‘Let there be water’
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ISRAEL AT 70

‘Let there be water’

Israel’s advanced technology may help provide solutions to world’s growing water crisis

Eshkol Water Reservoir at Bet Netofa Valley In The Galilee
Eshkol Water Reservoir at Bet Netofa Valley In The Galilee

When Seth Siegel published “Let There Be Water” in September 2015, two things were clear. First, a worldwide crisis over the ever-shrinking access to water was manifesting itself and would become only worse. Second, Israel, a country without many obvious sources of fresh water, had become a global fountainhead (sorry sorry sorry) of water technology.

(If the book sounds familiar, that might be because it was the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s 2017 One Book One Community choice.)

Now, Mr. Siegel, an entrepreneur whose success at business has allowed him to devote his time to philanthropy and to transform himself into a knowledgeable advocate for Israel, says that “the world is in a much more precarious situation today than it was in 2 1/2 years ago, because there is more water scarcity. That’s almost exactly on the timetable I wrote about. By 2025, you will be talking about millions and millions of people who are at risk of becoming water refugees,” leaving their parched homes in a desperate search for drinkable water, leaving political instability in their wake and spreading fear before them.

Seth Siegel

“And this is global,” Mr. Siegel said. “From Australia to Asia to South America, everyone now is dealing with severe water scarcity problems.” The problem is evident in California, he added, and a few weeks ago water scarcity issues in Capetown, South Africa, made headlines. And despite what we see in the headlines, which represent the government of Iran trying to cover up underlying issues, “there is broad-based civil disobedience over water. Water riots.

“This isn’t just one country. It’s all over the place. And authoritarian countries are having it the worst.

“All of these phenomena are really accelerating now,” Mr. Siegel continued. “There are about 80 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, and 600 million Indians.” If the problem were going to become severe in, say, 2050, “who really cares? That’s a very long time away. But 2025 is not so far away. It’s just barely double the time that it’s been since my book came out. It’s nothing.

“We will be facing very real problems that will affect how we grow our food and how we run a civil society,” he said.

Irrigation is greening the Negev.

All this is grim. Why is it in a section about Israel at 70?

Because “not everywhere, but many places are starting to understand that we’d better get going on this,” Mr. Siegel said. “And they’re going to Israel for guidance on what they could and should be doing. And that is a change.

“And in Israel, technology is growing by leaps and bounds. There is hardly a week that has gone by when we haven’t heard of a new breakthrough in something like, say, precision agriculture. That’s primarily about where and how you apply water and how much water you apply, so that you don’t use water that ends up being wasted. That is an important new area of research out of Israel.

“And there’s also the decentralization of infrastructure. Historically, desalinization and wastewater treatment plants have tended to be big structures. Israel is developing expertise in decentralizing it, so you can buy something that’s container-sized as a desalinization or wastewater treatment plant.” (When he says that something is the size of a container, Mr. Siegel is talking about a shipping container.)

“That’s really exciting — a community of 50,000 to 200,000 can use it. That’s a good fit for a lot of places around the world, and in the last few weeks several Chinese communities have bought those container-size treatment plants from Israel.

“The third thing that’s coming out of Israel, though — it’s still in development, but if it happens, it will be a game-changer — is the idea of atmospheric water generation, taking water out of the air. It’s a carbon-free method that gives you the purest water you’ve ever drunk in your life. And it can produce water out of thin air. There is lots of water vapor everywhere; that’s where it comes from.

“Everyone can have a water tank on their roofs. You don’t have to pipe the water in from hundreds of miles away. You just take it down from the roof.”

Drip irrigation makes every drop count.

It does sound like science fiction, but Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, one of the country’s chief animating forces, said that “in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” He said that in 1956, “when the country was eight years old,” Mr. Siegel said.

And it’s possible that compared to the miracle of Israel’s birth, the miracle of its scientists taking water out of thin air pales.

Its skill with water technology is helping Israel politically too, Mr. Siegel said. “From a hydrodiplomacy point of view, Israel is really stepping up. Several African countries are developing diplomatic relationships with Israel. And Netanyahu” — that’s Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “is talking about how Israel is changing the water profile of the Middle East.”

His book has gotten a great deal of attention, Mr. Siegel said; the encroaching water crisis makes it increasingly easy for people around the world to overlook long-lasting hostilities and make surprising allies. The book is out in 15 languages, he said, including Indonesian, Burmese, and Vietnamese; just a few weeks ago it came out in Chinese as well. “Many of them are languages from countries where Israel had no history,” he said.

“And there is a hunger to hear about it,” he added. “I’ve spoken in more than 250 venues, and 43 of them have been universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Chicago, University of Texas at Austin, among others.”

Despite how often pro-Israel speakers are harassed by representatives of the BDS movement, Mr. Siegel said that he has encountered virtually no problems on campus. “I have been leafleted twice and disrupted zero times,” he said. “The audiences primarily aren’t Jewish. They are primarily engineering or business or agriculture students.

“This is a new way of talking about Israel.”

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