Introduction to Israeli Water management

The modern states of the People’s Republic of China and Israel both started as poor desert nations. Both began as agrarian societies and both lacked sufficient water resources. Over the years they developed to become among the world’s leading industrial-technological societies with china harnessing its massive human resources and Israel tapping into the out-of-the-box innovative thinking of the Jewish people. China became a manufacturing powerhouse. Israel came to be a leader in high tech in a wide range of fields, most especially in the area of water.

Worldwide, some 700 million people don’t have access to enough clean water. In 10 years the number is expected to explode to 1.8 billion. In 2011 an American serial entrepreneur, Seth Siegel, who founded and sold a number of companies began studying the growing global water problem. He set out to look for the answers that are now explained in his new book, Let There Be Water. Mr. Siegel sought models that might solve the world’s water issues.

In case after case, he found Israel to offer the most comprehensive example for efficient and effective conservation, recycling, production and use of water. He looked at water in a holistic fashion and saw that Israel offered a mode for all countries, rich or poor, large or small, meaning the breadth of water solutions include ways to provide fresh clean drinking water and water for irrigation with low cost methods as well as with cutting edge industrial technology. The solutions scale cost effectively making them valuable for populations of all sizes.

Ultimately, Israel’s water experience is a case study in conservation, innovation and cooperation. But this success story suffered failures as well. Over the years since the founding of the Jewish State, water regulations became divisive with different ministries setting varying regulations and inconsistent pricing. This unwieldy situation became critical in 2000. Years followed with water resources becoming ever-more scarce as 100% of Israel’s water needs were reliant on ground water and rain.

In 2006, the Israeli parliament amended the country’s 1959 water law in order to give exclusive power to the Israel Water Authority. Another important step taking by the Israeli government was to enlist the cooperation of the people of Israel. They did this by effectively explaining the dangers of the failure to conserve and innovate. A TV commercial campaign was initiated that conveyed to the people their crucial role in not wasting water. These commercials s featured well known personalities, beautiful actresses and models and showed their faces cracking like scorched earth from the lack of water. These images combined with an educational program in primary, middle and high schools about why we need to conserve water and how to do it. As drought threatened Israel, home owners gave up real grass and instead put synthetic grass in their gardens. They swapped their seasonal blooms for hardy, indigenous plants more suited to a semiarid climate. Water Authority representatives went house to house offering to fit free devices on shower heads and taps that inject air into the water stream, saving about a third of the water used while still giving the impression of a strong flow.

Across the country, Israelis were told to cut their shower time by two minutes. Washing cars with hoses was outlawed and those few wealthy enough to absorb the cost of maintaining a lawn were permitted to water it only at night so water would not be wasted through evaporation by the sun. Israel was in a situation where it was very, very close to someone opening a tap somewhere in the country and no water would come out. Children came home from school instructing their parents in turning off water during the process of washing dishes as opposed to running the water freely. They alerted their parents about dripping faucets and holes in garden watering systems. Within a relatively brief period of time, Israel’s population became aware of the need to conserve and willing to cooperate. Over the following few years, water consumption in Israel dropped 18%.

This allowed the Israel Water Authority to raise the price of water by 40%. The added revenues would be used for water infrastructure. The immediate effect to households is that the once green grass gardens were transformed in a variety of ways from synthetic grass to pebbled areas with potted plants. Many home owners preferred to conserve as well as save money.

Meanwhile the Water Authority worked with innovating technology companies in the private sector to create a range of solutions for water production and management such as digital meter reading by telemetry – no commonly used in the USA. Israel developed water conservation ideas for agriculture, always improving its drip technology, now used worldwide.

Importantly, Israel developed the extensive use of reclaimed sewage water – renewed waste water – for farming. Israel is the only country in the world where reuse of waste water is a national priority with 86% of waste water and 55% of grey water is recycled water! Second to Israel is Spain, reusing 16% of its waste water. By contrast the US currently recycles less than 1%. For drinking water, Israel developed and perfected desalinization with reverse osmosis. Indeed, just one of Israel’s desalinization plants produces 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. 

Desalinization provides over 25% of Israel’s total water needs. In the past 10 years Israel has opened 4 major desalinization facilities. Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city that overlooks the Red Sea obtains 100% of its water supply through desalinization. Technology companies provide innovative solutions for eradicating water leaks in underground pipes for city and county municipalities and using sand aquifer treatment to purify water among many other technologies.

Israel and Jordan cooperate bringing 14billion gallons of water each year to through shared rivers and Israel’s desalinization solutions. A new desalination facility built by Israel just outside Tel Aviv was completed in 2013 and is now coming on line in full capacity. The Sorek facility, the largest desalinization facility in the world, is expected to produce 40 billion gallons of water per year for use by Israel and possibly its neighbors.

Israel’s hydro-diplomacy creates a platform for successful relationships and partnerships throughout the world from such leading economies as China and the State of California, the 7th largest economy in the world. Israeli water solutions are also found in Sub-saharan Africa and Latin America. In 2015, in partnership with the city of Shouguang in Shandong Province, adjacent to the East China Sea’s Laizhou Bay, some 500 kms southeast of Beijing and 800 kms north of Shanghai, Israel established a Water City, featuring cutting edge technology to rehabilitate polluted aquifers, prevent waste water and provide clean, efficient water resources to that city. SIGNAL believes that Israel’s approach to bringing water solutions to the world can provide lessons in best practices for the Belt & Road both in the area of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in specific projects but also in identifying and customizing solutions through innovation. From China’s perspective, Israel’s decision to nationalize water has driven important innovation and also business opportunities. 

Israel started as a third world nation. Now we are the Start-up Nation impacting the world’s water production and conservation through new technologies leading to the globalization of water-related industries. The resulting technologies have allowed Israel to cultivate relations with scores of nations in a win-win framework, providing jobs, revenues and most importantly, wider access to fresh, clean water. 

What Mr. Siegel learned from his research around the world was that the real key to Israel’s water success is its social mindset in creating a comprehensive water management program. Israel’s water system is run by the national government, with private companies as part of the system. For example, a desalination plant in central Israel city of Hadera was built and is operated by IDE Technologies, a private company, under contract with the government. And the Israeli government guarantees water purchases. Contrast this to the USA where there is no central management – not at the national level and not even at the State level.

Although Israel shifted from a socialist to a capitalist centered economy and the Jewish State is now a capitalist democracy, Israel applied win-win socialist philosophy to its water system. Perhaps this could serve as a model for Belt & Road programs and projects.