Many of the countries that surround Israel have oil. Israel does not.
Few of those countries have obvious sources of water. Neither does Israel.
Somehow, though, Israel has managed to make itself a center of water technology, a place that, if you pardon the cliché because it’s true, has made the desert bloom.
As it turns out, the scarcity of water and our wanton carelessness with it, our inability to see how precious it is as it trickles away, is likely to cause a crisis not limited to the Middle East.
“I am a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, and about four years ago I attended a seminar on the water problem,” serial-entrepreneur-turned-Jewish-philanthropist-activist-and-advocate Seth Siegel said. “I was surprised to discover what a horrible, multi-decade water crisis is plaguing us. The U.S. government now estimates that by 2025, 60 percent of the world’s landmass and 40 of our 50 states will be facing water scarcity.” In other words, in 10 years the problems facing California now will affect almost all of us.
But, Mr. Siegel — who has written about the crisis in “Let There Be Water” and will discuss it in Teaneck on November 28 (see box) — sees an opportunity in the crisis.
“The amazing part is that the solution is Israel,” he said. As an AIPAC member and a strong, vocal supporter of Israel, still, “I feel that there is way too much of ‘Let me explain Israel to you in context,’” he said. Israel’s supporters always feel the need to give too much backstory, to parse and defend, to go on the defensive. That doesn’t always work. “We need a positive uplifting message,” he said.
“And then it hit me like a thunderbolt,” he said. “If we are smart about it, if we can do it well, we can accomplish two things instantaneously, and they both are important.
“One is to make the citizenry and elected officials aware of the problem of water scarcity, and the other one is tell a positive, true story.
“I am not doing hasbara. I am not speaking for the foreign minister. I am not a defense lawyer.
“I am here to tell the good news that Israel has the world’s most sophisticated water system.”
So, the two-birds-with-one-stone approach (and oh the lure of clichés when speaking about truths) — “The world needs to fix the problem of water — and fast! — and how wonderful to have a positive message about Israel.”
So Mr. Siegel decided to get to work.
First, some of his backstory.
A restless lawyer-turned-businessman, Mr. Siegel started a number of companies; he sold one of them, Beanstalk, to Ford Motor Company 16 years ago, and that freed him from the need to worry about supporting himself and his family ever again. “Then I decided that what I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life in the service of the Jewish community,” he said. “Since then, I have taken on a variety of communal roles, and treated them as full-time jobs, from Jewish education to campus Jewish life to Israel advocacy.”
Why did he do it?
Well, he said, “The Bengali community is too spicy for me, and there is too much treif.” More seriously, “There is an extraordinary message that the Jewish people have to give the world, and now we are under siege. So, I thought, if not now, when? And if not me, then who? So I decided to make that leap.”
(He also has followed other interests; in 2002 he was a backer of a revival of “Man of La Mancha.” Impossible dreams seem to attract him.)
Mr. Siegel is not a scientist, and he did no scientific research himself. Instead, he tackled the subject as a journalist. “When I applied to law school, I also applied to Columbia’s school of journalism,” he said. “I didn’t get in. If I had, I would have gone. I was on the wait list, and I got into seven or eight law schools. I paid my deposit to Cornell, and I decided that if I got into Columbia, I’d give up the deposit and go. But I never got off the wait list.”
The dream of being a journalist, he said, “was the life not lived.”
So the idea of writing this book appealed to him on a third, entirely personal level too.
When he decided to tackle the issue of Israel and water scarcity, “a lot of my friends who have written books said that doing the research would be hard, dry, and miserable.” It was not, he reported.
Research has become much easier, and much — perhaps even most — of it can be done online, he said.
As he researched his book, Mr. Siegel said, he learned that worries about water went back to the state’s earliest years, and even before. “Herzl wrote about it,” he said. He started his story in 1930, with the British White Paper severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Although its real reason was the British fear of Muslim uprisings, “its stated reason was that they said that there wasn’t enough water.”
In response, “a man who I revive from the dustbins of history, a total virtuoso of water, the man who made Israel what it is, a man who deserves to be in the pantheon of Israel’s founders” — a man named Simcha Blass, one of the many men and women whom Mr. Siegel credits with great and forgotten achievements — “presented the British with a water plan.”
Blass was a brilliant engineer, who went to Poland’s equivalent of MIT before World War II; an impressive accomplishment for anyone but particularly striking in a Jew in that terrifyingly Jew-hating time and place. When he got to Palestine, one of the two survivors of his entire extended family, he worked on desalinating and sewage treatment plans for the government. Later, after he had lost at bureaucratic infighting and was moldering at home, 59 years old, impoverished, unhappy, he had “a lightening-bolt idea that will save Israel and revolutionize agriculture,” Mr. Siegel said. “For three years, he develops the technology that comes from this epiphany — drip agriculture.” Mr. Blass became very rich, and Israel benefited even more than he did..
Profiting from the work of Mr. Blass and other hydrologists, Israel today has become a world leader in water science. A wonderful “second-order benefit” of that status, Mr. Siegel says, is that it allows Israel to practice what he calls hydro-diplomacy, and that can help “limit its isolation” around the world. Until the fall of the shah of Iran, Israel provided back-channel water aid to that country; since the early l980s, it has provided the same service to China, which has dropped its implacable public disdain for Israel and instead established a diplomatic relationship with it in 1992.
“Today, there are countries that you would think would have no relations with Israel based on what you read in newspapers — but you’d be entirely wrong,” Mr. Siegel said. “Israel now trades water technology with 150 countries around the world. Israeli businessmen carry Israeli passports and travel to these countries.
“They also carry messages, and they open doors,” he added. He is not allowed to name those countries, he said; he had to promise that secrecy in order to learn about the relationships.
Another aspect of water diplomacy has to do with the West Bank, Mr. Siegel said. “We read only about the implacable hatred between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but water is a pathway to peace and dialogue and cooperation.
“Fifty-five percent of the West Bank’s water comes from Israeli sources. So the water they are drinking in the West Bank is the same as the water they drink in Tel Aviv.
“Israel built a very sophisticated water system for the Palestinians when they conquered the West Bank,” he continued. “Then, less than 10 percent of the population there had running water. Today, 97 percent of the West Bank has running water in their home — the other three percent is Bedouin encampments. It is an amazing quality-of-life improvement, whether or not they acknowledge that it is from Israel.
“Israel trains most of the Palestinian water engineers. It is a very good people-to-people dialogue; it brings them to Israel for a week at a stretch to educate them.
“And possibly best of all, the cooperation has never stopped. Not even during the second intifada. Not even when Netanyahu and Abbas don’t talk to each other. The water officials still do talk to each other. And if they”— that’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority — “want to pass messages, they have this method.”
The Israelis also provide water to Gaza.
“Even during the war in Gaza, when the rockets were flying, the water never stopped flowing,” Mr. Siegel said. “It is a special story, and it is not often told.”
His book was published right after the holidays, and he began touring universities to talk about it, Mr. Siegel said. Most of his audiences are not Jewish. “I have spoken in more than 40 venues, and what amazes me is the degree to which this resonates with audiences.
“I expected hostile audiences, but only one time was there ever a hostile question, and then it was just one. The audience are primarily Asian and South American students.
“I feel as if I have found the holy grail,” Mr. Siegel concluded. “This is an inspiring story that we can tell about Israel.”