In 1952, the newly formed country of Israel faced a number of critical issues: The country had no money and was accepting new immigrants at a rate that was doubling its size.
The government — with main priorities of security, immigration and water — made the unlikely decision to spend what would end up being billions of dollars building a water system that would transport treated sewage to agriculture and other uses. The program took 30 years to complete.
It’s only one example outlined in Seth Siegel’s book “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World,” of the far-thinking approaches that took Israel from a desert country to one that exports water and agriculture. The country reuses 86 percent of the treated sewer water for agriculture, environmental needs and other uses — compared with the 2 percent to 7 percent of reuse in the United States, Siegel said.
In an interview Wednesday before speaking to a crowd at Congregation B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge, Siegel explained how he came to write the book and why the lessons Israel learned can help find solutions to a looming water crisis around the world.
Expecting to sell maybe a 1,000 books, the title became a New York Times and Los Angeles Times best-seller, indicating that water, or the lack of it, is something people care about.
“People really want common-sense solutions to problems,” he said.
The global water crisis came to Siegel’s attention when he was doing foreign policy work and the topic came up in a seminar he was attending. After doing some research, he said he was surprised at how little attention the problem was getting even as countries around the world try to handle drought and water shortages. While searching for solutions, he learned how Israel tackled the issue through long-term planning, a culture of water awareness and innovation.
“What was it about Israel to give them courage to push forward with this existential choice (of water innovations)?” Siegel asked. “Why did they do it then, when no one else is doing it?”
The roots come from a variety of sources, including the culture of religion and community that prioritized water as important for the survival of the country.
“The idea is ‘We’ll sacrifice for each other to have a better water future for our community,’ ” Siegel said, adding that Israel’s government was run by people who worked in the water sector and farmers who understood the importance of the resource.
“These people, in their diaries, talked about water all the time,” he said. “Once that culture is formed, everything is formed from it.”
That awareness led to many innovations, such as water desalination plants, the reuse of sewage water, and drip irrigation to reduce waste and fertilizer runoff.
In the United States, 70 percent of fresh water goes to agriculture, where fertilizer is spread over large areas, washed into streams and helps cause algae blooms, including the annual “dead zone” of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Why are we flood irrigating?” Siegel asked about the United States. “Why are we allowing that?”
Changes can be made, he said, as California showed during its drought, where 38 percent of the farmland turned to drip irrigation, a far cry from Israel where 75 percent to 80 percent of the country’s agriculture relies on drip irrigation.
He said 62 percent of Israel’s water is produced either through desalination, deep wells that brings up brackish water or through the recycling of water. Without these innovations, Israel would have to rely on 38 percent of its water resource.
The world is facing similar challenges as populations grow along with their demand for water. At the same time climate change alters rainfall patterns, industrialization pollutes some freshwater sources, reducing the supply of usable water.
Israel also has been able to help neighboring countries manage their water and, at times, provide those neighbors with excess water.
“I call it hydro-diplomacy,” Siegel said.
In the United States, any change in water use and conservation is going to have to come from residents calling for change and demanding that there be a plan for the country’s water resources, Siegel said.
“Great changes in environmental movements never come from the top. It always comes from grass-roots,” he said. “It’s all going to start by a group of citizens saying, ‘This is unacceptable.’ ”
Editor’s note: The article was changed on April 14, 2016 to correct the percentage of Israel’s farmland that relies on drip irrigation.