alf a century ago, the dream of making the deserts bloom with seemingly unlimited supplies of fresh water was promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the man he had once appointed chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss. In 1953, Strauss had helped author Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” plan. Fifteen years later, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, they proposed another nuclear initiative. This one they called “Water for Peace.”
It envisioned the construction of three large-scale nuclear-power plants to desalt seawater—one each for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. “The sweet water produced by these huge plants would cost not more than 15 cents per 1,000 gallons,” Eisenhower wrote in Reader’s Digest. It would make “the desert lands of this earth bloom for human need” and “promote peace in a deeply troubled area of the world.” Strauss contended the proposal could solve the two main problems troubling the Middle East—a lack of water and the Palestinian refugees—and thereby provide a way out of the “morass in which the powers are floundering.”
Despite gaining political support in some important quarters, not least from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the proposal went nowhere. That was partly because “the reasoning was naive, to put it mildly,” as the late Malcolm Kerr, one of the country’s leading Arab experts, put it. There was “nothing,” he wrote, “in the atmosphere of the Arab world that was receptive to another grandiose American scheme.”
But it also foundered because the economics made no sense—a point that was argued in some detail both in a 1969 study by me and two years earlier in a 1967 study by William E. Hoehn, an economist with whom I worked at the RAND Corporation. Even with extremely optimistic assumptions about critical variables such as plant-utilization rates and interest rates, just the cost of water alone to produce a crop of cotton would have exceeded the gross value of the entire crop. At the time, Israel had more than 30,000 hectares of land producing irrigated cotton. It would have made more sense for Israel to shift to higher-value uses or stop growing cotton altogether rather than producing expensive desalted seawater at such prices.
Our larger concern, however, was less about the economics than about the consequences of encouraging the development of “peaceful” nuclear energy—with all of its potential military dimensions—in an energy-rich region like the Middle East. That would have raised the very risks of nuclear proliferation that we are seeing today, with countries such as Saudi Arabia starting to copy the example of Iran by undertaking ambitious nuclear-energy programs of their own.
True, none of the three recipients of the water envisioned in the Eisenhower-Strauss plan was energy-rich at the time, but the subsidies needed for nuclear desalting could have been more rationally applied to transporting oil and gas from places where it was plentiful. Even today, there is little economic rationale for nuclear power for countries of the Persian Gulf, despite Iran’s claimed need for “peaceful” nuclear energy. (Iran alone burned off or “flared” some 10 billion cubic meters of waste natural gas in 2012, making it third in the world behind Russia and Nigeria.)
In his recent book, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World (Thomas Dunne Books, 352 pages), the New York businessman Seth M. Siegel contends that Israel has not only solved its water problems but that it can even become “a model for a world in crisis,” a world in which there is increasing pressure on global water supplies. “Israel,” he says, “not only doesn’t have a water crisis, it has a water surplus. It even exports water to some of its neighbors.”
Israel has indeed made enormous progress in two of the three ways that Siegel highlights. It has substantially reduced consumption of scarce water resources, partly through technical innovations such as drip irrigation and improved metering and—probably more important—through the introduction of realistic pricing. Israel has also increased its supply of usable water through recycling or, to state it more plainly, by processing and reusing sewage. These two measures—conservation and recycling—are indeed measures that can provide “solutions for a water-starved world,” as Siegel’s subtitle suggests.
The question is how definitive these solutions might be. Let There Be Water is the work of an enthusiast, and Siegel’s enthusiasm leads him to overstate his case in several respects. First, restricting water use, particularly by repricing water and recycling sewage for agricultural use, is a difficult measure to implement unless water shortages become acute. And even under such conditions, there’s a problem with scale. For example, even at a time of severe shortage, California agriculture consumes almost four times as much water as the state’s urban water users. That’s a long way from the Israeli model, where agriculture now consumes only one-third of the country’s supply.
Moreover, it is questionable that desalination, the third part of the Israeli formula, will ever be able to provide water for the world in large and affordable quantities. In his study, Water 4.0 (Yale University Press, 352 pages), David Sedlak of the University of California, Berkeley, describes the past 40 years of progress in desalination as the equivalent of moving from the gas-guzzling luxury cars of the 1960s to modern, well-engineered SUVs. The problem is that desalination is a relatively mature technology now and is unlikely to be the subject of breakthroughs that advance it far beyond its current standing. The “laws of physics,” Sedlak writes, “make it unlikely that we will ever fill the desalination highway with a bunch of compact hybrid vehicles.”
