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Water for a Thirsty, And Hungry, World

How Israel overcame its national water crisis through leading-edge technologies, innovative farming practices and everyday conservation. If they can do it, can we?

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole and Richard Banks

That’s no mirage. Here in Israel’s Arava Valley, nestled in a dry riverbed, are these lush, shade-giving date trees. It’s plantations like this and its neighboring greenhouses that make the region—among the driest places on the planet—one of Israel’s most agriculturally productive, generating some 60% of the country’s farm exports.

That’s no mirage. Here in Israel’s Arava Valley, nestled in a dry riverbed, are these lush, shade-giving date trees. It’s plantations like this and its neighboring greenhouses that make the region—among the driest places on the planet—one of Israel’s most agriculturally productive, generating some 60% of the country’s farm exports.

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

“I remember myself as a boy of 15 or 16,” says Ami Brochin, a farmer in Israel’s northern Negev desert. “We could plant only wheat because that was the only thing you could grow here with the rainfall.

“With what God gives you, is what you have,” he says through a translator. “We would pray for rain so we would have something to cut at the end of the season.”

Even in a good year, annual precipitation in the northern Negev averages from 100 to 200 millimeters (approximately 4 to 8 inches). Making matters more difficult, rain usually comes in winter only, and groundwater is often brackish and less than ideal for farming or most other uses.

Citizens of a certain age remember a feeling of hopelessness that would almost overwhelm them at times. Wars were fought over water, and the very survival of Israel and its neighbors was threatened by the lack thereof.

So, to make up for the climate’s shortcomings, the Israelis began an ambitious national effort to develop new ways of farming and managing water, including an enormous public works campaign. A new network of reservoirs was built, as were desalination and wastewater treatment plants, and the public was educated on how to use less of the precious resource.

After a few decades, recalls Brochin and others we interviewed for this series, despair turned to hope and eventually a sense of accomplishment. “I remember … after years of struggle, suddenly we could grow other things,” says Brochin, who is also a leader in a local farmers union involved in building a new regional wastewater treatment system. “There was water. We got better-quality water and suddenly everything was green—green, green, green around me. People were growing lemon trees, orange trees, potatoes, peanuts … carrots, tomatoes.

“Suddenly, the Negev—the desert—was green all year long.”

Why Cover Israel in FarmLife?

Farmer and farmers union leader Ami Brochin shows a map of the Be’er Sheva-area wastewater treatment network. It was constructed with a combination of government and private funds, including Moshavei HaNegev, the regional water and agriculture association that manages some 34,600 acres of farmland.

Farmer and farmers union leader Ami Brochin shows a map of the Be’er Sheva-area wastewater treatment network. It was constructed with a combination of government and private funds, including Moshavei HaNegev, the regional water and agriculture association that manages some 34,600 acres of farmland.

Israel’s water shortage had reached the level of existential crisis. The country is not only 60% desert, but also home to some of the driest places on earth, has a rapidly growing population and has suffered more frequent droughts in recent years. Making the situation even more dire, the country, for many of its Jewish residents, is the last refuge after a 20th century that was brutal beyond compare.

Yet, through innovations, conservation and even more perseverance, the Israelis largely overcame their struggles with water shortages. It was for this reason FarmLife decided to pay the country a visit, interviewing numerous farmers, water system officials, government leaders and others. We discovered a range of newly developed or improved technologies and practices, some complex, others remarkably simple. They are solutions that we begin to detail and share here. Additional stories can be found at the “Water for a Thirsty, and Hungry, World” web series and will appear in the winter 2016 issue of this magazine.

Granted, compared to Israel, the U.S. and Canada face many different challenges in managing water. To begin with, there’s geography. Israel is only slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. Canada and the States are immense by comparison, and in many areas of these two countries, water must travel great distances to get from the source to end users, across distances where population density is low.

Take, for instance, just the state of California. According to Jay Lund, a professor and researcher in the University of California Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Golden State is “quite a bit different from Israel. We have a much larger population, much larger and more diverse economy. And we have a lot of the native ecosystems that Israel doesn’t have so much anymore, and so when we’re trying to manage water particularly during a drought, I think things are a little more complex.”

Sitting on what was once the bottom of a pond near Hanford, California, a boat suffers from a sort of dry rot-induced atrophy.

Sitting on what was once the bottom of a pond near Hanford, California, a boat suffers from a sort of dry rot-induced atrophy.

Also, as much as 90% of Israel’s water is supplied and managed by Mekorot, a wholly-owned government company. Compare that to the U.S. and Canada, where water is typically managed by a patchwork of municipal, state and provincial governments, as well as national agencies.

Then, too, farming in Israel differs from that in North America. In Israel, much of the country’s produce and livestock is raised on relatively smaller farms and in greenhouses. While row crops are grown, commodities represent less than 10% of the country’s output.

As an official with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture explained, “We cannot teach America how to grow corn.”

And, one final note before we dive in: Israel’s past and present is complicated, especially geopolitically. Settlements, walls, wars, security, not to mention religion and more, make for controversy. In these stories, our focus is water, the management of it, farming with it and how the country has largely overcome its shortages. It’s a remarkable tale of dedication, and, even with the comparative differences between our countries, offers lessons we can apply here in North America broadly, as well as on individual farms.

The Well May Run Dry, But Hope Springs Eternal

Still, we can learn much from Israel’s accomplishments managing its water. While in Israel, we not only spoke with numerous individuals, but also visited many R&D facilities, water-treatment plants and farms. It was, if you’ll excuse the pun, like drinking water from a fire hose. We gleaned much from our hosts. So much that it won’t all fit in a single issue of FarmLife; hence, this web series, which includes several stories and videos.

But before we move on, we’d like to highlight one overarching lesson relearned from covering this topic: Necessity may be the mother of invention, but hope is a critical ingredient, too.

If we humans can keep that optimism burning bright, we can see our way to solve what seem to be the most intractable of problems. The Israelis certainly don’t have all the answers, but their persistence can be an inspiration to the rest of us as we look for our own solutions.

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

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