Parallel worlds: water management in Israel and California.

Posted in: Misc Water Issues, The Problem
Tags: , ,

Agricultural fields in northern Israel. Photo by Kate Voss


Article courtesy by Jay Famiglietti | Feb 24th 2013 | National Geographic NewsWatch

As we left the Ben Gurion-Tel Aviv airport, my colleagues and I excitedly scanned the new landscape that surrounded us. Our first impression was how incredibly familiar it felt to California. A field of orange trees, perfect rows of irrigated crops, a salty breeze from the Mediterranean Sea. Maybe we were just hyper-aware of our surroundings, looking to find parallels between our home and this new region, but the reality is that Israel and California share a striking similarity in their physical environments and, subsequently, their challenges to manage water resources.

The Israel-California Water Link

This core connection between California and the Middle East, particularly Israel, was one motivation for our trip. The other was the release of our recent paper on groundwater depletion in the Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region. It is a well-known fact that this entire region faces extreme challenges to manage their scarce water resources. Drought, increasing agricultural water demand, population pressures, and competing stakeholders add to an already stressed water system. Despite these challenges, this region is at the forefront of water management. The regional efforts to collaboratively manage surface water resources from the Jordan River and groundwater aquifers, for example by Friends of the Earth Middle East, as well as Israel’s strategies to maximize and efficiently use every last drop of water, are revolutionary.

In Israel, wastewater from urban areas is used to irrigate nearly 100% of crops in a desert while desalination accounts for 60% of water supply in densely populated regions. Pricing for water accurately reflects the costs to transport and produce the water, but these prices are affordable for all. Crops that can be grown with “poor quality” water, such as brackish or reclaimed wastewater, are cultivated while water-intensive agriculture and flood irrigation is rejected. Greenhouses and drip irrigation systems dominate the irrigation landscape. Clearly, the world, and including California, could learn a thing or two from Israel.

Greenhouses in the Jordan River Valley are used to conserve water and reduce losses through evapotranspiration. Photo by Kate Voss

Over the course of our two weeks in the Middle East, we will meet with the key water authorities, water utility companies, civil society members, and university researchers in Israel, Palestinian territories, and Jordan. During our “science diplomacy” trip, we hope to not only share our research, but to learn from a region that is a prototype for effective water management.

Lessons from Technion University

Technion University was our first stop on this water journey,, where we met with researchers at the Grand Water Research Institute (GWRI). During our conversation at Technion, we learned about the Israeli tools to allocate, reuse, and distribute water and how academic research improves these tools. Israel’s water monitoring and allocation system is phenomenal – every drop of water, from freshwater resources to desalinated water, is accounted for, priced accordingly, and delivered to the end-user. Although agriculture has the largest demand for freshwater resources, the government water policy restricts the freshwater allocation to approximately 0.450 km3 and not a drop more. The residual agricultural water demand is fulfilled by Israel’s extensive recycled wastewater and brackish water distribution system. The other major end-user, domestic water demand, is met by desalination, surface water from the Sea of Galilee, freshwater rivers and aquifer supplies.

For we Californians, it was surprising and inspiring to hear about the innovative strategies in place to meet agricultural water demands and, even more so, that the farmers were completely in support of these policies. In the States, we have very little monitoring of agricultural water use, particularly of groundwater abstraction. If groundwater were as closely allocated and monitored in the U. S. as the resources are in Israel, the monitoring may be regarded as a breach of personal freedoms, since groundwater rights are tied to property rights in much of the country. Yet here in Israel, the farmers have fully supported this progressive strategy to both strictly monitor and allocate water resources and to introduce new supplies through desalination and recycled water. Much of their support appears to be the result of an ongoing communication and social outreach initiative to inform farmers about the limits to water resources and the opportunities to meet water demands through more sustainable practices. How could we drive a shift in the United States to emulate this support for innovative water management policies?

As our discussions at Technion illustrated, the support for such innovative management policies begins with knowledge transfer to stakeholders. For example, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture hosts annual meetings that farmers, academics, and decision makers attend with the goal of sharing their respective water experiences and to work toward more efficient water practices. A core aspect of that effective communication is creating practical, actionable results rooted in technical research. During our discussion at Technion, we repeatedly heard an emphasis on interdisciplinary research, bringing together economists, engineers, hydrologists, and politicians to guide those actionable results for water management. Technion is one of many universities that are part of the Middle East North Africa (MENA)Water Centers for Excellence project, sponsored by USAID. This platform provides the foundation for collaboration between researchers throughout the MENA region including in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.

The concept of a “water research network” is lacking in the United States, as is the connection between researchers and decision-makers at the local, state, and national levels. In Israel, this model of collaboration has resulted in meticulous monitoring of water resources to inform water management policies and the subsequent support from all stakeholders. If we could shift our water management paradigm in the United States to effectively link researchers, policy-makers, and local stakeholders with open lines of communication, the outcome could be groundbreaking.

Collaborating for a Sustainable Water Future

Our meeting at the GWRI at the Technion left us with many ideas for potential collaboration between our research center at UC Irvine and the Technion. On a technical level, we discussed a wide variety of potential research topics, ranging from the development of a 3D groundwater model; the evaluation of the linkages between water and soil management at a global scale; the use of enviromatics to better manage and monitor regional water systems; and optimization of land-surface and water management models to better reflect the reality of water demand and supply. On a broader level, our meeting provided a glimpse at new strategies and tools that we, in California, can use to more effectively manage water resources, link stakeholders, communicate knowledge, and develop policies to sustainably manage our resources.

This Israel-California knowledge transfer model is an exciting venture, and we hope that over the duration of our trip we will find more ideas, collaboration opportunities, and links with civil society, academic, and governmental agencies. From domestic water use strategies to effective agricultural irrigation and high-tech water system modeling to the development of innovative distribution systems, the possibilities for international learning are endless. In the next few posts, you’ll hear about our conversations with key civil society leaders, such as Friends of the Earth Middle East, and regional water managers in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan as well as our insights to the region’s water initiatives, such as the proposed Red Sea-Dead Seaconduit. With this new cross-regional network as a foundation, our water future is looking brighter.

Want to Donate?
Please contact us for gifts in kind - Mail your check to: P.O. Box 545934, Surfside, Fl 33154