When Sedlak speaks about the limitations of the “laws of physics,” he is referring to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It defines the minimum energy necessary to convert a high-entropy system—in this case, a solution of water and salt—into a lower entropy system—in this case, separated salt and water. The “reverse osmosis” process, which is the basis of Israel’s large-scale desalination program, is more energy-efficient than earlier processes upon which the nuclear desalination proposals of 50 years ago were based, but it is still energy-intensive and hence expensive.
A number of new technologies under development could improve the energy efficiency of desalination.1 But even these new technologies will encounter the minimum energy requirement dictated by the Second Law. And even if they begin to approach the theoretical minimum, that is still unlikely to produce water that is cheap enough for agriculture, absent some breakthrough in energy production or in agricultural technology or a catastrophic increase in the cost of agricultural products.
Sedlak does praise Israel for the advances it has made in reducing the cost of desalinated water through economies of scale, incremental design changes, and utilization of existing infrastructure. But these are the kind of improvements that can be squeezed out of a mature technology, not order-of-magnitude breakthroughs. The problem is that irrigating a single acre of crop land can easily require as much as 600,000 gallons of water. Considering that amount, even Eisenhower’s projected cost of 15 cents per 1,000 gallons becomes prohibitively expensive for agriculture. Israel’s desalination plants, which now provide 17 percent of the country’s water supply, do so, according to Sedlak, at a cost of $1.90 per 1,000 gallons, or more than $600 for an acre-foot. This is to say nothing of the cost of transporting water over long distances to higher elevations. At that price point, desalinated water cannot produce food for a hungry world at affordable prices. Farmers still need inexpensive water.
Let There Be Water tells the story of a remarkable series of strong-willed, visionary individuals who created what Siegel calls a “water-respecting culture” and built the infrastructure and produced the innovations that have enabled Israel to make exceptionally good use of scarce water resources. Among them are well-known national leaders—including two prime ministers, David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol—and two Americans who also played important roles, Walter Clay Lowdermilk and Eric Johnston.
Siegel’s focus is on Herzl’s water engineers, and he has a particular and understandable fascination with what he calls the “unsung heroes,” many of whom were vindicated late in life.
Enamored with the Zionist mission and believing it to be positive for both Arabs and Jews, Lowdermilk published Palestine, Land of Promise in 1944. It appeared at a critical time, when the prevailing British analysis said that the territory of Palestine could only sustain a population of 2 million at most (as compared with the 12 million of today). In contrast, Lowdermilk wrote, “The absorptive capacity of any country…changes with the ability of the population to make maximum use of its land, and to put its economy on a scientific and productive basis.” Reportedly, his book was found open on President Roosevelt’s desk when he died.
This controversy about Palestine’s absorptive capacity explains why Kerr regarded the later Eisenhower-Strauss proposal as so naive. For the Arabs, as well as for the Jews, more water would mean more possibility for Jewish immigration. But what was sauce for the goose, in this case, was definitely not sauce for the gander.
Eric Johnston, a leading Republican and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, was dispatched by President Eisenhower in 1953 as a special ambassador to find a diplomatic solution for the allocation of the waters of the Jordan River. Johnston concluded that water allocations should be based on the principle of using all available water resources “without undue waste, and that the volume of crops that can be grown in the region should be the paramount criterion of desirability.” Johnston, according to Siegel, was able to get “the water technocrats in each Arab country to recognize his revised plan as the basis for a fair allocation of the Jordan River for each party’s use.” This opened the way for the construction of Israel’s ambitious National Water Carrier, which transports water from the Sea of Galilee to the arid northern Negev.
Siegel traces the role of water in Israel’s history with an anecdotal account that starts not 50 years ago but more than a hundred, when Theodor Herzl engineered a meeting with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II during the latter’s visit to Jerusalem in 1898. “This country needs nothing but water and shade to have a very great future,” Siegel quotes the Kaiser as saying.2 Herzl himself was an enthusiast about developing water resources. In his utopian novel Altneuland, he fantasized that “every drop of water” in his imaginary Jewish homeland would be “exploited for the public good,” and that the “water engineers will be its heroes.”
