In his New York Times bestselling book, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, author Seth M. Siegel discusses how Israel—a desert country that has experienced rapid population growth—created its own water surplus through effective governance and public policy, as well as science and engineering innovation. W&WD Associate Editor Sara Samovalov spoke with Siegel about Israel’s achievements and what the U.S. might learn from them.
Sara Samovalov: Let There Be Water was published in September 2015. Since then, the Flint water crisis has unfolded in the U.S. What are your thoughts on Flint?
Seth Siegel: In the book, I say that water problems are a proxy for bad governance. Water problems almost always do us the favor of giving us lots of warning in advance. When someone says, “We were so shocked by the water main breaking”, or by the algal bloom in the lake, or by the lead contamination in the water, it’s almost always not true. They are only surprised if they didn’t know what they should be looking for and what they should be doing. Flint has helped raise awareness that people expect and demand clean and safe drinking water. It’s also done us a favor, because generally the media and politicians don’t talk about water, and this has given us an opportunity to raise water on the communal agenda.
Samovalov: Which of Israel’s innovations might translate best to the U.S.?
Siegel: We should be accelerating and incentivizing farmers to adopt drip irrigation to save on water and to save on soil erosion with nitrogen. And long before we would ever do that, we should start taking our sewage—which we’re already treating under the Clean Water Act—taking that sewage, treating it and reusing it for golf courses, for parks and for inedible crops. Which are all things that are done in Israel.
Samovalov: In the book, you discuss how Israel is a “water-respecting culture,” and how children learn about water’s importance from childhood. Is it possible to foster that sort of culture in the U.S.?
Siegel: I think the change in water culture is already on the way. The generation that is passing has taken the American credo that water is inexhaustible like sunshine and air, but the generation that is rising now has come to understand that there are limits on everything, and they are much more environmentally focused. This new water culture is evolving. The drought in California—which is the center of pop culture creation—is actually helpful, because everyone is understanding that there are now limits on water, and conservation and respect for water is going to grow all over the country.
Samovalov: Does that mean you are optimistic about America’s water future?
Siegel: My book is a very optimistic book. What I say is that we can either have terrible water problems or we could have a wonderful water future. It’s in our hands. The reason I’m optimistic is that I see that a small country that is militarily beleaguered, that has very few water resources—just one freshwater lake—has somehow or other managed to have such a surplus of water that it provides water for its own people 24/7 and provides water for its neighbors, the Palestinians and the Jordanians, in significant volumes. It also has a robust agricultural industry. It’s a country that’s 60% desert, the rest of the country is semiarid, and it’s the world’s fastest-growing population. Put all of those together, and I regard that as something remarkable. The reason I’m optimistic is that if Israel can do it, we surely can do it. We are richer than they are. We are certainly as smart, if not smarter, than they are; we have great educational institutions. We have a bigger industrial base. Everything they’ve done we can do. We just have to want it and choose to do it.