Building a Case for National Water Management: Let There Be Water

A carrot grown in the Negev Desert, Israel.
A carrot grown in the Negev Desert, Israel.

When American businessman and author Seth Siegel went looking for a country whose water-management plan could help solve the planet’s advancing water woes, he settled on a country with an unusual profile: a tiny nation with only one major fresh-water lake to its name and excruciatingly small amounts of rainfall to count on each year; a nation whose pioneers have been transforming vast deserts for centuries and now provides water for its neighbors as well. And most importantly, a country that had already faced a life-threatening drought, that knew the humanitarian price of losing its water independence, and had the moxie to search for truly unorthodox answers: Israel.

Siegel’s New York Times best-seller, “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), explores the steps that led to Israel’s gradual success as a water-resilient nation. He says that his interest in Israel’s water technology came about as a result of his concern over the planet’s increasing water shortage.

“I learned of the coming global water problems about four years ago,” Siegel told TriplePundit, and he began looking for answers. “I started looking for models that worked well in solving water problems. And in case after case, I found Israel was probably the most sophisticated example. Then, I started looking at it in a holistic way: that Israel would be an extraordinary model for the world at large, with countries rich or poor, large or small.”

A date farm in the Negev Desert, Israel.
A date farm in the Negev Desert, Israel.

Israel’s steady success in building a self-sufficient water system, Siegel continued, lies in its diversity of approaches, what Siegel refers to as its “all of the above” principle: the idea that a resilient economy and a dependable water program thrives because of its creative approaches.

“What they have done phenomenally well is develop many different technologies and governing structures with legislation, pricing market mechanisms; they radically rethought agriculture.” Innovative technologies to cut down on water loss, like the transformative introduction of drip irrigation in the 1950s and the development of distant meter reading (DMR) technology to eradicate unchecked leaks, have dovetailed with the government’s efforts to ensure that all water use is protected, priced and paid for equitably.

But as Siegel pointed out, it may be the social mindset that truly sets apart Israel’s success in creating a comprehensive water management program.

“No decision made by the Zionist pioneers and the young state of Israel has had a greater impact on Israel’s water culture than the decision to make water the common property of all,” he explains in the book.  Israel’s shifting focus from a socialist to more capitalist-centered economy hasn’t undermined the country’s success when it comes to ensuring that its water serves every single resident equally and without prejudice or price discrimination.

“Israel’s water system may be the most successful example of socialism in practice anywhere in the world today.”

There have been many studies of Israel’s innovative water programs, but few books or articles have been as successful or as eloquent in tying together the multiple facets that have bolstered Israel’s success as a water-independent country. Its comparison to places like California — which we covered earlier this year — only scratches the surface when it comes to what it takes to guarantee global (or national) water stewardship.

It isn’t just developing a broadly-adaptable wastewater distribution program for agriculture and other uses, or boosting desalination plant production, or taking advantage of water management technology that will improve our water independence, Siegel explains, but changing the mindset when it comes to the relationship with water as a whole. And that means setting standards for how water is drilled, how seeds are developed and how crops are irrigated.

A paddle-wheel aerator for an Israeli fish pond.
A paddle-wheel aerator for an Israeli fish pond.

It also means changing the way water is regulated: creating a water culture that is governed not by politicians and lawmakers (who often must balance their attention between citizens, lobbyists and companies with commercial interests), but by regional nonpolitical water utilities. Although Israel’s water has been nationalized since the 1950s, it has been the local water utility boards, Siegel pointed out, that have served as “local labs for innovation.” Both the drip irrigation system and the DMR concept were created by engineers that had the latitude to look for answers, and were unencumbered by corporate profit margins when it came to implementing water-saving mechanisms.

With COP21 just winding up, the debate over how to adapt to the world’s rising seas is still intensive.The Coastal Visualization Environment (CLIVE), designed at the University of Prince Edward Island Climate Change Lab in Canada and announced this week at COP21, is one of several tools that have been developed to give people a bird’s-eye view of just how and where sea-level rise will affect them. What it doesn’t do as succinctly as some may wish, perhaps, is offer an answer as to how to stop sea-level rise.

A Colorado sprinkler system.
A Colorado flood irrigation sprinkler system.

That, Siegel said, can only be accomplished through introspective discussion about our agricultural water management approaches and culture. Current research, he said, shows that the “each to his own” approach when it comes to agricultural practices like flood irrigation has a bearing not just on our local water access, but on sea level rise. And the alternative, he says, may not be easy for Americans to swallow. Just like how we price, monitor and regulate water, irrigating agriculture must have standards that ensure the preservation of that resource.

“[We] must have a reformation of agriculture, so that whether it is federal or state dollars, you have to incentivize farmers to stop flood irrigating and, whether by mandate or by tax dollars, encourage the use of drip irrigation,” Siegel said. By implementing controlled irrigation practices and refined wastewater distribution, “we can have a good shot at getting over the rest of this crisis.”

Israel_drip_irrigation_water_USDA
Arrowhead Farms in Crystal City, Texas, digs the furrows for drip irrigation (2011), a technology developed in Israel in the 1950s to ensure adequate water management.

Siegel is best known as the founder and co-founder of several trend-setting companies including the tech company Vringo, financial services firm Sixpoint Partners, and the trademark licensing company Beanstalk Group whose success in the 1990s led to its eventual purchase by the Ford Motor Co.

He is well positioned to understand the American debate over private versus public control of resources like water, and why this issue speaks to the heart of America’s own self-definition. “Let There Be Water” is as much a treatise about the optimism and benefits of reaching water independence and security, as it is about the current struggle that lays ahead for our water-challenged planet.

Images: 1) Betty Nudler; 2) Neil Ward; 3) Eran Finkle; 4) Jessica Reeder; 5) USDA.

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.