Indeed, Siegel’s principal focus is on Herzl’s water engineers, and he has a particular and understandable fascination with what he calls the “unsung heroes,” visionary designers and planners, many of whom were dismissed as dreamers early in their careers only to be vindicated late in life, if at all.
The man Siegel describes as “the central character in leading the thinking and planning about Israel’s water” was Simcha Blass, a water engineer from Poland who immigrated in the 1930s. His influence was extraordinary over a wide variety of water initiatives. Using the diversion of Colorado River water to Los Angeles as his model, he conceived and designed the “fantasy plan” that became the National Water Carrier. He discovered the water in the Negev desert that made it possible in 1946 to implement Ben Gurion’s idea of creating 11 new settlements to establish Israel’s claim to what had been a vast and largely empty wasteland. Bass formed a close working relationship in the 1930s with Levi Eshkol to form what became the state-owned water company, Mekorot. And, in the 1950s, a second state-owned company for water planning, TAHAL, was created around him.
When the National Water Carrier became a national project, Blass’s new company was given the planning responsibility. But the task of building it was assigned to his old company, Mekorot. Unhappy that he was not in charge of the whole project, Blass quit his government positions and “went home to wait for the call telling him that he was right after all. That call never came.” When the Water Carrier was officially opened in 1964, Walter Clay Lowdermilk came from the United States as an honored guest. “There is no record,” Siegel writes, “of Simcha Blass having been invited to or attending the ceremonies.”
Blass was not just sitting home sulking. He was pursuing something much more important, an idea he had stumbled upon by chance that has come to be known as “drip irrigation.” Scorned by the experts on the agricultural faculty of the Hebrew University—except for one junior faculty member named Dan Goldberg, who was himself dismissed by his more senior colleagues—Blass went into partnership with Kibbutz Hatzerim, one of those 11 original Negev settlements. Through a series of partnerships with other highly socialist kibbutzim, they created what became Netafim, a large, privately owned company that now dominates the $2.5 billion micro-irrigation market. Netafim has formed partnerships in China, India, and Vietnam among other places, and its products are widely used in the American Southwest. According to Siegel, “Blass lived the rest of his life at a level of comfort not possible on an Israeli government pension.”
Drip irrigation has not only produced huge reductions in agricultural water use but has also vastly increased yields. In one experiment in India, reported on the Netafim website, cotton yields were almost doubled while water use was reduced by 40 percent. Israel has also been a world leader in producing new varieties of crops that require less water or less expensive water.
Israel has made great strides in reducing household water consumption as well. In 2000, the use of dual-flush toilets (an Israeli invention, Siegel was told) were made mandatory, a measure that reduces by half the 35 percent of household water that is consumed by flushing toilets.
When it comes to water recycling, Siegel’s hero is a chemical engineer named Eytan Levy who co-founded “two of the most talked about companies in wastewater treatment.” The first one, Aqwise, has a process that greatly increases the efficiency of the bacteria that are used in secondary sewage treatment. The second one, Emefcy, reduces the volume of sludge created in secondary treatment.
In addition to conservation and recycling, the third area that has been important for Israel’s water management has been desalination. This is not the energy‑intensive steam distillation envisioned in the nuclear projects of a half-century ago. It is based instead on reverse osmosis, a process in which salty water is pushed through a membrane that allows the water molecules, but not the salt molecules, to pass.
Although the concept had been understood for a long time, the big challenge was to produce membranes that could function efficiently. In 1963, two graduate students at UCLA, Sidney Loeb and Srinivasa Sourirajan, and their professor, Samuel Yuster, produced a more porous membrane that could produce freshwater at a rate that was about 10 times faster than any of its predecessors. They demonstrated the concept in a full-size plant in Coalinga, a small farming community in California where water from the local aquifer was too salty to drink.
Loeb was born in Kansas and eventually immigrated to Israel, where he continued pursuing his research in reverse osmosis. Siegel laments Loeb’s failure to get adequate recognition and that he died in 2008 before he could see how “seawater reverse-osmosis desalination would change Israel and the world.” But despite his concern for “unsung heroes,” Siegel makes no mention of the other two Americans, or of advances in reverse osmosis derived from projects in places as diverse as Japan, the Canary Islands, and Australia. On the former point, Siegel is in good company; even the New York Times had to publish a correction this past June for an article that “referred imprecisely” to Sidney Loeb as the “sole inventor” of the reverse-osmosis method. But the impression Siegel creates that reverse osmosis is a largely Israeli development, stemming from Israel’s role as a “start-up nation,” reflects an unfortunate tendency toward boosterism.
Israel has definitely become the world leader in desalination with a network of six coastal desalination plants—the first came on line in Ashkelon in 2007—which together produce more than 500 million cubic meters per year and account for 80 percent of total domestic water use. Siegel quotes Ilan Cohen, a former top aide to two Israeli prime ministers, who describes “desalination and reusing wastewater” as a “paradigm shift.” Cohen says, “Today, we are in a period like the dawn of agriculture. Prehistoric man had to go where the food was. Now, agriculture is an industry. Until recently, we had to go where the water was. But no longer.”
This juicy quote offers a fair representation of the strengths and weaknesses of Siegel’s book. Let There Be Water is a readable account, which is quite an accomplishment for, shall we say, so dry a subject. But for a reader who knows nothing about mundane matters like the cost of water, or its value in various uses, or the allocation of water to those uses, Let There Be Water does not provide the information necessary to assess some of its claims—like, for example, the assertion that Israeli desalination methods can provide affordable water for California. In truth, those methods have yet to make sufficient water available to the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, where the cost of transporting desalinated water from the Mediterranean to higher elevations is substantial.
Israel’s household water-users are subsidizing the country’s use of water for agriculture. A similar subsidy couldn’t possibly sustain an agriculture sector as big as California.
Even in Israel, desalinated water is affordable only after the extraordinary efficiencies in both domestic and agricultural use that Siegel describes have been achieved. Although Siegel doesn’t mention this, cotton acreage in Israel has been reduced almost eightfold from its peak in 1985, presumably a result of higher water prices. Overall, agriculture’s share of water use in Israel has declined dramatically, from 80 percent in the 1960s to 48 percent in 2012. Israeli agriculture today uses less than one-third of its potable water supplies, an enormous change in water-consumption patterns.
It’s also important to note that the Israeli government is providing its agricultural sector with an indirect price subsidy. Siegel never says what Israel’s consumers actually pay for water, but he asserts that they all “pay the same price,” whether they live “adjacent to a well” or “on a mountain that requires expensive pumping.” While acknowledging that “this nationally blended price means that not everyone pays their personal real cost for the water they use,” it results, he believes, in “everyone having a common unifying stake in conservation and innovation.” But that means, essentially, that in Israel, household water-users are subsidizing the country’s use of water for agriculture. That may work in Israel, but a similar indirect subsidy couldn’t possibly sustain an agriculture sector that consumes 80 percent of the water supply, as in California.
It would be exciting to think that desalination could provide affordable water anywhere it is needed. But that will be the case only if the meaning of what is “affordable” changes. That will come about only with a revolutionary change in the condition of agriculture—and I don’t mean a technological revolution that would make things better, but a terrifying increase in water scarcity that would make things much worse. Such scarcity would lead to a spiraling of the cost of producing agricultural goods and threaten the agricultural abundance we have come to take for granted. It is only under such conditions that the expense of desalination and the discipline imposed by water conservation and recycling would become both politically feasible and financially sound. Such a crisis may yet afflict us—but fortunately it does not afflict us now. Touting the technological fix of desalination might inadvertently provide an excuse for postponing the difficult choices needed to make better use of the resources we have now.
Making the best use of the resources it has and the technology that can be brought to bear on them is exactly what Israel has done for itself, as Siegel explains in Let There Be Water. Israel deserves to be celebrated for this singular achievement. But it is just that—a singular achievement, with limited application to the United States.
1 These include a process called “forward osmosis” and another that uses an extremely thin nano‑membrane called “graphene,” developed by two researchers at the University of Manchester, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 2010. There is yet a third called “directional solvent extraction” discovered by two graduate students at MIT, Anurag Bajpayee and Prakash Govindan.
2 But the Kaiser did not, as Siegel also claims, give Herzl “reason to think that he would be an ardent supporter” of creating a Jewish state. In his diary, Herzl describes the Kaiser as non-committal on the larger Zionist project, saying neither “yes nor no.” So much so that Herzl had to buck up his downhearted companions saying, as he records, “that is why I am the leader….I am fearless, and therefore…[a]t difficult moments such as these, I do not despair.” Perhaps it was the good luck of the Zionists that the Kaiser was not more enthusiastic, or they might have leaned toward Germany rather than Britain in World War I, with very different historic consequences.