By Michelle Blum November 29 2018
Until several years ago, Israeli television regularly screened public advertisements warning citizens that “Israel is drying up” and urging them to conserve water.
Israel’s lack of water security, compounded by a long drought, was considered by strategic experts as a potential existential threat to the state — on a par with war and famine. But within a few years Israel turned it around.
The alarming TV ads have gone. Today, notwithstanding the fact it inhabits one of the driest regions on Earth and is in the fifth year of drought, Israel has the water to meet the needs of its population, farmers and industry.
How did this come about? And what are the lessons for Australia as we yet again struggle with drought?
Israel is a drier country than Australia, receiving average annual rainfall of about 435mm compared with our 534mm. More than half of Israel is desert.
Obviously, Israel is also much smaller than Australia, less than one-third the size of Tasmania, receiving 0.2 per cent of Australia’s total rainfall volume.
Despite this, it supports a population of eight million, exports significant agricultural produce and still has enough water left over for gardens, to wash cars and to fill swimming pools.
This has been achieved through three water “revolutions”, with a fourth about to start.
The first was in the 1960s, with the more efficient use of water in agriculture, and in particular the widespread adoption of drip irrigation. By placing water directly on to the root zone of crops, minimising evaporation, and keeping soil moisture content at optimum levels, farmers discovered they could grow more using less water. Today, the black tubular piping and drippers made by Netafim and first developed on a kibbutz in Israel are seen around the world, including on thousands of farms across Australia.
The second revolution was prompted by the realisation that Israel could not afford to waste its water. Large-scale water recycling was the answer, gradually adopted from the 80s onwards. Today, Israel collects, treats and purifies more than 80 per cent of its waste water, recycling it for agricultural use four times more than the next-best OECD nation, Spain.
The third revolution came in the early 2000s, when Israel’s growing population and failing rains threatened to widen the gap between available water resources and needs. Its response was to build five desalination plants in a decade, with the first coming online in 2005: now 70 per cent of the country’s drinking water comes from desalination. Two new plants are under construction.
Israel’s population grows by about 1.5 million people each decade and, with the growing risks to rainfall patterns posed by climate change, it needs to stay ahead of the curve. It is now embarking on its fourth water revolution, involving technology in all aspects of water use and management. These innovations include breeding more water-efficient crops, increasing the re-use of waste water, and using big data and analytics to improve water network efficiency and detect leaks and burst underground pipes.
Several of the Israeli technology companies at the forefront of these innovations have found their way to Australia. Fluence Corporation is a leader in providing modular and deployable solutions for the treatment and re-use of waste water. Roots Sustainable Agricultural Technologies is pioneering commercial technology to harness water for crop-growing from background humidity, using condensation, and to optimise root zone soil temperatures for greenhouse crop cultivation.
And TaKaDu is helping water utility companies across Australia save thousands of megalitres of water and millions of dollars by using algorithms and artificial intelligence to identify and track leaks in real time.
Today’s is not the longest drought Australia has experienced and it certainly will not be the last. But although droughts will remain a way of life here, we can be better prepared for them. Key to this is using our existing water resources more wisely and building resilience into our water network and infrastructure.
Israel is a showcase for how innovation, technology and a willingness to try new approaches have allowed a country to thrive and prosper notwithstanding a tough and dry climate. Australia can learn much from it.
Michelle Blum is chief executive of the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce.