THE BLOG
02/28/2011 12:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gospel From the World's Headwaters

Watching the sun rise from the shores of the Sea of Galilee recently put me in a contemplative mood. After all, I was sitting at the headwaters of Judeo-Christian thought. Here's where Peter fished, where John baptized, and where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 people with a handful of loaves and fishes. Now we're facing a challenge that will require a similar miracle on an even grander scale -- how we're going to feed, clothe and house the earth's skyrocketing population with the scarce water supply we've got. As with the loaves and fishes, it's going to come from this wellspring of modern thought on water management.

Israelis monitor the level of the Sea of Galilee -- a freshwater lake locally known as the Kinneret -- with religious fervor. As drought, demand and evaporation have tapped the Kinneret, the lake has steadily crept from a red line -- desperate drought -- towards what water authorities call the black line, the point of irreparable damage. Israelis know that you can't manage what you can't measure, and from the water metering laws that were instated at the very start of Israeli nationhood to the constant awareness of the level of the Kinneret, measuring water has become an article of faith.

But the Israelis don't just monitor, they aggressively take on the challenge of building a modern nation in the desert.

In the 1960s, Simcha Blass invented drip irrigation to raise crops in the Negev Desert by parsing out its scarce water (some sourced from the Kinneret via Israel's National Water Carrier system) drop by drop. Blass' innovation was a global game-changer. Today, the irrigation company that grew from his invention produces 2.5 billion feet of drip line per year to help farmers from Kazakhstan to California feed and clothe us more efficiently, and an array of supporting technologies, including high-tech filtration and fertilizer injection systems, has emerged. High-efficiency irrigation is at the core of a vibrant cluster of water-saving industries that have earned Israel the nickname "The Silicon Valley of Water Technology."

The Israelis practice what they preach. Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project pointed out in her book, Pillar of Sand, that Israel's per-hectare water use declined 37% while its output tripled. "Israel is the only nation that appears to have done what the world needs to do over the next 30 to 40 years -- double water productivity in agriculture," she wrote.

The country has five seawater desalination plants online to make potable water from the Mediterranean. Similar desalination technology is deployed in 14 other plants that treat brackish groundwater. And Israel treats and recycles about 75% of its wastewater. (By comparison, even though countries like Singapore and Spain are moving rapidly in the right direction, they currently recycle less than half that amount.) In fact, half of Israel's irrigation water is highly treated wastewater.

In addition to being masters at creating usable water, Israelis are among the world's most ardent conservationists. During the depths of the water crisis in 2007-2009, domestic demand dropped from 744 to 661 million cubic meters -- a savings of 11%, and agricultural use dropped from 474 to 359 mcm. The nation increased water exports to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority by more than 7% [127 to 137 mcm], and even wrote natural flow into the equation, devoting an extra 2 mcm to rivers and streams and improving aquifer restoration programs.

Israeli urbanites became so good at conserving water that farmers felt the effects -- supplies of treated wastewater dropped dramatically as less water went down household drains. In my book, that's the right kind of problem to have.

Oded Fixler, the deputy director of engineering for Israel's Water Authority, reports that Israel expects to double in population and accommodate growing demands from neighbors in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan by the year 2050. Overall water demand will double. But Israel's wastewater treatment will triple. So will seawater desalination and brackish water treatment. And all the while, the volume dedicated to the environment will climb.

Israel's strategy covers the proverbial waterfront. The human element -- Israelis' understanding that their very survival depends on water conservation -- is matched by innovation that allows them to grow more crops and drive their industrial economy with less water. Engineering will continue to turn saltwater into fresh water, and wastewater into clean irrigation supplies. And a pricing strategy that Fixler calls "network separation" -- pricing high-quality potable water significantly higher than all-purpose water -- is an abundantly logical economic philosophy that will help keep priorities in line and fund the effort.

Plenty of important lessons have been preached over the millennia from the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It's time for us to heed the latest ones -- the ones about the waters of the lake itself.