Solving the Water Crisis

Solving The Water Crisis: Israel leads the way
by Sarah Hilzinger

Israel is quickly establishing a reputation as a global leader in technologies that promote environmental sustainability. But this is not a new realm of technological development in Israel. Although many Israeli technologies are only now gaining global, mainstream attention, Israel has been involved in innovative practices in the realm of natural resource management for decades.

As leaders around the world are faced with growing populations and a diminishing supply of natural resources, there has been a push both in private and public entities to find more sustainable means of using natural resources. In the past 10 years, the renewable energy industry has become a mainstream area of investment. As the shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy has strengthened, many private organizations have begun to capitalize on technologies such as wind and solar power.

But today, leaders are beginning to face a different problem. A basic resource that many had not previously perceived as in short supply is becoming of global importance: water. Limited water is a problem that not only affects daily water use, but a lack of water for crop irrigation in the face of a growing population can also undermine food security.

The tie between food security and water availability is not a new concept to arid nations, but what is notable is how even countries that have ample water supply have begun to allocate resources for the development of techniques and strategies to conserve water. Changes in the global climate mean changes in rainfall and groundwater availability, even in these water-abundant nations. The recognition that water shortage could become a future issue in all regions has led to the emergence of a new market for water-management technologies.

Those who enter this market are realizing that it is not one with inexperienced entrepreneurs or largely experimental technologies. Israeli innovators dominate the space, and have been developing a wide array of water-management technologies since the 1950s. Their innovations include irrigation, desalinization, and grey-water recycling technologies. As a result, both leaders and investors around the globe have begun looking to Israel for opportunities and solutions.

The issue of water supply in Israel is of national importance. For every good year of rain, Israel faces seven years of drought on average. With limited resources and land, Israel’s water supply has been in danger of deteriorating in quality for years as the country has faced expanding urban areas, an increasing population, and industrial growth.

One of the earliest water-management technologies developed by Israel was drip irrigation. The technology was developed by Simcha Blass, a water engineer for Israel predating its establishment as a state, and a pivotal innovator in the realm of water management technologies beginning in the 1950s. Drip irrigation is a method that provides water to crops by releasing small droplets at regular intervals directly to plants. According to Dr. Elaine Solowey, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute, drip irrigation reduces water input from ditch irrigation at least 70 percent and reduces soil salinization at least 85 percent.

“Drip irrigation is a vital technology in Israel and around the globe because of the global shortage of fresh water for agriculture and drinking. Drip irrigation allows water to ‘go further’ in growing vital crops because so little is wasted.” says Solowey. “It also reduces salinization since farmers have to use brackish and saline water in many places, and drip irrigation allows less water to be applied, meaning less salts deposited.” Less salt transmitted to soil preserves soil quality ensuring the soil’s future fertility.

Since Blass’ conception of modern drip irrigation, various Israeli and foreign irrigation companies have further developed the technology, creating systems that operate on the same basic principles Blass devised but look very different, relying on a variety of different drippers, misters, water spikes, and pipettes depending on the crops being irrigated. This infrastructure is also now combined with water computers and clocks, making efficient crop irrigation precise and even automatic.

“Blass invented this system to allow people to farm dry and arid areas and because Israel and the Middle East are chronically short of water for farming and drinking. He did not regard it only as a way to settle the Negev, but also realized that the system could be used globally and useful in all arid areas,” says Solowey.

Drip irrigation has indeed become a universal tool for efficient water input in agriculture, spreading from Israel to both developed and developing nations. “The main spreading was done by the irrigation companies,” said Eli Gertler, an Israeli engineer who has been working on irrigation projects in Africa since the 1980s. “Over the years they have done hundreds of seminars and officials. In addition, government through seminars and demonstration farms in many undeveloped countries.”

Just as drip irrigation has spread throughout the world, there is a wide array of other environmentally sustainable Israeli technologies that are beginning to attract foreign investment and adoption. But as these technologies gain more mainstream attention, this does not necessarily signal that the concept or the technology is new. Israel has been leading the world in environmentally sustainable technologies far before there was a global market for these technologies.

And as foreign innovators increasingly enter this space, they will find they will have to contend with a powerful set of Israeli innovators and technologies.

Sarah Hilzinger is a writer and researcher based in New York who is passionate about the role of sustainable agriculture in international development.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.