The Agricultural Roots of Israel's Water Crisis, by Prof. Hillel Shuval

shuval yuval hebrew university photoGreen Prophet is honored to present this opinion piece written by one of Israel’s foremost experts in environmental science and policy.  

Professor Hillel Shuval is currently the director of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem (where our contributor Daniel Pedersen teaches).   

Prof. Shuval describes the harmful consequences that stem from agricultural overuse of Israel’s scarce water resources, and calls for a change in the water management policy to preserve natural areas and green spaces.

This country is facing one of its most severe water crises, triggered by the harsh droughts of 2006-2009.

However the crisis is no less the result of the long-term chronic problem of overutilization of its limited natural water resources. This resulted mainly from demands for more and more water from the agricultural sector, even after the country’s natural water resources were fully developed to their limit in the 1980s. To meet these growing demands, the agricultural and water authorities embarked on a conscious program of dangerous overpumping of ground and surface water resources, the precursor of the water crisis.

Why was this done? We must examine the question of the relationship between water management problems and the role of the country’s deep historic and cultural commitments to agriculture and a romantic vision of a pastoral Israel which still influences water policy.

”  It is illogical and immoral to dry up the urban parks, gardens and green areas, while exporting flowers grown with subsidized drinking water to Europe.  “

Since water resources are limited, we need to reevaluate the division of water allocations between the sectors resulting from rapidly growing domestic and urban demand associated with the growing population and the continued demands of agriculture for water.

Agriculture has, up to now, used some 50 percent of good quality drinking water, despite the fact that it represents only 2%-3% of the country’s GDP and 3%-4% of the population. To understand this deep commitment to agriculture, an overcommitment as far as allocation of water resources is concerned, it is necessary to understand the historic evolution of the role of agriculture in our society and culture.

The first period, which established the roots of Israel as an agricultural nation, goes back to biblical times when the Jewish people lived in its own land.

During the 2,000 or so years of the Diaspora, the image of Israel as an agricultural nation was continually reinforced in the collective memory by religious rituals and Jewish holidays mainly based on the agricultural seasons in Eretz Yisrael. However, we only began to reestablish our national roots in the land with the establishment of the first settlements in the First Aliya of 1880-1905.

This was followed by a more ideologically motivated period of settlement of the land of the Second Aliya led by such thinkers as A.D. Gordon, who in 1910-20 preached the religion of labor and the mystic need for the nation to reestablish its roots by working the soil in its native land. In the prestate period, the ideology, dream and vision of a pastoral agricultural nation was promoted in the popular culture – poems, press, books, youth movements, popular songs and children’s stories. Every child worked in agriculture in school.

The issue of the limitations of land and water became a serious existential political threat to the Yishuv when attempts by the British to cancel the Balfour Declaration where made by the Hope-Simpson White Paper in 1930 to end Jewish immigration to Palestine due to “lack of economic absorptive capacity… specifically lack of water and land.” This led to a massive national drive to establish agricultural settlements – “dunam after dunam” – by the Jewish Agency. The national commitment to urgent agriculture development deepened.

Thus, with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 the drive to establish hundreds of new settlements – moshavim and kibbutzim – became top priority, both to settle the land and assure the borders of the new state as well as to provide jobs for newly arrived immigrants and to provide food security.

Over the years some 700 new agricultural settlements were valiantly established. However, in the view of Meyer Ben-Meir, former water commissioner, we overdid it and could never have met their water needs.

Simultaneously, major efforts were made to develop the nation’s water resources, regardless of costs and economic implications, including the National Water Carrier and more than 1,000 new wells.

As a result of the very high cost of water produced by these heroic national projects, which was greater than most farmers could afford, the subsidy of water for agriculture became a basic part of national policy. While agriculture became highly efficient in water utilization, the heavy subsidy has resulted in farmers growing many crops that would otherwise not be economically feasible and using more water than economically justified.

When natural water resources development reached its limit in about 1980, the country faced a dilemma – not enough water to meet both the growing urban needs and maintain the same level of allocations for agriculture. The agriculture-dominated water establishment developed a new strategy of “temporary” overpumping and “one-time draw-down” of aquifers to justify maintaining the high levels water of allocations for agriculture.

The State Controller’s Report points out that “as a result of overpumping and overutilization, underground water levels were lowered to dangerous levels below the red line, water reserves held for emergency use in case of droughts have dwindled and seawater pollution has intruded to contaminate ground water.”

The water planners naively even promised that eventually these dangerous overdrafts would be repaid with cheap desalinated water, which never came. Thus, based on the deep overcommitment to agriculture, the seeds of the water crisis were planted, which has resulted in the near collapse of rational water management.

This short article cannot go into details, but some of the solutions to this crisis include a reevaluation of the role of agriculture, painful as that may be.

This country can survive only as a hi-tech society and will have to reallocate water from agriculture to the domestic/urban/industrial sectors. We must end wasteful water subsidies to agriculture. It is illogical and immoral to dry up the urban parks, gardens and green areas, while exporting flowers grown with subsidized drinking water to Europe. New ways must be found to maintain as many of the agricultural communities as much possible by subsidizing green areas as the Swiss do, but not by subsidizing water.

We must make major efforts to speed up the construction of seawater desalination plants and the building of treatment plants to increase wastewater recycling and reuse which can assure agriculture a growing source of water to replace fresh water. We will need to increase the allocations of fresh and recycled water to nature, gardens, parks and the environment to keep the country green so as to provide the green lungs required for the health and welfare of those who live in such a crowded urban society.

A solution to our water crisis is possible, but requires giving up many deeply imbedded dreams and visions of the past.

Professor Hillel Shuval has been active for over 50 years in protecting environment and health, founding the National Program for Environmental Protection, and led the development of reclaimed sewage water as a resource.  

As part of the 60 year Independence celebrations, he was presented last year with a lifetime achievement award.  Prof. Shuval is a professor emeritus at Hebrew University’s Environmental Studies Program and is currently the director of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem (where our contributor Daniel Pedersen teaches).

This editorial was first published in the Jerusalem Post.

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18 thoughts on “The Agricultural Roots of Israel's Water Crisis, by Prof. Hillel Shuval”

  1. Khalil says:

    When the rains got over the fever started to spread across the horse lattitudes and remain still today as a stark reminder of what could have gone down the drain when the ” garden-of-eden” phase was completely finished………

    The exact location of this dispora could have been situated beyond the line controlling the south lands further to the east…………

    desalination plants were built to turn the salt water into water for making the wine the populace so enduringly wanted…….

    The story remains true to the silicon revolution of the 60’s that turned sand into wafers ready for manufacturing satelittes and TVs that today are defucnt parts of a ecconomy on the run…………

    The carbon revolution has started on the wrong foot enabling millions to believe that the outcome will be similar to the silicon revolution……..

    the carbon tax should be on the books as early as 2015 and will enable the populace to imagine the same……….

    the green revolution failed the very purpose of the doctrine it was written in…….

    how green is my valley becomes the truth the pudits now depend on…

    the ”append” command has no relative use to the data in your own hand..


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  6. Some numbers from the National Bureau of Statistics, statistical abstract of Israel 2008. In 2006 (latest year for which data are available):

    Total water supply was almost 2,000 million cubic meters (mcm), of which only 360 mcm (18%) were from effluents. That means that over 80% of our water comes from

    Water consumption was almost 2,000 million cubic meters (mcm), distributed by sector as follows:
    Agriculture = 1,100 mcm (55%)
    Domestic & Public = 735 mcm (35%)
    Industrial = 115 mcm (5%)

    Back of the envelope: Let’s assume that all effluent waters (360 mcm) went to agriculture, out of the 1100 mcm for that sector = 33% of agricultural water is from effluents. So the vast majority of irrigation water comes from high quality water that can be used for drinking.

    A similar picture is true of previous years, supporting Shuval’s claim that 50% of high quality drinking water have been used for agriculture.

    Our aquifers and the Kinneret are at dangerous lows. Isn’t it time to reevaluate our priorities and consider whether it still makes sense to subsidize all this water for irrigation of high water-use crops that are sent out of the country? Is it worth
    – the cost of 100’s of millions spent on desalination,
    – destruction of the quality of life in our urban and desert areas, and
    – the environmental devastation of water that is no longer reaching natural ecological systems?

  7. Karin,

    Now that Israel is 61 years old (many happy returns), it’s time to stop acting like the state hasn’t been established yet.

    We no longer need to stake a claim on the Negev, and as a sovereign nation we have much better options to manage our resources.

