Seth Siegel

Israel: A lesson in water management innovation for the Okanagan

Rethinking ideas on managing the Okanagan water conservation strategies

Israel might be the last country many would associate with being a global leader in water implementation and conservation strategies.

Situated amidst and surrounded by the Middle East dry, desert geography, the tiny country smaller than the size of Vancouver Island has used technology and eliminating subsidies to develop water management practices other countries around the world have since adopted.

For author Seth Siegel, his original book writing idea was to profile how water is managed in three different places – Israel, Singapore and Australia.

But he focused his first book, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World published in 2015, ultimately on Israel.

“What I learned talking to Australian officials was what they were doing they learned from Israel, while Singapore did not have the agricultural component that adds to the complexity of managing water,” said Siegel.

The New York City native discussed what he learned about Israel’s water strategies with Okanagan Basin Water Board officials and a Zoom audience last Thursday (Nov. 12), part of the series of public speakers the OBWB is presenting to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Siegel said at first glance, comparing the geographic characteristics of Israel to the Central Okanagan doesn’t generate many similarities, but the lessons learned by the Jewish state can be adapted around the world.

Prior to becoming Israel, the country was known as Palestine, a British colony. The British government adopted a population cap of two million because of the perceived limitations of water supply.

Siegel said that decision would become a global tragedy, as it effectively banned Jews seeking refuge from anti-Semitism in Germany and other European countries from seeking safe haven in Palestine leading up to the Second World War.

“The population then wasn’t allowed to grow past two million. Today, 15 million people are living in (Israel) and they live pretty good lives,” he said.

And, that lifestyle and population growth sustainability revolve largely around water.

Starting in the early 1950s, conversations about water management policy have not always been without controversy, but the nation founded the Israel Water Authority to oversee the country’s transformational water policies, the creation of which had limited political influence and was based on sound scientific and economic practices reliant on technological advances.

“Even today, Israel is working on water policy development for 2050. They are always thinking ahead to the future, and encouraging water-related entrepreneurial technology development all the time,” he said.

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Some of the country’s technology water use control advances include water pumps that access water aquifers, desalination of seawater, treating sewage waste and reusing the water for agricultural crops, capturing rainwater, planting rain seeds in the air to encourage rainfall, agricultural crop drip irrigation, water-efficient toilets, and consistent infrastructure repairs for leaks and to reduce evaporation loss.

“In a country that generates a third less rainfall than 25 years ago…it today provides 60 per cent of the water supply for the West Bank, 15 per cent to Gaza and 10 to 15 per cent of the water consumed in Jordan for non-agricultural purposes,” he said.

Despite the ongoing political strife in that region, he noted the water distribution by Israel to its neighbours has never been interrupted.

He said there are rewards for technology success in Israel’s water management DNA while the government does off-set investment loss for ideas that don’t pan out.

“Israel does not punish failure. We look at startup failure and say now it is time for you to go out and get a real job. It is the opposite of Israel. The joke is if you have only three failed startups, people there ask what is wrong with you? Is that all?

“The idea is to keep going, be hungry to get it right. There is a strong belief in the power of technology to right the world’s problems of all kinds. They prepare for it, invest in it, and reward people who succeed.

“There is a reason why a country of barely more than nine million people has 300 to 350 water technology companies on the Nasdaq, more than any other country in the world.”

In drawing comparisons to the Okanagan watershed, Siegel cites how the Israeli government chose to place a subsidization-free value cost for water passed on to all users, both domestic and agricultural.

Water consumptive crops like cotton and alfalfa were disavowed because of the cost of water imposed on farmers, in favour of revolutionizing the agriculture industry with less water demanding crops and technology innovations.

Today, the main field crops grown include wheat, sunflowers, groundnuts and chickpeas. Other fruit crops include mandarins, oranges, grapefruits and lemons. Israel’s organic farmers are focused on potatoes, carrots, peppers, avocados and citrus fruit.

Siegel said the country early on placed a value on the water, rather than allowing it to be taken for granted as a subsidized service provided by the government.

“When you start in school, all the way through our education, the value of water is something that is integrated into their country’s mindset,” he said.

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