How Israel became a water superpower
Seth M. Siegel, author of ‘Let There Be Water,’ hopes Israel’s world-class water practices create a ripple effect of peace
When Seth M. Siegel, author of “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” began his book tour, he expected to get a lot of questions about Israel and the Palestinians. He didn’t even rule out the possibility that pro-Palestinian activists, angered by the book’s message that Israel is a world leader in water management and conservation, would demonstrate at his lectures.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, “I have been dumbstruck by the response.”
Siegel has been traveling around the United States speaking on university campuses, to Jewish groups, to policy groups, at the UN and to groups of business executives and water engineers. He estimates the number of interviews and lectures he has given since the book was published in September to be at least a hundred, and he is still touring, with dates being scheduled to next October. In addition, the book has appeared on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times’ bestseller lists.
“People are excited by the message of the book — that there is a solution for the coming global water crisis — and they come up to me afterward, I don’t mean one or two, but significant numbers of people. They tell me they want to come visit Israel and learn from Israel.”
What they want to learn, explains Siegel, is how a country that is 60 percent desert and whose population increased tenfold since 1948 not only has enough water for itself, but in fact has a surplus and even exports water to its neighbors. In the 1930s British economists predicted that all of Palestine — including today’s Gaza, Israel and the West Bank, had enough water to sustain 2 million people. Today, the area is home to more than 12 million people, a feat that Siegel attributes in large part to Israel’s first-class water planning and management.
“In addition,” Siegel writes, “Israel provides large amounts of water from its own supplies to both the Palestinians and the Kingdom of Jordan and even exports billions of dollars each year of peppers, tomatoes, melons and other water-intensive produce.”
“That the British economists were wrong,” he sums up, “goes without saying.”
How did Israel do this? Even before the establishment of the state, leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol realized that Zionism would only succeed if there were enough water to fill the needs of masses of immigrants and expand the economy. Over the years, Israel has implemented centralized water planning andreal pricing, appointed regulators, educated citizens to conserve water, desalinated sea water, used drip irrigation and treated nearly all of its sewage, recycling it for crops.
The result, Siegel tells The Times of Israel, is that while Israel has many problems, “in this one narrow area it’s a world leader.” Frequently faced with incredulity from Israelis who think this sounds too good to be true, he adds, “some Israelis won’t take yes for an answer. Israel celebrates its army and immigrant absorption process. It should add to that a celebration of its water.”
From Startup Nation to Water Nation?
Siegel maintains that Israel’s water accomplishment is more unique and more deeply part of what it means to be Israeli than its identity as a high-tech powerhouse.
Indeed, one could argue that the ancient nation of Israel was forged out of water insecurity. In Deuteronomy 11:10-12, God helpfully explains that there is no big river in the land of Israel for the nation to irrigate its crops, and instead it will have to rely on rainfall.
“For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.”
Indeed, this water insecurity preoccupied rabbis throughout the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and they developed a detailed body of water law that specified ownership of wells, rules governing public water pipes, canals and reservoirs, the rights of travelers to waterholes, a ban on pollution of water sources and detailed rules for keeping sewage away from drinking water.
Siegel points out that Zionist settlers were overwhelmingly secular but arrived with a familiarity with the Bible and Jewish tradition. This no doubt contributed to their obsession with water security.
Siegel, 61, is the grandchild of Jewish immigrants to the United States, “none of whom were economically successful.” His parents made a “decent, but hard, living.” But Siegel got a break when he was accepted to Cornell University and later received a law degree there. He started a branding and trademark licensing business, which turned out to be phenomenally successful and counted Coca-Cola and celebrities like Paris Hilton among his clients. Siegel has also produced Broadway shows, including a revival of “Man of La Mancha.” Since selling his company more than a decade ago, he has been involved in community service and outreach, including serving on the board of AIPAC.
The idea for this book came about when Siegel attended a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. He heard a US government official tell members that the world was about to enter a period of prolonged water shortage.
“I came away with a feeling of, ‘My God, why don’t I know any of this?’ I asked senators and congressmen who were my friends — and they didn’t know about it either.”
Siegel began to educate himself on the subject of water, quickly realizing that Israel, his other passion, was an outlier in water management. He interviewed over 220 people — mostly in some aspect of Israel’s water sector but also heads of NGOs, Palestinians and others — to understand the story.
“Israel overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. No other country with a growing population, growing economy and falling level of rainfall has been able to achieve anything remotely like what Israel has done,” he says.
Dalia Tal, head of campaigns for Zalul, an environmental NGO in Israel, is somewhat less effusive.
