Water Shall Flow from Jerusalem

Consequences are curious things. When the British military in the Middle East during World War II started sourcing supplies from local manufacturers, it didn’t know it was giving a leg up to the firm that would become the Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva. And when the British government, in the 1930 Hope Simpson Report and many others, pointed to water scarcity in Palestine to justify capping Jewish immigration, it couldn’t have foreseen that its diagnosis would be a driving force for making a land of deserts into a water-secure nation. Farther still from the imaginations of Sir John Hope Simpson and other British “experts” would be a future in which the Jewish nation they tried to stifle would be the world leader in literally life-saving water resource solutions.

In fact, Seth Siegel argues in Let There Be Water, the same May 1939 White Paper that virtually closed the doors of Palestine to the Jews had the unanticipated effect of compelling “new thinking by the Zionists about how to manage the nation’s water for the broadest benefit” which resulted almost exactly 25 years later in the completion of the National Water Carrier, an 81-mile system of giant pipes, open canals, tunnels, reservoirs, and pumping stations, that carries water from the Sea of Galilee to the arid south of the country. The White Paper rested on the back of the 1930 Hope Simpson Report, which is replete with findings on the existing and potential water resources of Mandate Palestine:

As a general rule irrigation water is wasted. This is very obvious in the irrigated areas of the Jordan Valley, the Beisan area, the Wadi Fara’a and the Jericho area. In each of these areas it is probable that scientific management of the irrigation would save enough water to double the irrigable area from the existing supply.

It is not hard to draw a line between that report’s observation and the oft-repeated imperative, found on posters in classrooms and signs across Israel, to “not waste a drop.” Nor is it a leap to see how focused thinking on agriculture’s huge consumption of water has led Israel to become the global leader in both drip irrigation and plant breeding, among a host of water resource management strategies. With or without British interference, the Jews of Palestine were going to have to discover a way to find more water and make the most of it if the Yishuv was going to support a growing population.

Excavation crews reach out to each other after tunneling through the rock as part of the National Water Carrier, 1960s, which carried billions of gallons of water to the Negev. (Courtesy of Daniel Rosenblum/Mekorot.)
Excavation crews reach out to each other after tunneling through the rock as part of the National Water Carrier, 1960s, which carried billions of gallons of water to the Negev. (Courtesy of Daniel Rosenblum/Mekorot.)

Jumping along the timeline with which Siegel prefaces his book, key milestones in this story emerge: the Zionist plan for “integrated water resource planning and management” of July 1939, the Yarkon-Negev Pipeline opening in July 1955, the National Water Carrier opening in 1964, the advent of drip irrigation in 1966, the Shafdan wastewater treatment plant coming online in 1969, massive desalinization plants built beginning in 2005. Omitted by necessity are thousands of less dramatic technological and policy achievements that enabled Israel to declare “water independence from weather” in October 2013.

Let There Be Water appears as the ongoing drought across California and the western United States slows crop production and fuels forest fires. People and governments are thinking creatively about water and taking steps toward using it conservatively, just as Israelis have been doing for decades. It’s no accident that the last item on Siegel’s timeline is a March 2014 agreement on “water cooperation” between Israel and California, an event that merited a signing ceremony involving Governor Jerry Brown and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

To illustrate the scope of what he means by a “water-starved world,” Siegel quotes a partially declassified report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicting that within 10 years “countries important to the US and to global security will be at risk of ‘state failure’ . . . ‘The ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy,’” or more precisely their inability, it goes on to say, will soon be “‘posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.’”

Siegel paints a devastating picture of conditions in the United States: The High Plains Aquifer that provides water to eight Great Plains states that grow essential crops such as corn and wheat has been so over-utilized that “parts of it have already gone dry,” while low water levels in Lake Mead, at the border of Nevada and Arizona, could soon interrupt the production of hydroelectric power currently flowing to the Southwest.


