Monday, September 14, 2015

Bringing Water to the Promised Land

Seth M. Siegel, Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World

“I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
   and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
   and the parched ground into springs.”
—Isaiah 41:18
As 2015 winds down, and we look backward on history’s hottest recorded summer ever, perhaps it’s time to consider the future. As entrepreneur and philanthropist Seth Siegel writes, changing rain patterns severely threaten human populations. The California drought offers a foretaste of impending crop failures, urban stresses, and ecological catastrophe. Siegel directs our attention to the one nation with a long history of forward-thinking water policies: Israel.

The state of Israel has pioneered important advances in how to use and improve our water consumption since before the state existed. They've developed ways of moving water from where it exists to where the people need it, allowing high-yield agriculture in regions traditionally arid, even in historic deserts. They’ve improved water use techniques, increasing farm yields with less water, while cities consume less, leaving farmers and wildernesses more.

Siegel provides an intriguing mix of history and science, describing not only what advances Israel has made in water management, but also why it made particular advances. He describes the unique political, economic, and geographic pressures shaping Israeli water policy. The mix of intense regional water close to lifeless desert was, recently, almost unique to Israel. But as Siegel notes, if environmental trends continue, similar conditions may soon exist globally.

First, Israeli culture doesn’t disparage water. Children never sing “Rain, rain, go away.” Israel nationalizes water access, making all water everywhere a common good. While American libertarians campaign to repeal laws against rainwater collection, Israel maintains a strict enforcement policy: rain barrels aren’t a right. Hoarding or misusing water isn’t abstract moral wrong; Israel considers water abuse theft from the people, and prosecutes water hogs accordingly.

Because water is scarce and distributed unequally by nature, sharing and distributing water has the same aura of civic responsibility in America that we get from, say, joining the military. Responsible water use isn’t some mere principle; it’s a foundation of common civic government. By basing much public philosophy on communal responsibility to water, Israel’s government might superficially resemble American conservatism; but it expresses very different impulses in actual policy.

Israel's National Water Carrier, a triumph of modern civic engineering

But Israel couples this nationalizing with incentives for more egalitarian, democratic water management techniques. According to Siegel, much municipal water in Europe and America gets lost to leakage, but Israel has created technologies designed specifically to curtail leaks and limit mechanical waste. Especially since home leaks often aren’t noticeable until they’ve created significant structural damage, the shift to preventative identification has both public and private benefits.

Israeli engineers, working through public-private partnerships, have invented more intense, ecologically specific irrigation technologies: Siegel extols drip irrigation, invented in Israel and now more commonly being adopted in other nations and continents. Israeli agronomists have created new plant variants that put more growth into edible fruits and flesh, less into inedible stems and foliage. This boosts agricultural yield from limited water applications, costing less in transpiration and wastage.

Israel’s National Water Carrier, which moves water from the moister north to the arid south with minimal evaporation, rivals the Interstate Highway System as a marvel of public-spirited engineering. Israel has found ways to recycle urban wastewater into clean, fresh irrigation, and connect water where it is with soil where water’s needed. Siegel describes the public commitment to water in ways familiar to Americans praising George Washington every July 4th.

This book describes technologies, social movements, and other important forces in language accessible to non-specialist readers. He describes very intricate advances in aquifer management, farming, and sewage removal, without bogging down in terminology. Siegel’s storytelling resembles a novel: much like Leon Uris, he makes Israeli history moving and alive. He’s just discussing water, and water policy, rather than war.

Siegel delves into the history of Israel’s water consumption style. It didn’t just intend to create better water usage; many of its techniques were invented to facilitate land grabs in places like the Negev before Partition in 1948. Some readers might find the political opportunism distasteful, and the implications for Palestinians who farm in more time-honored ways has harsh undertones, but Siegel spotlights the advances themselves, not transnational politics.

Informed readers realize water management issues aren’t one nation’s problem anymore. Droughts in California and floods in Texas signal new times for handling clean, drinkable water. Siegel’s descriptions of Israeli advances give world peoples hope that, as climate changes, human ingenuity can manage these changes proactively.

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