“In terms of the dry facts, Israel is a leading water management country. We are a semi-arid country and we don’t have a water crisis like our neighbors. We have a high percentage of sewage purification, water reuse, and desalination. We have water security and the quality of our water is good.”
“But from an environmental point of view, most springs are appropriated for the use of agriculture and homes. Despite the fact that we have desalination and reuse of treated water, water doesn’t get returned to nature the way it should. I was at Nahal Betzet yesterday — it was as dry as a stream in the desert. There are giant plane trees there and not a drop of water.”
Another fear, says Tal, is that when the treated waste water is returned to the fields, it makes the earth saltier, and this can lower agricultural yields over time.
Israel exports $2.2 billion annually in water-related tech and know-how. Siegel quotes an industry source who predicts this amount will reach $10 billion in a few years.
Not only is this good business, but it has enabled Israel to overcome some of its diplomatic isolation. For decades, China’s communist regime refused to have contacts with Israel. But during the 1980s, the country realized it needed help combating massive water leaks and pollution. At first, Israeli water engineers were allowed into the country in secret. Then, China agreed to buy drip irrigation equipment and seeds from Israel but insisted that any “Made in Israel” labels be removed. In 1991, China invited Israel to send a renowned water expert to be resident in China and to train Chinese water people in best practices. A year later, the two countries established diplomatic relations.
Something similar happened in India, says Siegel, and water assistance also helped cement relations between Israel and Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution. In fact, according to Siegel, Israeli water technology is being used in over 150 countries, including some that have no formal ties with Israel.
In terms of the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority signed water treaties with Israel under Oslo II, which Israel not only continues to honor but to which over time, Israel has added more water provided to Palestinians beyond the treaty obligations. Even so, many still claim that Israel takes more than its fair share.
Siegel indicates that in June 1967 only about 10 percent of the West Bank was connected to modern plumbing while today about 96 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank have clean and safe water piped to their homes, even if, as he points out in the book, more volume and better water is needed.
He laments what he calls the PA’s “politicization” of water and its recent policy of not cooperating with Israel on water issues in an attempt to score political points.
In Gaza, controlled by Hamas, the water situation is much more dire, says Siegel. Gaza is only a few years away from a water crisis so severe that its people may have nothing to drink.
“Water problems are a proxy for bad governance,” he claims, and since its takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas has mismanaged the area’s water supply, allowing residents to dig too many wells, pollute their aquifer and dump untreated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea.
Arab affairs analyst Pinhas Inbari tells The Times of Israel he believes Palestinians in Gaza are already dying from the bacteria-laden brackish water but that Hamas would sooner let their people die than ask for help from Israel.
At some point, Inbari believes, Israel will have to step in, but he hopes that Israel will make such assistance contingent on Hamas dismantling its missile infrastructure.
“Water is a strategic issue,” says Inbari. “We can’t give them water while they continue to shoot us.”
Beating swords into water pipes
Siegel is confident that water can build bridges. The most moving interview in the book, he says, was with retired executive Moshe Gablinger of the TAHAL water engineering and construction firm, who initiated water projects in underdeveloped countries.
“It was an honor that we could help poor people and poor nations and improve the quality of their lives,” Gablinger says in Siegel’s book. “It was almost like a commandment from the Bible, this feeling we had of wanting to help people all over the world.”
Israel celebrates its army and immigrant absorption process. It should add to that a celebration of its water
Siegel says that sometimes, an angry pro-Israel questioner will get up at one of his lectures and ask why Israel doesn’t use water as a weapon.
“I say that Israel’s origins and heritage are to be light unto the nations. The desire is to do justice is part of Israel’s heritage. But pragmatically, Israel has seen time and again that its water smarts help open doors.”
Siegel acknowledges his background as an American-Jewish success story may have influenced his writing of the book, conceding, “I’m a big believer that hard work, ethical behavior and a value-added service will over time pay off.”
But “Let There Be Water,” which tells the story of many hardworking, resourceful Israeli water planners, is “also a purely Israeli and Zionist story,” he says.
“Look at these water engineers who went into careers not assuming anyone would know their names. Look at David Yogev, who transformed Israel with his vision of re-using treated sewage. Or Simcha Blass, who gave the world drip irrigation. Or Sidney Loeb, who reconceived desalination. In my book, the reader meets a lot of people like these, people mostly without big egos, people unfairly forgotten to history. Their credo was ‘I’m here to serve.’ And Israel, and now the world, are both better for their vision and sacrifice.”