Israel: Here’s how to save water

Israel: Here’s how to save water

As Californians struggle with an ever-worsening water shortage caused by a historic drought, they might look east for a solution — to the Middle East.

Israel, subject to intermittent droughts for decades, has pioneered a number of water-saving techniques. It long ago figured out how to grow crops in the desert and for decades has advised the developing world on how to manage scarce water resources.

Now, Israel is eager to share its latest know-how with drought-ridden states like California. These helpful techniques include water quotas, desalination plants and the reuse of household wastewater.

Israel and California have cooperated on water issues for years, but mostly “on a grass-roots level,” said Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA-Los Angeles. “Now it’s time to collaborate on commercial water technology projects that can benefit both countries.”

An Israeli company, IDE Technologies, is designing a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif., 35 miles north of San Diego, that would provide 300,000 Californians with 50 million gallons per day of drinking-quality water. Desalination plants remove salt and chemicals from seawater.
But to truly save water, Israel “first had to convince people that water is a commodity and not unlimited,” Shani explained.

Under his watch, the Israel Water Authority set an affordable water quota for every individual and farmer, and taxed excess use at a much higher rate. The amount of water allocated to farmers was cut in half, forcing them to grow less thirsty crops and adopt water-saving technology.

Municipalities were ordered to fix their pipes. Today, less than 8% of urban water in Israel is lost through leakage.

In addition, Israel purifies 85% of all household wastewater. “The water is at the level where, if someone accidentally drinks it, it’s OK,” Shani said. He said the recycled wastewater is utilized by farmers, mostly for drip irrigation — a pinpoint delivery system invented in Israel in the 1960s.

Unlike Israel, where permits for desalination plants have been accelerated, California has a long process because of environmental concerns. “You can’t just build a plant,” Cohen said.

What California can learn from Israel is how to optimize the water that is available by steering away from crops that use the most water, Cohen said. The state can also try to greatly reduce water use in the urban areas.

But California’s urban water consumption accounts for just 10% of the state’s water use, while agriculture accounts for 80%, Cohen pointed out.

“If people cut their water use in half, that’s only 5% of our total water supply,” he said. “What we need is a comprehensive strategy to use water.”
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