In the years since the U.N. Mandate ended, Israel’s population has grown more than tenfold. That growing population went from relative poverty to a mostly middle-class lifestyle—a change that means greater water use per person. Since 1948, its yearly rainfall has declined by more than 50 percent. Despite all that, Israel currently exports water to Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan, along with billions of dollars’ worth of water-thirsty fruits and vegetables to America, the European Union, and elsewhere.

The foundation of this achievement is in having developed what Siegel calls a “water-respecting” culture. He describes how even well-to-do families can be seen scooping bath water out of the tub to water backyard plants and how hygiene classes teach students to use the least amount of water when showering and brushing their teeth. All water has been metered since 1955. With the advent of electronic metering and monitoring technology, Israel’s water authorities can detect leaks, often before the user is aware of them. Where London loses 30 percent of the water that goes into its municipal system to leaks and Chicago loses 25 percent, the Israelis have driven municipal water losses down to less than 11 percent—even taking into account cities like Jerusalem, where parts of the infrastructure date back to the Ottomans—and have set a new goal of seven percent. Perhaps even more important is the way in which water rights are construed: All “water ownership and usage is controlled by the government acting in the interest of the people as a whole.”

It is to Siegel’s credit that the section of the book devoted to Israel’s treatment and reuse of 85 percent of its sewage for everything but drinking and bathing is as engaging as any other part of the book, if not more so. (The country’s closest competitor in this area is Spain, with a 25 percent reuse rate. The United States lags behind at a paltry 10 percent.) In telling the story of how Israel turned waste into an asset, he captures the country’s astonishing economic and technological drive. Sometimes this almost has the flavor of one of those late-night Ginsu knife commercials (“But wait! There’s more!”). On occasion, this crosses—or at least flirts with—the line between policy and public relations, and, as it turns out, the Jewish National Fund (which has paid for large parts of Israel’s water reclamation infrastructure) has embraced the book as a marketing tool. But none of this undermines the story Siegel has to tell, which is genuinely extraordinary.

Siegel sets out, and largely succeeds, at placing Israel’s water resource efforts in the same narrative arc that has long framed the country’s military and political successes, making them part of the challenges that, in the course of being overcome, both defined the national character and unified the country. Although this may seem a stretch to the American reader, his argument is not forced. The five-shekel bill depicts the National Water Carrier as a pipeline carrying water from the hilly north to the desert of the south, and postage stamps are issued to mark water-related milestones.

Nor are dramatic feats limited to elite military units. Siegel recounts how in 1946 the Zionists “pulled off one the most daring episodes of its cat-and-mouse struggle with the British over their continuing restrictions on immigration and settlement building.” While the British by then barred Jews from building new settlements, the Zionists found a “loophole,” an outdated but still-in-effect Ottoman regulation that blocked the demolition of any roofed structure as long as it wasn’t a “safety hazard.” As Yom Kippur came to a close, 11 convoys spread out across the northern Negev carrying building supplies. When the sun came up the next morning, the British found 11 new Jewish farms, each with at least one structure topped by a roof. To make them into real working farms, they needed water. Siegel clearly delights in the irony of how Simcha Blass, the hydroengineer tasked with making sure each of the farms had water, overcame post-war scarcity to achieve this goal. Blass bought up all of the pipes used in wartime London to fight fires caused by German bombs: “The discarded British pipes first used to frustrate Hitler’s efforts to terrorize the people of London now served to undermine British efforts to stymie Jewish settlement construction.”


1939, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist named Walter Clay Lowdermilk visited Palestine and found the Yishuv’s agricultural restoration “remarkable.” His best-selling 1944 book Palestine, Land of Promise went through 11 printings and was found open on President Roosevelt’s desk after his death. Lowdermilk predicted that the Jews’ work could “serve as the example, the demonstration, the lever.” While Lowdermilk’s vision was confined to the Middle East, current events show that work is impacting countries as far apart as the United States, Uganda, and China.

