Addressing Israel’s Water Crisis

By Alexandria Vickery

The more man develops and the more his emotions and awareness become deeper and broader, and his knowledge becomes richer, he is in greater need of direct attachment inside of nature. To suckle directly from this vast global experience.

— A.D. Gordon, 1951


On February 7, Alon Tal, a Ben Gurion University Desert Ecology professor, founder of the Israeli Green Party, and author of “Pollution in a Promised Land,” visited UC Santa Cruz to give a talk on the environmental consequences of limited water resources in Israel, a crisis compounded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and potentially the subject of future dispute1. He described Israel as possessing environmental assets well worth preserving, and suggested that the land and its preservation could be the source of harmony in the midst of the conflict. Ecology and environmentalism are binding ties not only of the people to the land, but also of the people to each other—it creates a common natural history and remarkable heritage, and in taking care of it, the peace process can start. In a situation where improved environmental conditions are reliant on a State’s neighbors as much as the State itself, the collective and communal efforts of everyone in the region are necessary for progress. The current water shortage in Israel is an example of an issue beyond personal politics and affiliation: it is a common, human, environmental problem in which the people need the land and the land needs the people, a situation where pragmatism and cooperation are more effective than dissension and strife.

A.D. Gordon, an early Romantic Ruralist Zionist from Russia, saw Jewish spirituality and salvation as accessible through physical labor. He not only envisioned the creation of a Jewish homeland, but an inextricable bond between the Jews and their nation through the sacred act of working the land. A staunch advocate of farming and agriculture, Gordon believed in ruralist and communal interaction with nature in which organic bonds—such as family, community, or nation—would take precedence over mechanical bonds, such as state, party, or class. His vision was that a deep relationship with the land of Israel would instill in his people the fundamentally Jewish tenets of morality, spirituality, and commitment to humanity, thereby putting an end to pettiness and selfishness. Beyond the economic and pragmatic benefits of agriculture—to stimulate the Israeli financial system and provide food and work for the new population—was the idealized and “edifying effect of farming on the Jewish spirit”2.

Inspired by Gordon’s vision, the first Jewish settlers arrived in the land of Israel one hundred years ago, where they were met with ecological disaster. Tal describes a “variety of objective travel reports [that] documented massive deforestation, desertification, species loss, and poverty”2, painting a bleak picture of a run-down desert calling for a people to engage it. In the ensuing century, the Zionist movement made a concentrated effort to “make the desert bloom,” a common phrase that put emphasis on turning the distressed landscape in front of them into the grand and fertile land of Biblical descriptions. In 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a corporation owned by the World Zionist Organization, took on the task of reforestation by planting 200 million trees, resulting in an overall net gain of trees since 100 years ago and effectively transforming the landscape, the oxygen levels, and the agricultural capacity of the country2.


Israel Potable Water Illustration

Alexandria Vickery

These efforts were incredibly admirable, if a little misguided; in its zeal, the Zionist movement created environmental problems and then deemed then as secondary to population issues1. That is not to say that the work of the JNF was intentionally malicious; “these externalities arose more from lack of awareness and hydrological data than from greed or negligence”2. As part of their makeover initiative, the JNF almost drained swamplands of the Hula Valley out of existence in order to provide farmers with additional cultivable lands and reduce the prevalence of malaria in the area, negatively impacting biodiversity. Many of the trees planted were fir trees, a nonnative species that is damaging to local ecosystems. The push to turn Israel into an agricultural paradise put strain on the already limited water supply, contributing greatly to the current water crisis.

Agriculture demands a great deal of water. In Israel, 50% of good quality drinking water is now turned out into fields rather than to houses3. The demand for huge amounts of water has existed since farming in Israel first began (in Israel’s first fifty-five years, the population grew sevenfold while the agricultural sector grew sixteenfold2), but it has been especially troublesome since the 1980s when natural water resources had been developed to capacity3. As the state of Israel grew and developed from one million people in 1950 to 7.8 million today1, demands for domestic water also increased as both population size and the standard of living in a small and fragile piece of land grew, leading to overutilization of water sources2. Now, an average of 95% of conventional sources have been exploited for domestic and agricultural use4, with an Israeli Water Authority report of a 10% drop in water resources over the past twenty years5. This has lead to increased salinity of groundwater and other previously fresh sources and has become a huge issue for potable water that cannot be ignored. Global warming and drought have compounded the influx of human-produced water pollution, increasing concentrations of minerals and pollutants to potentially unhealthy levels. The quality of aquifer and major river water sources has been declining over “decades of insouciant contamination from a variety of pollution sources,” becoming little more than “putrid sewage conduits”2.

