The miracle of Israeli water policy

“Israel should have been a water basket case,” says Siegel, listing its problems: 60% of the land is desert and the rest is arid. Rainfall has fallen to half its 1948 average, apparently thanks to climate change, and as global warming progresses, Israel and the whole Levant are expected to become even drier – and from 1948, Israel’s population has grown 10-fold.

During that time, the country’s economy grew 70-fold. But instead of starting to waste water, as happens when a society becomes wealthier, it used its new affluence to implement what Siegel calls “the Israel model” of water management.

That model includes drip irrigation, the world’s highest rate of water reclamation and recycling, high prices when necessary, massive desalination, fixing leaks early and frequently, discouraging gardening, and mandating water-efficient toilets.

Are you listening California?  Here is the article from Ruth Schuster at Haaretz.  Here is Wikipedia on water policy in Israel.  Here is the miracle of Israeli dairy; Israeli cows are far more productive than most other cows, mostly because of technology.


"Here is the miracle of Israeli dairy; Israeli cows are far more productive than most other cows, mostly because of technology."

But how can cows use computers? They have hoofs, not hands.

Utterly ridiculous.


Amusing: his correct spelling was an accident

The question of cows and technology is not a black and white issue Charbes A. Perhaps you and Nate F and Keith ought to let go of the herd mentality and ruminate a bit more on this as you have no legitimate beef with Tyler here.


Having looked up ruminate I see that you are right: it still fits a pun.

... luv it when economists headline those sophisticated technical terms like "miracle"

"miracle" denotes supernatural intervention -- is there any history of that in the MidEast ?

It's a moo point.

California has plenty of water. It just wastes it on below-market-price irrigation. Charge market prices and the problem will solve itself.

Yep, when I taught intro econ in southern California I would always begin the semester by stating that water shortages in California are both inevitable -- and unnecessary.

But California can't solve its water issues by itself, there are federal policies, and other states.

... and farmers with exaggerated political pull.

Not any more. Federal courts have directed huge amounts of water away from agriculture toward the preservation of certain fish species

Why couldn't they solve their water problems on their own? They are allocated so much water, yes? And then their state can choose what to do with it, yes?

The way I heard it is property rights for water are use it or lose it. You cannot sell your water rights, you either leave it to the fellow downstream or you use it yourself.

But is that a federal law, or a state one? If it's not federal, they can solve it on their own

The grass here is often fake

Bizarrely, that is also true in Britain, which has a...slightly less arid climate.

Average annual rainfall: Jerusalem 590 mm, Cambridge 570mm.

Heh, that's funny.

However, the distribution of rainfall in Cambridge is way better for grass growing.

dan1111 is correct. It's not the average rainfall amount, it's the distribution.

Average Rain days per month from May to September is 0. Jerusalem is extremely dry during the summer growing season. So naturally, (much like California) the winter rain has to be stored and used for irrigation during the summer.

Jerusalem might like a few rivers running through, year round.


Evapotranspiration = f (solar radiation, air temp, wind)

It's not only rainfall but what happens afterwards.

Golly. That had never crossed my mind. But then I've never seen fake grass in Britain. Maybe they use it in the London?

My comment was based on perusing listings of houses for sale... Perhaps "often" is a bit of an exaggeration, but you do find some people making this choice for their gardens.

Not to mention occupying all of the water-rich land in the West Bank.

Not to mention that God is on their side.

Is there anyone easier to troll than an anti-Semite? No, there is not.

There isn't any water-rich land anywhere in the Levant. As for the Arabs on the West Bank, if they want Israeli security patrols back behind the Green Line, they can bargain for it, bargain in good faith, and draft their negotiating positions with an eye to reaching an end state that both sides can live with. They might begin to think along those lines if they didn't have a cash pipeline and a peanut gallery encouraging them to keep doing what they've been doing for 90-odd years.

The West Bank Aquifer doesn't exist. It's a fiction invented by antisemites. You got me!

israel is taking all the water from lebanon

There's only one river which crosses the border and the Israeli portion thereof is downstream from the Lebanese portion.

Ridiculous, as Israel is downstream from Lebanon.

What's interesting though is the manner in which international organizations ignor international conventions regarding water rights when Lebanon violates them.

The crazy thing is, California doesn't need to do any of this to conserve water. They just have to stop growing certain water-intensive crops that shouldn't be growing in California in the first place.

And I was going to say, 'To achieve that, what California needs is a trading market for water' and then I ran across this:

And it sounds like what California needs is a *better* market for trading water. Which (as we saw a few days ago in the case of solar installations) it sounds like the Aussies have figured out pretty well.

As I say below though, the variability.

You might imagine some high tech instant market for snow as it falls (everything to be sold by August when it is gone), but many investments (from a suburb to an orchard) assume availability for decades.

As you see driving up highway 5, one bad year is enough to deny an orchard and kill a long term investment. A few miles later new orchards are going in.

Everybody making bets about the variability of future supply.

And remember, California (like most states?) has a hodgepodge of water regions and rights.

It would be a helluva big "taking" to tell every man with a well drawing seasonal water that "nope, that is now in the statewide market."

"Taking" just means you need to cut some checks... That, in turn, means California could have fixed it's water problems (i.e., tangibly helped the environment) for the cost of the bullet train.

Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting.

Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting (over).

It's pretty complicated, not at all a simple source-and-users model.

The same quote used there, Mark.

Israelis have a strong sense of responsibility for community, whereas in the U.S. community is often used as a punch line or to express condescension for those who don't understand what it means to be free. What does it mean to be free?

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

It used to be different. You moved to a new neighborhood and were invited to the neighbors homes and invited to join dozens of societies like PTA etc.

And then the neighbors take the opportunity to probe as deeply as possible into your personal affairs to make sure you're acting precisely the way they want you to and then carefully destroy you socially when you don't. Because knowing which neighbors it's okay to hate is key to maintaining a sense of self-worth.

We're all better off if being a swinger induces a loss of social status.

Here's Frank Fisher at MIT who has wrote quite a bit about water policy as both source and solution to conflict with a a particular focus on the Middle East;

"Rainfall has fallen to half its 1948 average, apparently thanks to climate change..."

I don't believe this. Any data to show this?

2014 study (DOI 10.1007/s10113-013-0414-x) disputes the rainfall statistic given, but does find global warming to have a (small) negative effect on rainfall. Arid regions are likely to expand but we're still at the "first alarm" stages.

I agree that the kind of global warming hyperbole in the original post is unhelpful. In this case you don't even need to invoke it to laud the Israeli management achievement.

Thank you for pointing out the study.

Are you listening Cape Town?

(The answer is no btw)

As a counter point here is an old economist article critical of Israeli water policy:

"But the priorities, say not a few critics, are the wrong way round. “It's missing the most important element, which is to charge all sectors a market price for water,” says Hillel Shuval, head of environmental health at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem."

"Water management has improved, but not by enough. “Making the desert bloom”, a cornerstone of the early Zionist ideal, turns out not to have been such a smart idea. Agriculture consumes some 60% of the country's total of 2 billion cubic metres of water a year, but contributes less than 2% of GDP, thanks partly to water-guzzling export crops such as bananas and citrus fruits, as well as dates (these are fine in their natural habitat of oases, but in Israel large plantations of date palms stretch across otherwise arid desert)."

Food for thought.

Why on earth should water consumption be linked to GDP within sectors of the economy? Different sectors of the economy use different inputs. Should we expect Israel's tech sector to consume water proportional to its share of the economy?

Almost all the water used by agriculture is treated wastewater, not drinking water.

If, as the economist says, water is not sold in Israel as its market price but much below it (as in California), then the GDP of agriculture is under-estimated. With water as its true, relatively extensive price, the price of food grown in Israel would be higher, resulting probably by a decrease of Israeli food production in volume (composed by more imports), but an increase in values.

At a world level, this is even more obvious. The idea that agriculture is only a small part of the worlds' GDP, hence we could, if water becomes really too scarce and is needed for Golf courses and washing cars, completely stop agriculture if needed, is visibly absurd.

Not completely stop all agriculture, but reduce sharply certain crops like cotton which use a significant amount of water is reasonable.

In good years, California's snowpack can hold 36 cubic kilometers (29 million acre-feet) of water stored in the mountains across the state.

Truly dry regions wish.

California just has to manage a fairly high variability.

"Israel should have been a water basket case”: I've never seen a water basket; I must say that it sounds an unpromising idea.

Now you have :)

It doesn't appear that it comes with a case, though.

That article has an informative line: " With a pointed bottom, a broad middle, and a narrow opening, traditional water baskets were designed not to spill when resting on their sides."

That makes me re-think the shape of amphorae, the ancient and ubiquitous Greek and Roman vessels for holding and transporting goods, especially liquids and grains. I've always read that they had pointed bottoms so they could be stowed aboard cargo ships by jamming them into sand, a way of making them stand securely upright without having to build durable and properly aligned racks or brackets or use straps etc.

But maybe another advantage of the pointed bottoms and odd shape of amphorae is the same as those Paiute water baskets: you can rest them on their side without spilling the contents (unless they're filled too high)?

That seems to me to be a more practical and useful explanation of their shape. Although the stand-them-in-sand explanation makes sense too.

Not sure Israeli dairy is such a “miracle”, average production per cow in the US is 9-10k litres per year. Israel has 110k cows, US has 9 million. Top half of US herds probably match Israeli per cow production.

That's moving the goalposts even if true... what's the productivity of the top half of Israeli cows compared with the productivity of the top half of US cows?

Milk only comes out of the bottom half of cows, anyway.

And, most importantly, how much cow inequality is there?

American cows work on the Sabbath.

