My Oh Mayim: Rethinking Water Usage in a Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, but Little Water.

Ushavtem mayim b'sason.Draw water in joy. A classic song of joy danced to at every celebration by millionsof Jews worldwide. Jews sing and dance about water at every proayer service and celebration. Through our prayer, song and dance, we hope that Israel willhave enough water for the coming year.

The last couple of years have seen the harshest drought to hit the region in decades. Demand for water is high and continues to grow as population expands, therefore Israel's fresh (sweet) water resources are quickly drying up, and Israelis know it.

Israeli society Is quickly working to address the region's water shortages before the crisis becomes even more acute. Developments are being made daily to conserve water in agriculture, industry and at home. There are initiatives to reduce water consumption, reuse semi-dirty 'grey' water, and rethink techniques to produce or collect water, some that even fuse cutting-edge technology with ancient agricultural practices.


Israel's most famous water saving innovation is drip irrigation. Now in practice in most of the arid world, Israel's Netafimbrand irrigation systems specialize in computer controlled drip systems that nearly eliminate evaporation. By releasing small amounts of water through holes in piping and by regulating the times of day you water, nearly all water is absorbed by the soil.

In some communities, older systems of water collection and storage are being used to solve the problems of today, including a move back to terracing (the ancient technique of levelling land to hold water) and planting native trees and crops which require less water. Great examples of these ancient techniques include gardens such as Satafnear Jerusalem where ancient aqueducts and cisterns are in use once again to water communal garden plots; Kibbutz Keturain the Arava desert, where UN sponsored research is being conducted to find low water and high salt tolerant crops (such as the Sereus cactus fruit) using traditional indigenous plants for commercial growth in desert regions; and in the work of JNF – KKL using traditional terracing and pool creation techniques to restore forests in the North and protect the desert in the South.

In Israeli homes, many techniques are employed to reduce water consumption, though many more could be implemented. Every toilet in Israel is ‘dual flush’ meaning that you have a choice as to how much water to use when you flush the toilet, unlike in the United States where the vast majority of toilets use a full gallon of water with every flush. Home appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines, as in most of Europe, are built to conserve water and energy with every load. These one time purchases combined with water conservation education in the schools and media continue to go a long way in reducing personal water consumption.


One of the most promising developments for Israel's water future is the use of grey water for agriculture and home. Grey water is water that is previously used but is still suitable for reuse in certain functions. For example, homes in a grey water system would reuse shower water in the toilet or to irrigate home gardens. Agriculturally, communities such as kibbutzim and moshavim could use their combined grey water to irrigate ertaincrops (Israeli health code requires that llcrops irrigated with grey water are grown off he ground. Therefore yes to dates, no to melons). This system allows communities living in areas with little water, such as the desert South, to effectively double the amount of available water. This ancient technique of reusing water, combined with modern waste water treatment and agricultural technologies combine to create a powerful model that if used broadly could go a long way in reducing water consumption.


While a portion of society is busy finding ways to reduce water consumption, other researchers are finding ways to create new fresh water. The most popular current initiative is in desalination, removing salt and other products from sea water to make it suitable for agricultural and domestic use. Purification of sea water has been practiced on a small scale in Eilatsince 1965, however the first large scale desalination plant opened in Ashkelonin 2005, and now desalination produces up to 20% of Israel's total water. While desalination is a step forward for water in Israel, it does have its detractors. The process is extremely energy intensive, with most of the energy produced using non-renewable fossil fuel sources (primarily natural gas and coal). So while desalination may be solving one environmental challenge, this solution could be contributing to other problems such as climate change and air pollution.

As a Rabbi recently told me, we live our lives walking backwards, meaning we make choices for the future based on what we know from the past. Over the millennium on this small piece of land, lack of water has caused many civilizations to collapse. Fortunately, many others have flourished through efficient use and distribution of water and effective desert agricultural techniques. Using these experiences as a warning, and knowledge as a guide, Israel can develop its water policies as a thriving modern society based on three thousand years of history, on our ancient homeland. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

1 Reply to "My Oh Mayim: Rethinking Water Usage in a Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, but Little Water."

  • Joe Orlow
    February 9, 2011 (2:04 pm)

    There’s also a message here for those of us living in the Diaspora. For example, a rain barrel can catch water off our roofs that can be used for our gardens; and makeshift outdoor “washing machines” can be rigged up for grey water gardening — check out this video I made a few months ago:

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