A cow is seen near a dry river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. Cattle are the traditional asset by which Nampie Motloung, a subsistence black South African farmer, has long measured his wealth. But a blistering drought has made them a liability. Picture taken November 8, 2015. To match SAFRICA-DROUGHT/ REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

SA can learn from Israel, which has not merely preserved water but increased supply by desalination and recycling, writes Arthur Lenk.

Finally, the headlines here in South Africa are beginning to cover the enormous water challenges this country faces.

I believe that ideas for increasing supply should be fully investigated. There is a growing awareness of the dangers approaching South Africa as a dry country with water needs that impact every aspect of its development. It is clear that there is a need for developing short- and long-term planning to tackle this issue, and lessons from other arid countries could offer valuable input.

Israel, since the time of the Bible, has been arid and a high-risk place for drought and then famine. See Genesis 47:4 (“We have come to live here [Egypt] for a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan”) and Deuteronomy 8:15 (“He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions”) for evocative descriptions on how these factors impacted my people in ancient times.

But thankfully today Israel no longer faces such existential challenges – we have solved our water management dilemmas through a variety of strategies and innovations. Later this month, an Israel-inspired UN resolution emphasising the importance of “Agricultural Technology for Development” will be tabled once again at the UN General Assembly. Many of these lessons have important application here in South Africa.

Earlier this year, the New York Times published a feature titled “Aided by Sea, Israel Defeats Old Foe: Drought”. The article detailed how “a major national effort to desalinate Mediterranean seawater and to recycle wastewater has provided the country with enough water for all its needs, even during severe droughts. More than 50% of the water for Israeli households, agriculture and industry is now artificially produced.”

What Israel has done is not merely preserve our natural water sources, which are far too small for our crowded neighbourhood, but significantly increase the water supply by a massive investment in desalination and recycling, and strict rules on water use.

Israel now has four major desalination plants to make the salt water from Israel’s Mediterranean Sea drinkable. Today, 492 billion litres per year are added to Israel’s water infrastructure, with a goal of reaching 757 billion by 2020. Israel uses advanced techniques of reverse osmosis which is significantly cheaper, cleaner and more energy-efficient than in the past. Private sector funded BOT projects, with three of the plants run by Israel’s IDE Technologies, offered 25-year management deals with the company selling the water to Israel’s Mekorot public water system for a set price equivalent to R8 per cubic meter.

Israel is also a world leader in recycling water. It treats 86% of domestic wastewater for safe reuse in agriculture. This is 55% of the total water used for agriculture, far surpassing any other country. Spain is second after Israel, treating 17%, while the US recycles 1%.

Obviously, these treatment techniques cause water in Israel to be more expensive than current prices in SA. However, realistic pricing brings an interesting benefit beyond confidence of long-term sustainability. Farmers have an economic incentive for more efficient usage. Thus today, Israel has mostly stopped growing cotton or exporting oranges (an orange is 87% water).

Another major factor for water savings for Israel is the nearly universal use of one of Israel’s most famous inventions, drip irrigation. This cuts water use by up to half. While the world average use is less than 5%, 90% of Israeli farmers use drip irrigation. The use of a plastic emitter in drip irrigation was developed in Israel by Simcha Blass in the late 1950s and in 1966 Israel’s Netafim corporation developed the world’s first dripper. Netafim is active globally today and has a successful local factory and agricultural turnkey project company based in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape.

Yet another Israeli success is an integrated national plan for development and management of an adequate water supply. Israel, given its hugely complex geopolitical situation, sees a secure supply of water as no less than a national security issue. Eilon Adar, director of Ben-Gurion University’s Institute for Water Research, says: “You have to impose more limitations on water. Local consumers have to give up some of their rights.”

Success or failure on these water issues will directly impact peace in my region. In late 2013, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding on water management. Part of the agreement is increasing water sales from Israel to the Palestinians. Earlier this year, Israel and Jordan reached an agreement to share water to be produced by a planned desalination plant in Aqaba, from which salty brines will be piped to our shared Dead Sea. In return for its portion of the desalinated water, Israel will double its sale of Sea of Galilee water to Jordan on the countries’ north border.

Leading Israeli water management companies continue to share our innovation and experiences around the world and have shown interest in offering assistance here in South Africa. An impressive number of South African officials and business leaders visited Israel last month to take part in Israel’s famous WATEC conference and exhibition in Tel Aviv to learn more about the real potential for co-operation. This conversation between officials and the business communities of our two countries needs to be developed and deepened – it is in South Africa’s national interest.

* Arthur Lenk is ambassador of Israel to South Africa.

The Mercury

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