Indeed, American milk cows work 365 days a year.

Discouraging gardening? That sounds depressing.

I assume they wouldn't discourage xerophytic gardening.

I remember a visit to a Kibbutz where they were making beautiful gardens of cactuses of all forms, shapes, sizes and colors.

California is large, huge. Drought is only a concern in some river basins. Generalizations are not OK.

"Rainfall has fallen to half its 1948 average, apparently thanks to climate change" - this is a clear example of crap peddled by mainstream media these days.

Ten seconds of googling show the results of real observations which researches sum up as follows:

"This study examined six daily rainfall categories for the period 1950/1-2003/4, based on 32 stations across Israel. It is shown that a significant increase in the heavy to torrential daily rainfall occurred in some stations although no significant change is seen in the annual rainfall"

The technology Israel has used to solve their water problems is much less interesting than the fact that they, almost uniquely, have mustered the political will to even attempt to solve the problem. If you look at other governments with potentially existential water problems- California, Sydney, Jakarta, Sau Paulo- the common theme is that they don't even try anything that matches the scale of the problem. They've taken token steps that sound nice, but are functionally meaningless. During the last drought, California imposed restrictions on residential consumers... who use roughly a tenth of the water in the state. The Australians bought and shut down a few farms.

The only democracy that's solved their water problem did so because water was a potential weapon of war in the hands of their enemies.

"The Australians bought and shut down a few farms"

I never heard of that, can you point me to where you got that info?

Capturing the West Bank aquifer and restricting Palestinian access to it helped, too.

If the Arabs wanted it back, they'd negotiate for it. They want other things more.

I am surprised no-one picked up on this sentence; "But instead of starting to waste water, as happens when a society becomes wealthier, it used its new affluence to implement what Siegel calls “the Israel model” of water management." - the idea that richer societies waste more than poor ones is pretty silly. Richer societies generally look after the environment far better than poor ones. Just go to any developing country, that is where you will see most waste and pollution.

And on the other topics of the article, water is pretty easy to purify and irrigation in desert climates is hardly a new thing, the ancient Egyptians were pretty good at it. So what's the big deal with Israel doing it now? I don't see why we are supposed to be impressed by this. In fact I would guess that Israel would be better off ignoring the agriculture and importing their food.

The issue of who owns the water there is beyond my expertise. But some think Israel has not treated the Palestinians' fairly in water allocation, and others say the Israelis stole water that was the Palestinians to begin with. and and You can find lots of articles arguing both sides of the issue.

I'm sure this water dispute will be settled within the next 5 to 6 thousand years.

California obviously is much too large to have any sort of effective government and much of its current squalor can be explained by this. Israel, as it is, perhaps nears the limits of the geographical range for an effective governance system. But two points, first one should be aware that the primary water policy maker in Israel is a government owned corporation. Yes, government owned, but still not simply a government agency. Perhaps California, and the US in genera given the current shutdown, would benefit from diligent review of the relative merits of state owned corporations versus direct government control. Secondly, why would Tyler dismiss out of hand the many private desalination initiatives being obstructed by the State of California? Thankfully, private markets are surmounting this obstacle too with scalable desalination technology that soon will allow individual households to store and process deliveries of seawater much as they do propane now. One must conclude, that Tyler, ever the hardcore statist normalizing authoritarianism, is living in the past.

Not the best year for this:

This is a very dry year so far, with 4 year of drought before. Water worries are coming back.

No, California is not listening. Instead, we flush a billion dollars/yr of water out of the Sacramento River and use hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water to attempt and fail to create salmon runs in dry river beds.

On desalinization, the insanity of our regulatory system has been trying to get "permission" (permits and approvals) for a 50 mgd system down the street from my house for 12 years. It is a classic "tragedy of the anti-commons" problem where dozens of regulators and agencies all have effective veto power. While high paid lawyer's, bureaucrats, politicians, activists and experts alike, who are also in the top 10% educated elite of our society, have been making large incomes for over a decade, the "Joe Median" workers who will build, operate and maintain the facility have NO opportunity.

This has gone so institutionally insane that California new rules on intakes are requiring a billion dollar intake designs to protect us from a few thousand dollar environmental issue. They made the environmental issue sound "significant" by using an unverified mathematical model where they build-in false mathematical assumptions that give insane results. Now that the model is built into policy, it is effectively law and false mathematics has become irrelevant and there is no mechanism to change the resulting "junk science".

This happens to be a narrow area of scientific knowledge that I worked in most of my life and bullshit is bullshit, but when it becomes policy by regulators and benefits their organization it becomes untouchable.

This blog presents an interesting perspective on how Israel solved its water crisis. An alternative historical perspective can be found via the BBC:

The current reality of the impact of the occupation of Palestine on water rights can be found here:

It would seem that Israel's solution is closely tied to settlement occupation. I am not sure that anyone would want to recommend this as a development approach.

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