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Stretching every drop: water solution for a parched Israel

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FLICKR, BRIAN A

Will this winter bring plentiful rains or another year of drought? Israelis can hope for the best but must always prepare for the worst. Over the years, that arid country has tried many initiatives to save water, some extremely successful. Others, less so. Here are some of them.

CONSERVATION: First, let’s look at how Israelis try to conserve what they do have. Israelis used only 338 cubic metres of water a year per person (compared to 1,682 cubic metres in the U.S. and 1,494 cubic metres in Canada in 2000.)

For years, Israelis were exposed to a series of ads using the slogan, “Chaval al kol tipa” (Don’t waste a drop.) There have been all-out campaigns prompted Israelis to install low-flow taps, low-flow showers, and as one article put it, low-flow everything. Air is mixed with water in showerheads to give the impression of a very strong stream of water.

Israel Agriculture Technology – Growing With Drip Irrigation

DRIP IRRIGATION: Visitors to Israel will be familiar with “drip irrigation” and the plastic tubing that snakes its way through city parks and kibbutzim. The slow drop-by-drop method of watering deposits just enough water above or below surface. Thanks mostly to drip irrigation, Israel’s water requirements for apples, bananas and potatoes declined by more than half after its introduction. About 90-95% of Israel’s agricultural sector uses drip irrigation compared to less than seven percent in the U.S.

However, Professor Amos Banin of Hebrew University sounds a warning. He compares drip irrigation technology to the life of a married couple. “There is the honeymoon between the irrigator and the land… [but] after some decades, there is an increasing deterioration of the land as a result of irrigation.” Throughout the world – Israel included – artificial irrigation is taking its toll on the land.

TAXATION: In 2009, the Knesset approved a “Drought Tax,” a levy on excessive water geared to the number of occupants per household. Tthe tax was credited with leading to a drop of about 12 percent in consumption and had its greatest affect on richer Israelis. But for those in low socioeconomic communities, usage barely changed.

KIDS: A Raanana-based company called GabiH2O has created a water conservation site geared toward children. It includes tips and games, and info about its own product, the colourful Anti Gravity Shower Timer which tells you when it’s time to turn off that tap.

Abraham Tenne, chairman of Israel’s Water Desalination Administration, says Israelis educate their children on water conservation so that they become what he calls “an army of water policemen,” reminding their parents to shut the tap every time they brush their teeth or shave.

IMPORTING WATER: Once seriously considered as a solution to Israel’s water predicament, Israel and Turkey signed an agreement in 2004 that would see Turkey ship water to meet three per cent of Israel’s needs over 20 years. That deal was scrapped in April 2006. But the following month, the two countries were negotiating the construction of four underwater pipelines to transfer water, electricity, natural gas and oil to Israel. Those discussions died with the 2006 Gaza flotilla. Now that Israel has its own sources of natural gas (in the Mediterranean) and water (thank you, desalination) importing water is no longer a necessity.

MODIFYING CROPS: Kibbutz Tzuba, in the Judean Hills west of Jerusalem, has a long history of farming fruit trees like apples and kiwis. But the kibbutz decided to switch from fruit trees to become an estate winery. “There are major water shortages. Because of that, we are forced to change what we grow,” kibbutz member Steven Sherman told the Jerusalem Post. Apples need 3,000 cubic metres of water per acre per year. Kiwis need over 4,000. But grapes need only 800 making them a more economical and suitable to a country experiencing a long-term water shortage.

There is also research into plants that can thrive on the brackish or salty water found beneath the surface in the Arava or Negev desert. Bu don’t worry. When you bite into one of those fruits or vegetables, you won’t have to spit out a mouthful of salt.

“As the plant absorbs the salty water,” writes Seth M. Siegel, author of Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, “there is a change in the plant’s cell structure. The amount of water in the cell declines, but the natural sugars increase. This produces sweeter fruits and vegetables with a better texture.”

PUBLIC AWARENESS: Ran Pauker of the Green Point Botanical Garden of Kibbutz Nir Oz in the Negev has compiled the Ten Commandments for a Water-wise Ecogarden. A selection:

I. Design a sustainable garden
II. Study the soil
III. Irrigate in accordance with the plant’s needs
IV. Mulch the soil
X. Maintain the garden correctly

(These make sense even if you don’t live in a desert.)

Next time, more initiatives from a parched country including two of the most successful: wastewater reuse and desalination.

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