Israel is almost two-thirds desert. After a week of heavy rains, two-thirds of California is still experiencing “extreme drought”. On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a deal to help each other confront critical challenges faced by both countries, including water scarcity and the impacts of climate change. The agreement was signed in Silicon Valley, where Netanyahu was visiting after a trip to Washington, DC earlier in the week to meet with President Obama and address the annual American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference.
“California, I hear, has a big water problem,” Netanyahu said in an interview. “We in Israel don’t have a water problem. We use technology to solve it, in recycling, in desalination, in deep drip irrigation and so on. And these technologies could be used by the state of California to eliminate its chronic drought problem.”
Israel has made great strides in attaining water security in the last few decades. Netanyahu said that rainfall has dropped by half in the 65 years of Israel’s existence while the country’s population grew 10-fold and the economy grew by a factor of 70. With aquifers depleting rapidly by the turn of the century, a creative response was required.
“By 2000 our balance was really strained,” Alexander Kushnir, head of Israel’s Water Authority, told the Times of Israel last month. “We would have had to cut back drastically in agriculture or industry or home use and we weren’t prepared to do that.”
According to Kushnir, desalination on a major scale provided the best solution. The first large desalination plant came online in 2005 and by the end of this year there will be five desalination plants providing about one-quarter of the country’s water supply.
Israel is also a leader in recycling water. “Today over 80 percent of our purified sewage goes back into agricultural use,” Kushnir said. “The next best in the OECD is Spain with 17–18 percent.”
Israel and California are already collaborating on what will be the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. The Southern California facility, being developed by Israel’s IDE Technologies Ltd., will provide 50 million gallons of potable water a day when finished in 2016. However, even when developed by cutting-edge firms, desalination is still a relatively costly and energy-intensive process. It takes about 2 gallons of seawater to make 1 gallon of freshwater, according to a 2013 report from the Pacific Institute. The San Diego County Water Authority has agreed to purchase water from the plant for about $2,000 an acre-foot for 30 years, which is nearly double what the agency pays for water now. This could raise water bills by about 10 percent according to reporting by NBC News. The project costs run about $1 billion and the water will serve about 300,000 area residents, providing about seven percent of San Diego County’s water requirements.
Both California and Israel have water challenges spreading beyond their borders. California gets a significant portion of water from the Colorado River — which supplies water to more than 30 million people in seven states. With California getting about 30 percent of the total allocation already, the regional drought as well as impacts of climate change have made this reliance unsustainable.
“There is no planning for a continuation of the drought we’ve had,” one expert on the Colorado River told the New York Times earlier this year. “There’s always been within the current planning an embedded hope that somehow, things would return to something more like normal.”
Israel has been accused of discriminating in its water policy toward residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And the water struggles of Israel’s neighbors, including Syria and Jordan, could have serious geopolitical implications if not addressed in the same dire manner that Israel and California are confronting their own issues. The Middle East is expected to suffer severe water shortages in coming decades as bad management, overuse, population growth and changing precipitation patterns come to a head.
Jordan has the third-lowest water reserves in the region and is struggling to accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees. Already experiencing power cuts relating to water shortages, in February, Prince Hassan, the uncle of King Abdullah, “warned that a war over water and energy could be even bloodier than the Arab spring,” according to The Guardian.
In a January column, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman notes that last year the International Journal of Climatology published a study saying that “changes in extreme temperature and precipitation in the Arab region,” manifested in “increasing frequencies of warm nights, fewer cool days and cool nights.” Friedman notes how displaced Syrian farmers who suffered poor growing conditions due to drought and heat made for eager recruits in the Arab awakenings across the region in 2011.
Like climate change, water management is a global problem with very local impacts. While wars over water may not be imminent yet, conflicts are already running high. “I think the biggest worry today is sub-national conflicts,” Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, told The Guardian. “Conflicts between farmers and cities, between ethnic groups, between pastoralists and farmers in Africa, between upstream users and downstream users on the same river.”
On the heels of the AIPAC Conference, on Wednesday the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill describing Israel as a “major strategic partner” of the U.S. Among other things the bill “authorizes the President to carry out U.S.-Israel cooperative activities and to provide assistance for cooperation in the fields of energy, water, homeland security, agriculture and alternative fuel technologies.”