Water Challenges in Israel

Stephen DeAngelis

August 26, 2008

In two earlier posts [The Future of Desalination and Food and Water Shortages in the Middle East], I discussed how water shortages are affecting the globe and some of the ways those challenges are being addressed. In the latter post, I noted how technology is helping Israel deal with water shortages, but the technologies discussed have only been applied in certain areas. As a result, a recent drought in Israel is creating real problems [“Can Israel Find the Water It Needs?” by Andrew Marin, New York Times, 9 August 2008]. Martin begins his article by relating the trials of one Israeli farmer.

“A souvenir in the corner of Doron Ovits’s office attests to the challenges of farming in Israel. It’s a mangled piece of metal, and Mr. Ovits says it came from a rocket that landed in a field recently, lobbed from the nearby Gaza Strip. But Mr. Ovits may have a bigger long-term problem than rockets. Israel is running short of water. A growing population and rising incomes have increased demand for fresh water, while a four-year drought has created what Shalom Simhon, the agriculture minister, calls ‘a deep water crisis.'”

As noted in my post about the Middle East, water is not just challenge for Israel, but for most of the countries in the Middle East. Martin reports the problem goes far beyond the Middle East.

“The problem isn’t only in Israel. Many arid regions of the globe, including the American West, are dealing with growing populations and shrinking water supplies. Global warming could make matters even worse. In a speech earlier this year, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said the shortage of water could lead to violence. ‘Our experiences tell us that environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict and would be greater in poor nations,’ he said. ‘Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.’ Some economists suggest that arid countries should focus on growing only those crops that give them a competitive advantage, like water-sipping grapes and vegetables, and buy everything else on the world market.”

As I pointed out in my Middle East post, economists have historically made that argument, but theory and practice have diverged — especially in the agricultural sector which is still rife with national subsidies (hence the collapse of the Doha Round of trade talks). Rising oil prices also make importing food more expensive. As a result, food security has become a big issue and reliance on buying food on the world market has not proven to be the answer. Martin agrees:

“The recent volatility and high prices in commodity markets have made many world leaders reluctant to rely on global markets. Some oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia are now shopping for farmland in more fertile countries like Sudan and Pakistan. Others are now more determined than ever to increase their own food production, Israel among them. The question now becomes, at what cost?”

As I noted in the post on desalination, creating potable water using various processing techniques remain relatively expensive. Although the standards for water used in agricultural are slightly less demanding than those for drinking water, processing sea or waste water remains expensive, even though those costs are coming down. As a result, technologies that help conserve as well as process water are high on the list of priorities, especially for Israel. Martin continues:

“Israel has always been considered to be at the forefront of water efficiency in agriculture. Modern drip irrigation was invented in Israel, and Israeli companies like Netafim now ship drip-irrigation systems all over the world. Israel has also aggressively pursued the use of treated sewer water for irrigation. Mr. Ovits’s tomatoes and peppers, for instance, are irrigated with recycled sewer water that he says is ‘even cleaner than the drinking water.’ For all the country’s efforts though, it can’t control the weather.”

With climate change constantly in the news, many countries, including the United States, lament the fact that they can’t control the weather. Martin reports that the Israelis are working hard to find mitigating strategies.

“Agriculture in Israel now consumes 500 million cubic meters of potable water and an equal amount of other types of water, primarily treated sewer water. The country plans to provide a further 200 million cubic meters of recycled sewer water and build more desalination plants to supply even more water. ‘If the desalination and recycling projects are implemented, a lack of water is not expected in 2013,’ Mr. Simhon said.”

Surrounded by less than friendly neighbors (some of whom control sources of water), one would think that Israel’s efforts to become water independent would be universally greeted with approval. Such is not the case. Martin reports that some Israelis are asking if the investment is worth it.

“Is such an investment wise for a sector that contributes just 2 percent to the gross domestic product? Some critics suggest that Israel would be better off focusing on conservation. Others have predicted a dire future. The chief scientist in the environment ministry, Yeshayahu Bar-Or, was quoted in The Economist in June as predicting that global warming would cause 35 percent less rainfall, contamination of underground water sources and pollution of the Sea of Galilee, this nation’s largest source of fresh water.”

For many farmers in Israel, the future is now.

“In the Golan Heights, Roni Kedar, 46, hopes his farm can survive long enough for a solution. As a farmer for Kibbutz Ein Zivan, which abuts the Syrian border, he has spent the last 30 years trying to conserve water while growing grapes, apples, flowers and berries. His crops are irrigated with treated sewer water and rain runoff that is captured in a nearby reservoir, which is now severely depleted. He grows plants that do not require much water and feeds them with irrigation lines that drip water directly onto a plant’s roots, minimizing waste. And he is now experimenting in his apple orchards with mesh nets that may further prevent evaporation. But because of the drought, Israeli officials have cut the kibbutz’s annual quota of water. This year’s cuts were particularly harsh, to 1 million cubic meters from 1.8 million, forcing Mr. Kedar to tear out some of his orchards and rip the fruit off of some of his apple trees, to keep the trees alive but preserve water.”

Many, if not most, countries are going to have to implement water shortage mitigation strategies that combine conservation techniques with new technologies that help produce clean water from non-traditional sources. With the problem so acute in Israel, it will be a place to watch to see which technologies and strategies work best.