The American West is learning climate lessons the hard way. This summer especially, droughts have required the federal government to settle disputes over water shortages between states, signaling rising tensions in U.S. water policy. While these challenges are uncharted territory for the U.S., time-tested solutions from other countries may be closer than they seem. Israel, in particular, having weathered extremely tight water margins for years, is several steps ahead in climate innovation. We should look to it for inspiration.
Despite 71% of the earth being covered in water, just half a percent is drinkable fresh water. For this reason, the Colorado River is a lifeline for more than 40 million people across seven U.S. states and even parts of Mexico—but the reservoir that feeds it has dropped to only 25% of its capacity. California has been experiencing a similar decline in fresh water availability. Its drought is worsening, despite some areas conserving water at record levels.
Government officials responded to this problem by imposing strict rations on water usage and, in some cases, long-term policy actions like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires local agencies to adopt sustainability plans to stop groundwater depletion. While necessary, these measures are emergency care, not a cure. Many of the areas affected by this summer’s droughts are on track to literally run out of water or already have.
Current policy focuses heavily on the demand for water, encouraging households and farms to restrict their use. Still, these policies fail to elicit long-term change because the base levels of water needed to support humans and the food they eat aren’t sustainable without supply-side interventions.
This brings us to Israel. The tiny country surrounded by deserts only sees rain in the winter and has limited sources of freshwater. With a growing population and a strong agricultural industry, Israel’s need for water has long outgrown its conventional supply—as is the case in much of the American West. As recently as 2015, Israel had a one billion cubic meter potable water deficit. Now? It produces 20% more water than it needs.
In addition to regulations intended to optimize its use of groundwater, much of the country’s focus has been on increasing the supply of water by less conventional means. In a typical year, half of Israel’s water supply comes from the desalination of seawater or from reclaimed water via flood overflow and sewage processing.
The American impulse may be to begin large-scale government projects to mimic these efforts, but many government projects become more expensive and longer-lasting than planned. Crucial to Israel’s success has been a climate innovation ecosystem that helps create solutions driven by market incentives rather than tax dollars. Israel is ahead of the curve on this issue, as a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group found that government investment in cleantech alone is not enough to curb climate change. Private investment will need to multiply eightfold.
One of the innovations developed by Israel is its use of drip irrigation, which reduces agricultural water usage by placing water directly onto the roots of plants. U.S. water usage is dominated by agriculture, and Israel used to be in the same boat. Since 2000, however, Israel has cut agricultural water usage in half by using both drip irrigation and reclaimed sewage water. Seventy-five percent of Israeli agriculture now uses drip irrigation, compared with only about a third of U.S. farms.
Similarly, desalination has been crucial to Israel’s water efficiency, allowing the country to use reverse osmosis to turn water from the Mediterranean Sea into potable water. The Israeli government has relied on public-private partnerships with a wide range of private water companies that have driven the country’s success in the production of clean water. This water is then employed both for domestic use and billions of dollars in exports. Rather than the state taking control of these projects the way many American initiatives reflexively begin, companies bid to provide the most competitive solutions.
Israeli government support facilitates these privately-developed climate innovations. Earlier this month, the Israeli government announced a partnership with Microsoft that will help climate tech startups attract private funding, including from the tech giant itself. The Israel Innovation Authority similarly provides proof of concept for even earlier stage climate tech, particularly in the fields of commercialization support and access to private capital for research and development.
Israel is far from solving every climate challenge, even in its home country. The Dead Sea has been suffering, due in part to Israeli water use in the area, with its levels now dropping more than a meter each year. Still, the country’s rapid turnarounds from droughts and water shortages through market-focused climate innovation should be an optimistic case study for a rapidly drying American West.
Alina Clough is an energy and environment fellow with the American Conservation Coalition and Young Voices.