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My Oh Mayim: Rethinking Water Usage in a Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, but Little Water

By Noam Dolgin


Ushavtem mayim b'sason — draw water in joy — is a classic song danced to by millions of Jews at celebrations worldwide. When we sing and dance about water, we are praying that Israel will have enough for the coming year. Currently, demand for water is high, and Israel's fresh-water resources are quickly drying up. Israeli society is working hard to solve the region's water shortages before they become a crisis. Developments are being made to conserve water in agriculture, industry and home. There are initiatives to reduce water consumption, reuse semi-dirty grey water, and rethink techniques to produce or collect water. They fuse cutting-edge technology with ancient agricultural practices.



Israel's most famous water-saving innovation is drip irrigation. Now in practice in most of the arid world, Israel's Netafim-brand irrigation systems specialize in computer-controlled drip systems that drastically reduce water lost to evaporation. By releasing small amounts of water through holes in piping and by regulating the times of day that watering is done, nearly all of the water is absorbed by the soil.

To solve the problems of today, some communities are turning to ancient methods of water collection and storage, including moves back to terracing — the ancient technique of leveling land to hold water — and planting native trees and crops which require less water. KKL-JNF is using traditional terracing and pool-creation techniques to restore forests in the Israel’s north and protect the desert in Israel’s south. At the Sataf gardens near Jerusalem, ancient aqueducts and cisterns are being used once again to water communal garden plots. And at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert, U.N.-sponsored research is being conducted to find low-water and high-salt tolerant crops, such as the Sereus cactus fruit.

In Israeli homes, many techniques are employed to reduce water consumption, though many more could be implemented. Every toilet in Israel is “dual flush,” meaning that there are two choices for how much water to use when flushing the toilet. Home appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines, as in most of Europe, are built to conserve water and energy with every load. Combined with water-conservation education in schools, these one-time purchases go a long way toward reducing personal-water consumption.



One of Israel’s most promising developments is the use of grey water for agriculture and home. Grey water is water that is was used previously but is still suitable for reuse in certain functions. For example, homes equipped with a grey-water system would transfer used shower water to be used in the toilet or to irrigate the backyard garden. Agriculturally, communities such as kibbutzim and moshavim could use their combined grey water to irrigate dates and other crops grown off the ground. Grey-water systems allow communities living in areas with little water to effectively double the amount of available water, because the water can be used twice. This ancient technique of reusing water, along with modern waste-water treatment and agricultural technologies, combine to create a model that could go a long way in reducing water consumption.



While some researchers are finding ways to reduce water consumption, others are finding ways to create new fresh water. The most popular current initiative is desalination — removing salt and other products from sea water to make it suitable for agricultural and domestic use. Purification of sea water has been practiced on a small scale in Eilat since 1965, however the first large-scale desalination plant opened in Ashkelon in 2005 and it now produces about 5 percent of Israel's total water usage. Although desalination can be very beneficial, it comes at a high cost. The process is extremely energy intensive, and most of the energy for the process is produced using natural gas and coal. Desalination may be solving one environmental challenge, but as long as the energy for it is produced using non-renewable fossil-fuel sources, desalination is contributing to other environmental problems such as climate change and air pollution.

A rabbi recently told me that we live our lives walking backwards, meaning we make choices for the future based on what we know from the past. Over the millenniums on this small piece of land, lack of water has caused many civilizations to collapse. Fortunately, many others have flourished through efficient use and distribution of water and effective desert agricultural techniques. Using their experiences and knowledge as a guide, Israel can develop its water policies as a thriving modern society based on 3,000 years of history in our ancient homeland. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.





Noam Dolgin is a former executive director of the Green Zionist Alliance.



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