“Everything begins with water,” Abraham Tenne said while walking through the Sorek Water Desalination Plant a few kilometers outside Palmahim Beach, south of Tel Aviv.
And he would know. The independent consultant on water and wastewater treatment and former chairman of the Water Desalination Administration has traveled the world explaining how Israel has managed to do the impossible: transform an arid desert in the Middle East to one of the leading countries developing water technologies and exporting that know-how across the globe.
Jewish National Fund-USA has been a critical element in making this a reality. Through building up to 250 reservoirs responsible for raising Israel’s recycled water from 5% to 85%, rehabilitation of rivers and transforming the Beersheba Stream into an oasis in the desert, supporting educational programs such as Green Horizons to teach young children the value of water conservation and helping preserve water for Beduin in the Negev, through its Wadi Attir project and more, JNF is implementing its overarching mission of making life better for the people of Israel.
“Green Horizons not only helps save water, but also is an educational tool. Water is precious and teaching children the importance of that is absolutely critical. This is what JNF helps to accomplish,” Marc Kelman, the JNF Water Task Force chairman, said.
Kelman was part of the organization’s delegation visiting Israel to see these projects unfold firsthand. The mission, called “Israel H2O: A JNF USA Tour on the Trail of Israel’s Water Solutions,” hosted water professionals, people from arid climates and, of course, those who simply have a love for Israel in their hearts.
“Our main purpose is to expose participants to water challenges and solutions of the State of Israel. We have traveled the country from North to South, visiting prominent water sites to understand how Israel can solve not only its challenges, but also supply water to its neighbors,” explained Talia Tzour Avner, KKL-JNF chief Israel emissary, who served as the tour’s director.
“One of our goals is to brand Israel positively. Not only to create that image but to export that knowledge to the rest of the world,” she said.
And exporting knowledge is what the Start-Up Nation is doing best.
While Israel did not invent the concept of drip irrigation, it perfected the modern-day version of the innovative process, and since 1959, has taken it to the next level, so much so that other countries, both developed and developing, want a piece of the action.
From a 2016 Obama administration initiative which called on Israeli firms to find solutions to California’s water crisis to JNF’s own Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, which trains farmers in developing nations like Vietnam how to use Israeli agricultural methods, Israeli cleantech know-how is spanning the globe.
Tenne believes water should be a nonpartisan issue, and it is politics that is preventing California – and America in general – from realizing its water conservation potential.
According to a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, nearly one million Californians are exposed to contaminated water, with mostly rural areas affected. A Dateline edition earlier this year interviewed residents outside Los Angeles who bemoaned a lack of water and even at one point saw “sand coming out of the faucets.”
“There are political and bureaucratic challenges. We have these problems in Israel too, of course, but before 1999 we reached a consensus because we were in a time of crisis,” he said.
“The US doesn’t have that consensus yet; they don’t have a master plan,” he explained, adding that the situation in America is further complicated by the many different utility companies that own the country’s water supply.
And visiting delegations are, in his view, not enough to solve America’s water crisis.
“Yes, we have delegations back and forth, but if politicians don’t make a decision, nothing will happen,” he said, recalling his experience with California state staffers in Sacramento two years ago, who listened intently to his ideas – but no progress was made since his visit.
Even though Israel recycles about 87% of its water, that is not to say Israel is itself out of the woods when it comes to supplying its citizens. With rainfall decreasing 50% in the past years, and the population set to double by 2050, Israel needs to drastically increase its water resources soon.
“JNF’s vision is to bring 500,000 people to the Negev and a further 300,000 to the North. That means more new residents need water in the years to come. This is an initiative that needs widespread support,” Tzour Avner said.
Dr. Rodney Glassman, a JNF board member and attorney who holds a PhD in arid land resources sciences, believes Israel’s water achievements are analogous to how JNF itself has grown over the past decades.
“This trip highlights the evolution of JNF. It used to be that every Jewish kid’s favorite bar mitzva present was a tree certificate from their Aunt Barbara in Baltimore. Today JNF’s capabilities are evolving with the needs of Israelis. Israel is now a country that is the best of the best. Who does America call now for creative solutions? Israel. Investing in Israel’s water future through trees, reservoirs and technology is really about investing in the survival of Israel,” he added.
The trip was an emotional one for Glassman, who arrived with his younger brother and 76-year-old father.
Witnessing the modern-day miracles Israel is accomplishing every day captivated the delegation. In Sorek, for example, 26,000 cubic meters of water an hour are blasted into massive filters in an energy efficient way and supplies 20% of Israel’s water demand.
At Shafdan’s Wastewater Treatment System, even the slight smell of sewage wasn’t enough to distract the group when they toured the facility and saw how it transforms sludge into water suitable for agriculture.
But for Robert Glassman, a Jewish farmer who has been leveraging technologies perfected in Israel while farming for over four decades in Central California, the water innovations paled in comparison to spending time in Israel with his sons.
While pleased with JNF’s contribution to Israel’s water future, spending a week with his sons in the Holy Land resonated with the elder Glassman the most. “I just wanted to come to Israel one last time with my boys,” he said.
And perhaps that is really the overarching story about Israel itself. Despite its technological prowess or innovation, at its core, its beckoning call to Jews can be hard to ignore.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.