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Jan Lee headshot

Israel to California: Here's How to Overcome Drought

Words by Jan Lee

Israel has a message for California: You can beat this drought thing.

California is still counting up the damage from the 2014 drought, which resulted in more than $200 million in losses in the dairy and livestock industry and a staggering $810 million in crop production. And analysts are predicting this year to be even worse.

But many will admit that if there is any country on earth that knows how to trump a three-year (and counting) drought cycle and convert a wasteland to oasis, it's Israel. For thousands of years, populations have been wresting a livelihood from the desert of what is now Israel, refining the techniques that would one day result in an agricultural paradise.

Even before Israel became a state in 1948, 20th-century pioneers converted vast stretches of desert to productive farm lands and found ways to wring water from miles of sand. And just as difficult, they found ways to tame the Galilee's veritable mosquito-infested valley into what would eventually become the heartland to a booming agricultural market.

And yes, it has dealt with crippling drought -- the kind of water loss that comes from a population growing too quickly without consideration for the changing temperament of Mother Nature. In the 1980s and 1990s Israeli politicians and celebrities went on air to appeal to residents to support water restrictions and more prudent use. The alternative was much like what California is facing now: trucking in water from other areas and staring down a future without a dependable local water source.

That marketing strategy is credited with helping to turn around Israel's drought. But the country also stepped up measures that it had started as far back as the 1950s when Prime Minister Ben Gurion implemented water recycling methods. Those reclamation strategies of the mid-20th century later led to desalination plants, which were already in their nascent stages in the 1970s when I traveled to Israel.

But according to the Jewish National Fund, which supports many agricultural endeavors in Israel through the donations it raises abroad, nationalized water desalination plants and other government initiatives aren't the real reason that Israel is, even today, at the forefront of drought-resistant agriculture. It's the thinking that goes into the industry that has made the difference. Drip irrigation, created in Israel and now used throughout North America; digital monitoring systems that allow farmers to remotely regulate the irrigation of water-sensitive crops or soil moisture during hot periods; and technology that can find the minutest of leaks in water pipes are all hallmarks of a strategy directed at zero-tolerance of loss. So is the choice of plants and the research that has gone into determining the best options for success in a region that can receive rain only once or twice a year, and sometimes not even that.

And water isn't the only natural resource that is considered essential to Israel's success as a sustainable country. More than 85 percent of the wastewater produced in Israel is treated and reused. That success is in comparison to Spain (19 percent) and the U.S. (1 percent). Companies like Aquanos contribute to the endeavor by converting the leftover waste to energy sources.

But what seems to underscore Israel's success in this difficult climate-impacted arena is that it isn't the technology it has at its disposal, or the government controls it imposes, that make the difference. It isn't even the shock-value that can  be harnessed from a gorgeous celebrity imitating the appearance of a brutally dying landscape on the the TV screen.

It's attitude.

"How did we beat the water shortage? Because we said we would. We decided we would," Alexander Kushnir, the head of Israel's Water Authority, told Times of Israel editor and founder David Horovitz.

It's a kind of chutzpah, or moxie, that the small Jewish state is known for. And it's the kind of thinking that California pioneers, armed with little more than their horses and wagons, were known for as they patiently developed a land pocketed by desert into an agricultural paradise during the 19th and 20th centuries.

And it's that sixth-sense intuition that comes from living in one of the world's driest climates, where technological ingenuity defines success.

"In our region, you always have to save water,” Kushnir notes matter-of-factly.

And apparently, it's the willingness to share that technology with others. During the interview, he confirmed that he regularly meets with the Palestinian Authority to discuss techniques, and they ship water to both the PA and to Jordan for their populations' use. It's a regional concern and apparently a global one as well.

But will Israel's desert-crafted skills help California out of its drought? Some have already expressed doubt.

Israel "is about the size of New Jersey," opined Cohen (no first name given), a forester from the University of California, Los Angeles. Desalination plants wouldn't work for California's parched Central Valley region, he said, since it would require carrying water long distances over difficult terrain. And water regulation for an entire state would be a political nightmare. Plus, "in California you can't just build a plant."

But maybe the real issue is that California hasn't yet reached the point where the state of Israel was 20 years ago when the country's agricultural losses were threatening its very existence. Maybe Kushnir's point about need and survival becoming the driver to change indicates that we haven't yet reached that paradox in North America yet.

The good thing is that when we have, there's now technology and knowledge out there to help. Fixing California's water problem won't be easy to overcome, but having friends in knowledgeable places can't hurt.

Images credits: 1) The green Galilee - Israel Tourism 2) Man-made inland fish lake - State of Israel 3) Cowshed - State of Israel

Jan Lee headshotJan 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.

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