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Water solutions for a parched Israel

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STEVE JOHNSON PHOTO

As Israel looks to the skies for rain, we conclude our look at how the country is trying to make use of every last drop.

RAINFALL ENHANCEMENT: Israel has been seeding clouds in the northern part of the country since the 1950s. Between November and April, cloud seeding is performed over the Lake Kinneret basin, using planes and ground burners to seed clouds with silver iodide. Rain enhancement has been credited with increasing rain in northern Israel by an average of 13 per cent annually, which equates to about 60 million cubic metres of water per year.

Or maybe not. A 2010 study conducted by professors from Tel Aviv University’s department of geophysics and planetary sciences examined more than 50 years of data on cloud seeding in northern Israel and concluded that apparent increases in rainfall are due to changing weather patterns, rather than cloud seeding. “By comparing rainfall statistics with periods of seeding, we were able to show that increments of rainfall happened by chance,” they wrote.

RESERVOIRS & AQUIFERS: The Jewish National Fund has long been involved in Israel’s water economy. The county’s network of 180 dams and reservoirs frees up “enough water to meet the needs of over 1.2 million Israelis each year.”

JNF has also tapping into underground reserves that have never been used before. A large aquifer at Kibbutz Shamir in the northern Galilee could produce 30 billion litres of potable water each year from 1.5 km below the earth’s surface. The water will be piped into the Kinneret and provide the equivalent of 15 to 18 centimetres to the lake’s water level annually.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES: Jewish liturgy has long valued the importance of dew and science is now catching up. An Israeli company, Tal-Ya Water Technologies, has developed a reusable plastic tray that squeezes dew from the air, in order to provide water for crops. The plant sits on a special plastic tray, which funnels dew and condensation to its roots. The reclaimed dew can reduce the need to water crops by up to 50 per cent.

Israel is not the only thirsty country in the region – or the world – and much of its technology is also solving water shortage problems abroad. The Zuckerberg (not that Zuckerberg) Institute for Water Research is based in Sede Boqer, in the heart of the Negev. As noted in Scientific American, the institute has developed resilient well systems for African villages and biological digesters that can cut the water usage of most homes in half.

RED-DEAD: One of the older proposals for restoring the Dead Sea to its traditional level is is to dig a canal linking it to the Mediterranean Sea. More recently, attention has turned to a similar project, called the Red-Dead Canal. It would start at the Red Sea and travel north, downwards through the Arava valley shared by Jordan and Israel, until it reaches the Dead Sea. Several years ago, Shimon Peres, who was Israel’s foreign minister at the time, referred to the canal as a “Peace Conduit,” which could become a great unifying project for the Israel and Jordan. “Water,” Peres said, “knows nothing of politics; it flows for all.”

Although it was originally planned to be a joint Israeli-Jordanian project, the Jordanians decided to go it alone. They plan to start working on it next year and expect to have it completed by 2021. Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories should all benefit from higher water levels in the Dead Sea, as long as the environmental concerns are addressed.

WASTEWATER TREATMENT AND REUSE: Although the cost of desalination has decreased substantially, it is still prohibitively expensive for agricultural use. The solution: recycling. In what does not sound like hyperbole, the Jerusalem Post has dubbed Israel a “regional water superpower.” Israel is the world leader in reclaiming water – 87 per cent of its wastewater undergoes purification so it can be reused for agriculture. (Singapore is number two, reclaiming 35 per cent of its sewage water.)

Israel actually started using waste water on its crops in the early 1980s, but didn’t publicize its advances back then, as authorities were afraid the public would reject the idea of using toilet water to grow food.

DESALINATION: “Nuclear desalination plant will be ready by 1971,” read the headline in the Dec. 18, 1965, edition of the Jerusalem Post. “President Lyndon Johnson has assured Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of U.S. willingness to help finance the joint U.S.-Israel nuclear desalination plant,” the article stated. The nuclear desalination plant never saw the light of day, but Israel has made huge strides in the creation of potable water.

By 2014, Israel’s desalination programs provided over a third of the country’s drinking water – a number that is expected to increase to 70 per cent by 2050. More than half of the water used by Israeli households, agriculture and industry is artificially produced. The cost of desalinating a cubic metre of water has tumbled from $1, to under 40¢.

However, a note of caution was sounded recently. A national study found that desalinated water could pose a major health risk to millions of children, because the water lacks iodine. Iodine levels well below those recommended by the World Health Organization have been found in school-age children and pregnant women. A lack of iodine can lead to stunted growth and lower IQ.

FAST & PRAY: We are talking about the Holy Land, of course. Long before there was desalination or drip irrigation, there was prayer. The Mishnah in Taanit 1 enumerates what to do when drought strikes: start with three private fast days and if things don’t improve, proclaim three public fast days; if things deteriorate, fast some more and shutter your stores.

As Rabbi Yaakov Bieler explains, “fasting is only a means to an end, i.e., when one concentrates less on his material needs, he can more easily turn his thoughts and prayers to spiritual matters. It is assumed that the introspection and soul-searching accompanying a fast will galvanize the population’s spiritual energy to the point where the Jewish People’s prayers will be affirmatively answered and the long-anticipated and much-needed rain will finally fall.” Amen.

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