engagement. Without cooperation with Israel, improvements to the Gaza water system will prove impossible.

The only solution seems to be the provision of desalinated water - either coming directly from Israel, or from a desalination plant in Gaza built with Israeli assistance. The problem, according to Siegel, is not financial - it's ideological.

The same situation holds with regard to training programs the Israelis were providing on various agricultural subjects, often dealing with water usage and management, to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They started in 1968, but ended in 2010, when the PA determined that no Palestinians would be permitted to attend programs put on by Israel.

Jordan is a different story. Jordan's water program is what the Palestinian program could be if the PA and Hamas cooperated with Israel. The basis of cooperation remains the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. Israel and Jordan jointly control the Dead Sea and part of the Jordan River, and Israel stores water in the Kinneret for Jordan.

There is a big plan to increase the cooperation, through the building of a desalination plant in Jordan near Aqaba, to take water from the Red Sea and remove the salt content. Because of the fragility of the reefs in the Red Sea, the concept is to pump the brine created by the process not back into the Red Sea, but north to the Dead Sea. Then, although this plant will be a Jordan/Israel operation, the water will flow to Israel which will use it in the Negev. In return, Israel will send more water from the Kinneret to Jordan, up north where Jordan needs it.

But what about the rest of the world? We all know about the hostility of much of the world to Israel, and the continual anti-Israel votes in the United Nations. But water seems to be an exception. According to Siegel, Israel provides water consultation and assistance to over 150 different countries. In some cases, this has enabled Israel to vastly improve its diplomatic and cultural relationships, as with China, where consultation on water issues totally reversed the relationship between the two countries - first, using Israeli seeds that grew plants which could thrive in arid conditions, then drip irrigation, then there was a Chinese company that began using Israeli technology for water purification and then the establishment of an industrial park for Israeli companies involved in water. and now using the Chinese city of Shouguang, population 1 million, as a test city for intensive water technology improvements.

And then there was Iran - before the revolution of 1979, where for almost twenty years, Israeli scientists helped build water treatment infrastructure and helped train Iranians in water management. They also helped Iran build several desalination plants which are apparently aging, but still operating.

Israel also is active in many African countries - for a while Africa spurned Israel, but after the Oslo accords in 1993, African countries re-opened their doors to Israeli scientific help, and in particular to the company TAHAL, which started as a government entity but was later privatized, and which specialized in water supply, sewage treatment and irrigation in developing countries. And a new NGO, Innovation: Africa, has been helping establish water systems in remote African villages, where the performance can be monitored from Tel Aviv. Same with India, which has long hesitated having friendly relationships with Israel.

And now Israeli experts are beginning to consult in the United States, especially in places like California which has experienced serious drought conditions and Arizona and Nevada, which are largely arid.

In conclusion, Siegel lists the principles underlying Israel's success in water management:

1. Water as a national resource, not to be privately owned or controlled.

2. Cheap water is expensive.

3. Water policy can unify a country

4. Water should be managed by regulators, not by politicians

5. The society should respect water.

And here is what Israel has done (most of which we have talked about): pumps and purifies natural waters from aquifers, wells, rivers and lakes; desalinates seawater; deep wells for brackish water; seeds that thrive in salty water; sewage treatment and reuse; capturing and reusing rainwater; don't landscape with fresh water; seed rain clouds; appliances are all water efficient; fix and replace infrastructure before there are massive failures; education school children; price to encourage efficiency; financial incentives to save water; experiment with ideas to reduce evaporation' water efficient crops; drip irrigation.

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