The lessons from Israel on water management

Seth M. Siegel’s Let There Be Water offers a strong, upbeat narrative about Israel’s extraordinary drive to master resource efficiency, productivity and knowhow in an arid landscape. Such ingenuity helped generate the Jewish State’s current “water surplus”. But missing is any account of less innovative central policies to capture, control, and deplete transboundary rivers or aquifers, or unilaterally determine who receives how much of this water, at what costs and for which uses. By James Workman

Silicon Valley imagines all crises have online solutions. But as our homes, crops, businesses dry up, our ingenuity falters.

Water scarcity? There’s no app for that.

There is, however, a Bibi.

In March 2014 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited California in the midst of the state’s historic drought to promote his country’s widgets which ensure efficient use of a scarce resource. Thanks to state-sponsored innovation, he proclaimed, “Israel doesn’t have a water problem!”
A year later, a Jerusalem-based spouse of an Israeli diplomat, mailed me an advance copy of Seth M. Siegel’s 352-page book Let There Be Water, urging me to “check out Chapter 11”. In those pages the author explains what parched California can learn from Israel’s solution.
I dug into an interesting account of people hitting dry walls–policy disputes, population growth, polluted runoff, and prosperitydriven demand–and surmounting them through innovation. Twelve chapters bind together stories of the creation of, transformations within, and cooperation around water by a remarkable Jewish state defined by an unwelcoming arid landscape.
But narrative cohesion comes at a price: removing any political elements that might detract from Siegel’s underlying thesis of benevolent, progressive, Israeli exceptionalism for which others–including neighbouring water-stressed Arab countries–should feel gratitude and admiration.
Siegel is rigorous about what it takes to find, foster, fund and develop so many water technologies in the Middle East’s ‘start-up nation’. Lessons for entrepreneurs are solid and sharp. But then he falls into soft focus regarding older, cruder, blunter ways that people initially secure that water.
A handful of cultures have been blessed by an inversion of the resource curse. Facing dwindling access to rare natural assets, society self-organises to turn scarcity into abundance. Witness Kalahari Bushmen, Balinese rice farmers, Spanish irrigators, Omani villages, Dutch engineers, Mormon hydrologists. Yet few have generated so much wealth, from so little water, in such a short time, against such odds, as the modern Jewish state. To borrow a triumphalist chapter heading from the book, one wonders “How Israel Did It.”
The short answer: it had no choice.
Even before becoming a state, Israelis knew the harsh climate and geography they faced. Siegel cites early Zionest utopian Theodor Herzl’s calls to make heroes out of water engineers, bracketed, a century later, by dystopian novelist Assaf Gavron’s warnings if Israelis lose control of their rain or runoff. He introduces us to Simcha Blass, who transformed drip irrigation from accidental leak into the technological basis for irrigation. He celebrates Ilan Cohen’s advocacy of desalination, turning water from a resource issue into an economic issue.
We meet Booky Oren and Oded Distel, who recognised the potential for spinning the gold of private water technology companies–Amiad, Evron, Bermad, Plasson, Netafim and the big-data TaKaDu–out of the flax in government projects or socialist Kibutz, then market them to the world in roadshows or trade fairs that made a US$700 million export industry into one worth US$2.2 billion. These men (alas, with few exceptions, they’re all male) deserve praise for the benefits they spread to address a global crisis, where necessity presses down like iron.
But how and why did these emerge in Israel, rather than, say, Algeria, Mexico, or East Timor? By way of answer, Cohen casts the rise of his country’s “water cluster” in nearmythical terms:
“We are in the place where the ancient Nabateans and Hebrews made sophisticated use of water. In our long exile, we lost those skills, but on our return it is as if we have had a reawakened memory. As a young nation, we had created new industries, and as an isolated nation, we had no choice but to think creatively or we would not have survived.”
This Chosen People narrative captures the best and worst aspects of Siegel’s book. Israel repeatedly demonstrates how hard-bitten necessity is the mother of know-how, cohesion, and invention. The influx of human refugees demanded a corresponding influx of new water. By cleaning up wastewater, drilling deep into sands, removing salt, and charging users more, Israeli leaders proved the neo- Malthusians wrong: a landscape no one thought could hold more than two million people now comfortably supports eight million, and rising.
Yet necessity is also the mother of human traits that can feel neither gentle nor generous; these include hegemony, conflict, favouritism, or repression. Necessity leads a political entity to decide what is ‘the greatest common good’ and ‘in the best interests’ of all–all too often denying poor, weak, disenfranchised, or nonhuman species on the margin any say in their own future.
It is unfair to criticise an author for not writing a different book. And to his credit, Siegel dips into the regional politics, quoting NGOs on how Israeli water could do more for people and nature. But his relentlessly upbeat, can-do thesis on Israelis finding solutions, Israelis developing technology, and Israelis leveraging water for diplomatic engagement, gets blunt and blurry when it comes to the underlying current of all water decisions: raw power.
To be sure, Israel had to claw out every inch of its existence. Yet after the first two decades, and stunning military victories (that happened to secure all the water it would need), it is hard to still see Israel as the lonely victim of economic deprivation and political persecution. Siegel struggles valiantly to reconcile his thesis – the scrappy underdog hounded by enemies and aridity into shrewd water ingenuity – against the military-industrial complex that unilaterally decrees who gets how much water, and where, for which uses…and who must suffer a permanently dry well.