Israel is a world leader in breeding and engineering plants that save on water and are adapted to local conditions. Siegel gives the example of short-stalked wheat originally developed for growing in

Drip irrigation, developed in 1959, results in the need for far less water. (Courtesy of Netafim.)
Drip irrigation, developed in 1959, results in the need for far less water. (Courtesy of Netafim.)Israel. “The stalk adds nothing to the wheat, so why waste water growing it?” observes Dr. Shoshan Haran. The NGO she heads, Fair Planet, puts that kind of thinking to work developing seeds that meet the unique needs of African farmers. Other Israeli researchers have focused on developing fruits and vegetables that grow using brackish, or mildly salty, water, expanding the amount of water available to farmers.

One of the early heroes of this part of Israel’s water story is none other than Simcha Blass, of the London pipe coup. Semi-retired, Blass began to muse about something he had observed on a visit to a farm two decades earlier. What he had noticed had been “an anomaly in a row of trees planted along a fence; one was much taller than the others.” How was this to be explained?

Walking around the tree, Blass found a tiny leak in a metal irrigation pipe near the base. He suspected that these small, but steady, drops of water were going to the tree’s roots and were the likely cause of its superior growth.

Blass didn’t act on this insight until 1959, when he began to perform experiments that eventually confirmed the feasibility and enormous utility of drip irrigation. Delivering precise amounts of water right where a plant needs it (along with fertilizer) can save between 50 and 60 percent of the water utilized in flood or sprinkler irrigation. And fields watered with drip irrigation deliver more crops despite using less water. Partnering with kibbutzim that were diversifying into manufacturing (including one of the settlements which he helped to place on a sound footing in 1946), Blass helped create the drip irrigation equipment company Netafim, which currently has about $800 million in sales per year. India alone now drip-irrigates more than five million acres of farmland.

The final section of Let There Be Water focuses on the way Israel’s water know-how could benefit the rest of the world while reshaping its relationship with it. While Siegel has shown that Israel has solved its own problems through a combination of hard-headed policy, entrepreneurship, and technological innovation, it is less clear that the same package will work elsewhere, or even if it does, whether it will change Israel’s diplomatic standing in the world.

Americans, for instance, are unlikely to accept centralized government control over water, even if it means water revenues are actually used to fund infrastructure upgrades and expansion. Nor is there likely to be the political will to make the change Israel did in 2008, when everyone—individuals, farmers, and companies—began to be charged the actual cost of the water they used. Household water prices went up by 40 percent, and consumers responded by cutting usage by about 16 percent. Perhaps revealingly, an Israeli company’s efforts to build a desalinization plant in Carlsbad, California, along the lines of those that create nearly 500 million gallons of freshwater from saltwater each day in Israel, have been slowed by bureaucratic red tape for almost a decade, though the plant is expected to go online shortly.

On the other hand, Israel’s worldwide reach does make it harder for supporters of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to cut ties between Israel and the rest of the world. Major agricultural firms like Monsanto and Syngenta have R&D centers and joint ventures in Israel, and Israeli water technology is used in 150 food and beverage companies, from Chobani yogurt to Coca-Cola and Corona (just to name those beginning with “C”).

Meanwhile, Siegel reports that since 2008 “the PA has chosen to use water as one key area of noncooperation with Israel.” Training for Palestinians in water technology that had gone on for years came to an end in Israel in 2010, although it continues in a limited way in Oman, Jordan. And while China uses Israeli water technology, creating an opening that led to full diplomatic ties in 1992, it does not seem to have changed its posture at the United Nations. In fact, when I took a look at 20 recent anti-Israel votes at the United Nations, I found that none of the major beneficiaries of Israel’s water expertise, including India and Uganda (whose prime minister penned an enthusiastic blurb for the book’s back cover), voted in favor of Israel.

During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ceremonial visit to California, he told Governor Brown and those assembled, “We don’t have a water problem . . . and California doesn’t need to have a water problem.” Readers of Seth Siegel’s fine book will likely be convinced that, at least in principle, this is true. Whether Israel’s water solutions can also act as “the example, the demonstration, the lever” that change Israel’s position in world politics is a larger question.


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