A recent period of prolonged drought, accompanied by a huge decline in rainfall, may be a new and drier point of equilibrium. This adds stress to the already strained Israeli-Palestinian relations and may factor into future conflict as each side fights for its right to water. In an already extremely water-scarce region, damage to existing water resources negatively affects human health and ecosystem biodiversity, acting as both the cause and the cost of conflict. Despite a scriptural prohibition against destroying fruit trees in times of war, interpreted as “a war of people is not war of nature”1, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has already seen major environmental consequences due to water-related damage, oil contamination or bombed sewage pipes left unfixed. Tal notes “devastation wrought by the widespread dissemination of firearms,” “ground water contamination from government munitions plants,” “residues and disposal associated with nuclear weapons development,” and “ecological implication of the habitat fragmentation that the separation fence (which may demarcate an Israeli/Palestinian border) may cause”2—the militarism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is doing little in the way of solving the water problem and is actually contributing to it.

In the 2008 report “Cost of Conflict in the Middle East,” India-based think tank Strategic Foresight estimated a 20% decrease in levels of precipitation over the next two decades6. This will lead to extreme weather events that will cause the land’s surface to harden so that any rainwater that does fall will not be able to seep into underground aquifers. The mean storage volume could decline as much as 25% by the year 2100 and the dependency ratio could increase exponentially beyond the already high value of 50%. With statistics like these, it is not helpful or productive to take sides or place blame on either side of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While water rights can be disputed, adding fuel to the fire and creating a zero-sum game, water needs can be agreed upon; both Israelis and Palestinians face the same ecologically ominous, dry future, and it is more important that efforts focus on finding solutions than finding fault. This does not exonerate Israel from contributing to the water crisis, it simply necessitates that finding a solution is a responsibility shared with the Palestinian government and their Water Authority.

Israeli Potable Water

Alexandria Vickery

Significant advances have already been made in terms of water policy, as scientists and ecologists seek non-conventional water sources such as reclaimed wastewater and desalinated water and are implementing vigorous conservation awareness programs4. Israel is the world leader in wastewater treatment and reclamation, reusing water at an average rate of 70%7. New low-volume agricultural irrigation methods, such as drip, buried, spray, and sprinkler irrigation, have also been employed to minimize water use, and the relatively inexpensive method of reverse osmosis desalination has been implemented with great success. In fact, desalination may be the key to ending the scarcity of water in the region at a remarkably low cost, providing a method of efficiently producing 1000L of safe and drinkable water for just $0.521. Efforts such as these are necessary and their invention and implementation must remain as proactive as possible to overcome the water crisis. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has proposed a course of integrated policy and action to combat the crisis, including: preserving and protecting both the quality and quantity of existing reserves; increasing the supply of potable water through desalination and purification efforts; advancing the collection and treatment of sewage so that it replace potable water as the main source of agricultural water; intensifying water conservation through economic measures (raising prices) and legal means (improved enforcement and management); and investing in agrotechnology and agroecology, remaining conscious of the environmental impacts of all courses of action8.

A.D. Gordon’s Zionist message was incredibly meaningful and if applied wisely could be important to the future of the environmental success of Israel. Tal notes that a Zionist “belief in science and technology’s ultimate triumph was part and parcel of the dream that inspired Jews from around the world to leave everything and move to a neglected, impoverished province”2; employing scientific methods in solving current environmental crises is the Zionist’s dream, and discriminating, cooperative application of technology can create the compassionate connection to the land of Israel that Gordon advocated. In this way, the Jewish people in the land of Israel can reconcile with their ancestral homeland and satisfy a “longing to restore [their] status as an indigenous people—at once in touch with and rejuvenated by the very soil, plants, and animals that had given birth to their nation millennia ago”2. A deep connection with the land and the desire to make it flourish and prosper, however, is just as important as smart application of science and technology. Technology provides a platform from which peace talks and new developments could take place, but without strong and serious engagement with the land, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will hold a strong and sincere respect for the land and feel compelled to achieve the full, glorious potential of the region.


1. Tal, Alon. “Will the Environment Survive a Revived Peace Process?” UC Santa Cruz. Humanities 1 201, Santa Cruz. 7 February 2011.

2. Tal, Alon. “Enduring Technological Optimism: Zionism’s Environmental Ethic and Its Influence on Israel’s Environmental History.”

3. Shuval, Hillel. “The Agricultural Roots of Israel’s Water Crisis.” Green Prophet. 28 April 2009. Web. 23 January 2011. <;

4. “Israel’s Chronic Water Problem.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2010. Web. 23 January 2011. <;

5. Tal, Alon. “Thirsting for Pragmatism: A Constructive Alternative to Amnesty International’s Report on Palestinian Access to Water.” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. 2010. Web. 23 January 2011. <;

6. “Cost of Conflict in the Middle East.” Strategic Foresight. 2008. Web. 23 January 2011. <;

7. Granof, Leah. “Israel Leading the Way in Wastewater Treatment Techniques.” Israel 21c. 24 December 2006. Web. 23 January 2011. <;

8. “Israel’s Water Economy: Thinking of future generations.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 10 August 2002. Web. 23 January 2011. <;


Published on page 9 of the Winter 2011 issue of Leviathan.

Trackback URL:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *