As Americans turn on their taps, most are in the dark about a crisis coming to at least a third of U.S. households in the next four years: a lack of potable water. Experts predict that by 2022, 42 million Americans will be unable to pay their water bills. This is because the cost of water will increase as a result of poor infrastructure and the expectation that this resource will be free – or at least, heavily subsidized by the government. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, over the next 10 years, 40 out of 50 states will have at least one region with a water shortage because of a lack of fresh water in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and aquifers. But there is one country that has solved its own water problem and has expertise to share with the rest of the world: Israel, perhaps the world’s only water superpower.
Americans are also generally unaware that most of their water utility companies either lose money or just break even. Between government subsidies and home water bills, water providers collect just enough revenue to conduct their business and handle ongoing infrastructure projects. But this reality is changing fast. According to Elizabeth Mack, assistant professor at Michigan State University and author of a recent, forward-thinking study on water, utility companies are now spending approximately 80 percent of their revenue to maintain infrastructure that was built primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. Mack believes that updating aging infrastructure will cost over $1 trillion over the next 25 years, and that water prices will increase to four times their current levels over the next few decades.
Israel is no longer reliant on the weather or on its neighbors for its water needs. It achieved this by combining all available technologies to save as much water as possible. While the country is 60 percent desert, in 2013 it announced it had achieved water independence, which it accomplished through smart planning and innovative thinking: desalinizing sea water, reusing treated sewage for agriculture, creating software that warns authorities about leaks, implementing drip irrigation techniques and accounting for every drop of water. Some of the techniques Israel uses today were developed at home, others abroad.
But perhaps above all, the secret of Israel’s success in becoming a water superpower is directly tied to charging users the real cost of water and mandating that authorities spend 100 percent of all water and sewage fees on water-related infrastructure maintenance.
U.S. policy-makers are already looking to Israel to help solve their domestic problems. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to cooperate on a number of challenges, including water. Two years later, California signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel to help fight drought. Israel’s IDE, a global water company, has now designed and built the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalinization plant in Carlsbad, California, a facility capable of producing 54 million gallons of freshwater daily. And that same year, Chicago signed a water research agreement with Ben Gurion University to develop solutions for improving water quality in surface and below-surface water, ground water, streams, ponds and lakes. Massachusetts is another state that has embraced Israeli water technology, and hundreds of Israeli water technology startups are domiciled there.
U.S. lawmakers are not the only ones taking note. According to water experts, Israel’s water technology is being used in over 150 countries (including some that have no formal ties with the Jewish state). For example, IDE has built 400 desalinization plants in 40 countries, including the largest plants in China and India. “Water is one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing,” says Oded Distel, director of the Israel NewTech program at Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry. “Israel’s holistic approach can serve as a model to overcome the global water crisis.”
By 2050, the world’s population will balloon to roughly 9 billion. The result will likely be a surge in demand for food. In addition, in 15 years, experts say, half of the world’s inhabitants could be living in areas where there isn’t enough safe water to drink. Both these things mean that the world will need to grow more food with less water. To meet this need, humanity will have to find innovative ways to use existing land and water resources, which are already under heavy stress. “Water isn’t just water,” says Seth M. Siegel, water expert and author of Let There Be Water. “In the case of Israel, it’s also an inspiring example of how vision and leadership can change a nation and transform the world.”
Avi Jorisch is the author of Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World (Gefen Publishing). He is also a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and The Israel Project