New Delhi: How does a country whose 60% area is a desert export high-value farm produce? What helped Israel is not just technology in irrigation and waste-water recycling, but also behavioural change—not to take water for granted. At a time when a prolonged drought has led to a drinking water crisis in several states in India, is there something to learn from the Israeli experience?
Edited excerpts from an interview with Uri Schor, spokesman of Israeli Water Authority, and Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV- Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.
What are the challenges faced by Israel in the water sector? Are they similar to India’s?
Uri Schor: In Israel and the Mediterranean, the availability of natural (fresh) water is not enough... demand is much higher. Today, for instance, more than half of the water used for all purposes in Israel is manmade, that is desalinated sea water and recycled waste water. 60% of demand of agriculture is met by this manmade water. Until 12 years ago, agriculture used only potable water. About 60% of our country is a desert. Rainfall is far from enough. The problem was severe until five years ago. That forced us to think and deliver on technologies. Today, a drought year is easy to handle.
Due to our efforts, Israel’s total water consumption has remained the same since 1960s, despite growing population, rising water requirements and increasing agricultural production.
What technologies are used by Israel to deal with water shortage? Is it just technology or also behavioural change?
Uri Schor: We tried to reduce demand in all possible ways. We started with campaigns, education and explanation... for very young children... to reduce household water use. In just a year, water demand fell by 18%. And it’s continuing. I read an article in one of the Indian papers that 27% of water in Mumbai is lost due to leaking pipes. In Israel, this is less than 10%.
Also, we recycle sewage water and desalinate sea water, harvest rainwater, catch floods. Consuming it in right places can save a lot of water. Israel is the world’s number one water recycler with 85% recycling rate (Spain comes second with a 12% recycling rate)
Israel is also home to the world’s largest Seawater Reverse Osmosis desalination plant, annually producing 100 million cubic meters at the low cost of approximately $0.52 per cubic meter of water - the most cost-efficient of its kind in the world. Future facilities are expected to produce water at even lower costs.
But you have to be minded for water and not take it for granted. It’s not. In Israel, at times, we don’t allow decorative gardens. We have rules on when to water plants- like irrigating a garden from very late in evening until very early in the evening. During the hot hours, you do not irrigate because the water evaporates faster. I see here in India you water with hoses.
We started with education with little kids, before kindergarten. There are technologies but it is also behaviour. For example, shortening the time in shower by three minutes... that’s a lot of water saved. A tap that is dripping wastes 60 litres of water per day. I see leaking taps here and there (in India).
How do you see India and Israel co-operating in water? Isn’t India too vast and complex a country?
Gil Haskel: The challenges evolving around water are universal. There is a distinct potential of shortage for the entire mankind as our planet will have more than 10 billion people by 2050. Of course, there are nuances between characteristics of different countries. When you look at Israeli technologies, they are applicable almost everywhere. The idea of transfer of technology is not uniform, and it has to be adopted to special Indian characteristics.
India is going through the second consecutive drought year and some states like Maharashtra are facing a severe shortage of drinking water. Do you think technology from Israel can help?
Gil Haskel: The most productive region in Israel as far as horticulture is concerned is constantly under drought. The southern desert in Israel receives between 15 to 20 mm of rainfall annually (the acutely drought-hit Marathwada region in Maharashtra received over 400 mm of rainfall in the June to September south-west monsoon of 2015).
In that desert region (of Israel) we grow horticulture crops like fruits and 80% our vegetable requirements come from there. There is no correlation between drought and the ability to have a good harvest. It’s a matter of technology and utilising it in the right manner. With our Indian counterparts, we are trying to address the entire value chain. That involves storage of waste water, purification and transfer to the fields. This requires different technologies that we want to introduce.
Our drip irrigation helps achieve 70-80% of water efficiency in agriculture, the best by global standards, and more than 80% of Israel’s irrigated crop production is exported.
When you talk about drought in Maharashtra... it’s on the sea with a long coast line. Now 60% of household water in Israel comes from the sea, 80% of the waste water goes to agriculture. Today, the desalination technology is more cost-effective than five years ago and costs will come down further in future.