Seth M. Siegel © S Siegel

Instead, we discover: “Few countries have suffered from diplomatic isolation as extreme as has Israel.” Really? Other embassies generate generous support from rich and powerful allies, stifle UN Security Council debate, and stand before the US Congress to instruct the White House what US foreign policy should be toward its water-stressed neighbours?
Elsewhere he approvingly quotes: “Of course, the government controls all of the water in the Sea of Galilee.” Geography students find its tributaries originate upstream in Lebanon or Syria.
Other news: “Both Jordan and the Palestinians share Israel’s watershed.” Oddly, Jordan had been labouring under the impression it was Israelis who share its watershed. Few Palestinians feel lucky to share their West Bank or Gaza Strip groundwater with Israel.
The truth is sharing is difficult. Allocation is rarely efficient. Water is not given away out of benevolence. Peaceful ingenuity is harder than martial intervention–if you hold the upper hand.
It hardly seems an innovative or durable ‘solution’ when Israeli wells draw water from the Mountain Aquifer beneath the West Bank; or when Israel diverts and controls Palestinian wadis; or when Muslims in occupied territories pay more for the same water than Jewish settlers; or when Mekorot bans new or deeper well drilling, upgrades or repairs by Palestinians; or when the ‘water surplus’ involves annually diverting from a 1,350 million cubicmetre Jordan River down to a 20 million cubic-metre Jordan Trickle.
To be sure, Israel has no scarcity of critics, who blame it for launching ‘the world’s first water war,’ engaging in de facto ‘apartheid’ water policy, or ‘stealing’ Palestinian water. Reasonable people may disagree. But few dispute who commands and controls taps in the region today.
Besides, it is hardly a sign of anti-Semitism to question Israeli water priorities. To the contrary, it is supporters who make the best critics, and tolerance of debate has always been Israel’s strongest asset. It was Israeli Yoav Kislev, author of The Water Economy of Israel, who questioned how more Jewish residents receive free and abundant water, while Palestinian supply is limited, irregular and costly: “That is clear-cut discrimination and it is our responsibility.”
That critique cuts to the quick: must water remain Israel’s exclusive responsibility? Or is there room in any books about efficient water governance to discuss competition, decentralisation, devolution, or self-determination? Can a two-state solution include two water authorities?
Siegel avoids any such questions. Focused so fervently on Israeli exceptionalism, he makes the early puzzling claim that “Unlike in the US where water is a personal property right, in Israel all water ownership and usage is controlled by the government serving in the interest of the people as a whole.” Beset by thirst, some of us Californians might wish we could and did own water, unfettered by competing local, county, state and federal claims.
To Israel’s credit, the Jewish state has given rise to an extraordinary water cluster of individuals and institutions. But if that state basks in the sparkle of heroic, innovative water solutions, it must also accept the less gleaming legacy over how it secures its water to begin with.