    Zionism back then meant building as many towns as we could anywhere we could, often overnight. Today, we realize that we cannot and should not build new towns, but must add them on to existing locations – ask any environmentally responsible organization.

    So, as Shuval points out, we need to outgrow the ancient ways of thinking and adapt them to the reality we face and our changing priorities.

  8. Karin,
    Right now, the cost of water to agriculture or residential uses does not reflect the true cost to Israel’s society, economy and environment.

    Making water more expensive for agriculture (to reflect the true costs) will only enhance the incentive to develop newer and better agritech solutions and products.

    No-one is saying that we have to stop agriculture in Israel – in fact the periphery and the green use of open spaces should be encouraged and supported.

    Providing subsidized drinking water for agriculture is not the solution, and as Shuval points out, it is a major part of the problem.

    Using reclaimed water for irrigation is also problematic. It can be used to recharge the aquifers, so that they can replenish themselves and we will have more drinking water available. The reclaimed water undergoes more treatment in the ground, and will counteract the effect of the overpumping which leads to the intrusion of salt water and pollution. Diverting the reclaimed water away from aquifer recharge is adding to the existing deficit in our water resources.

  9. Due to Israel’s water crises over the years, and its dedication to agriculture, the country has developed a booming agritech exports business, with about $2 billion US exported annually, double the amount of fresh agri products.

    I suggest those passionate about the Israel attend next week’s Agritech conference. I’ll be there learning more about how necessity and industry go hand in hand in Israel. There should be plenty of water experts on hand, tho I’ll doubt they’ll be saying negative things about their industry.

    It is because of water that Israel’s land today includes the Negev Desert. It’s due to those settlements there, that the UN decided to include them in the State of Israel. See the story of Simcha Blass and Netafim.

    Maybe Israel’s time working with water management is over, but I beg to differ. I think by using Israel as a laboratory, its innovators can continue to develop technologies and know-how that they export around the world to improve the lives not only of people in the west but in developing nations like Africa as well. Yes we’ll have growing pains and much to learn, but that’s how technologies are improved and refined.


  10. Jonathan says:

    You could substitute Arizona (where I live) for Israel in this discussion and the point would be the same.

  11. Shoshana, I just looked at your first line – agriculture is not about providing our food anymore: we grow a lot of cotton, flowers, etc.
    And lots of the food grown here goes to export: oranges, peppers, tomatoes… 20% of jaffa oranges are for the local market.

    Why should we in a desert country use all that water just so that people can export produce and flowers?

    Why should they make millions while I have to dry up my garden, and the water is taken away from nature reserves, streams, rivers and the kinneret?
    Why should we suffer in the heat, drying gardens and parks so the cities heat up and we have to use more AC?
    Why should the Sdot Negev Regional Council have to decide to close their swimming pool for the hot summer and bus people to the beach?
    Why should we as a country pay 100s of millions per year (and emit tons of CO2) to desalinate water so that the flower growers can profit at our expense?

    All so we can export flowers to europe for 2% of our GDP?

    Produce and food crops for local consumption are a different issue, but should also be managed wisely.

  12. First of all, we can’t grow all our food because we don;t have enough water. So we have to import food anyway. And the point is not to cancel agriculture, just do it more responsibly.
    it’s about the immorality and insanity of using drinking water for high water intensity crops that are exported for someone else’s profit.
    Why should i have to dry up my garden and give up the city’s green areas just so someone can make millions exporting cotton and flowers ?!?!?

  13. Shoshana says:

    Agriculture is about FOOD, even if it is a small percentage of GDP.

    Even hi-tech workers need to eat. I don’t know what percentage of current Israeli agriculture grows food and what percentage flowers, but maybe subsidies could be cut to non-food crops only. Importing food would mean fewer truly fresh fruits and vegetables, higher prices and a larger “carbon footprint.” Not a good things.

    Incentives for more efficient water use by farmers growing food are needed and more research into growing more food with less water or lower quality water. I personally know a retired agriculture professor who has developed a new irrigation method that allows using water with higher salinity but is having trouble interesting Israeli grower. The HU Ag. School is also researching drought resistant crops.

    Perhaps this article was written to shake people up and doesn’t wholly reflect the author’s more nuanced opinion. I hope so.

    Food production should trump green grass (especially in traffic islands).

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