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California is in its fourth year of record-breaking drought. Yet, the Golden State is far from alone in its water woes. Forty of 50 U.S. states will face shortages within the next decade. A fifth of the world’s population already experiences scarcity. Yet, some say solutions do exist to blunt the worst effects of this growing problem. They point to Israel. The desert country struggled with supply since its creation, leading to extreme conservation and controversy with neighbors. A drought last decade pushed Israel to seek more comprehensive water solutions. For this month’s Environmental Outlook: lessons from Israel’s experience moving from water scarcity to abundance.
- Peter Gleick President, Pacific Institute; MacArthur fellow for work on water issues
- Seth Siegel author of "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-starved World"
- Patricia Mulroy senior fellow, Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program; senior fellow, climate adaptation and environmental policy, UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West; former general manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Israel experienced an extreme drought in the middle of the last decade. It pushed an already water-conscious country to look for new solutions to address scarcity. Many argue the country succeeded, though not without controversy with neighbors over water rights. For this month's Environmental Outlook, what Israel's transformation can and cannot teach us about addressing concerns over water scarcity.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me is Seth Siegel, author of the new book "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution For a Water-Starved World." Joining us from Nevada Public Radio, Patricia Mulroy of the Brookings Institution and from a studio in Berkeley, California, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. I know many of you will want to join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thank you all for joining us.
MR. SETH SIEGELThank you, Diane. Delightful to be here.
REHMPeter Gleick, are you there?
MR. PETER GLEICKI am. Yes, I'm happy to be here, too, Diane.
REHMThank you. And Patricia Mulroy?
MS. PATRICIA MULROYYes, I'm here. Thank you for inviting me.
REHMIndeed. Peter Gleick, let me start with you. Talk about water scarcity globally. How bad is it and nationally as well?
GLEICKWell, there are different water problems around the world. Of course there are parts of the world that are very wet and parts of the world that are very dry. But increasingly, as population has grown, as our economies have grown, as our demand for water has grown, as water pollution in some of the bigger countries has gotten worse, water scarcity has gotten worse and there are more and more people who find it difficult or impossible to have access to safe and affordable water, something most of us in the United States take completely for granted.
GLEICKOn top of that, in the Western United States right now, for example, we're in a very severe drought, as you mentioned at the beginning. We're in the fourth year of the drought. Mother Nature has not been kind to us. Not only has the precipitation dropped enormously and the water availability dropped enormously, but it's been extremely hot, which, of course, raises the specter of climate change affecting all of these things and it's put pressure on agriculture and on our cities and on our ecosystems and it's raised some serious questions about what we ought to be doing to move to a more effective water strategy here and, frankly, worldwide.
REHMWould you, Seth Siegel, add anything to the outline that we've just heard from Peter on what's happening globally?
SIEGELWell, I think Peter has it right that with population growth, that's one pressure, but also, I'm sure he would normally say as well that we also have a rising middle class around the world and the middle class lifestyle absorbs an enormously larger amount of water because of diet and electricity production. And then, also, in addition to climate change and pollution issues, we also have a huge global infrastructure problem where our plumbing systems of our cities all over the world, including in the United States, are leaking terribly.
SIEGELThirty percent is not uncommon in some parts of the world. Major cities, 60 percent.
REHMSo we're wasting water.
SIEGELWe create water, we develop water, we source water and then we waste the water and so that's a very significant problem.
REHMAnd Patricia Mulroy, to what extent do you believe climate change is, perhaps, getting in the way of our water needs and consumption?
MULROYWell, I think climate change is the number one reason we're sitting in the middle of an amazing transformational time. I mean, all the things that Peter and Seth pointed to are what are going to really change the way we look at our water resources and take them out of the closet where they have been sitting for so long and actually begin to look at what is the next generation of being able to provide reliable water supplies for all parts, whether it's agriculture, urban or the ecosystem.
REHMAnd Peter Gleick, let's look at Israel with yet another round of violence erupting between Palestinians and the Israelis. What role has water historically played in that conflict?
GLEICKOh, that's a wonderful question. One of the things we do at the Pacific Institute is we maintain a history of water-related conflicts going back 5,000 years. And, in fact, some of the earliest conflicts over water were in the ancient Middle East and those kinds of conflicts have continued up through today. The truth is, of course, the Middle East is extraordinarily dry. It's a very contentious place anyway for ideological reasons, for religious, political and economic reasons and water has, in the past, and today continues to play a role in the tensions in the region.
GLEICKEvery major river and, of course, there aren't many major rivers, is shared by many different countries. The Jordan River is shared by Israel and Jordan and Lebanon and the Palestinians and Syria. Egypt shares the Nile with ten other countries. Tigris and the Euphrates in Syria and Iraq and international rivers as well and competition for the water is growing as populations grow, as the climate gets warmer. There is an opportunity, I think, for water to be a source of cooperation.
GLEICKSeth may want to talk about this. He's written about it in his book. But Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty almost two decades ago and water was a component of that agreement and they're working, not always successfully, but they're working to try and deal with the limited water they have and to find joint solutions to reduce the risk of conflict.
REHMWhat about that relationship, Seth?
SIEGELWell, I agree with what Peter says and, in fact, what was probably among the more startling things that I learned in my research and I spent quite bit of time in Israel speaking to Palestinian and Israelis, a lot of time on the West Bank and speaking by phone with people in Gaza is the degree to which -- and this is unreported -- is the degree to which water is a pathway to dialogue and even possibly to peace. So we do cover a lot about the conflict, but we don't see a lot about the ways in which water serves to increase dialogue.
SIEGELI can give you a very small example and perhaps a larger example. Small example is that Israel, for a very long time now, has provided educational courses in water technology and water engineering for water engineers and water managers in the West Bank and previously in Gaza. And that has done a great job in creating peace -- people to people peace dialogue. And it's not overtly a peace program, but it creates an opportunity for dialogue and that's really quite remarkable and quite wonderful.
REHMAnd yet, you call Gaza City one of the least water secure places in the world.
SIEGELThat's correct. Because of the fact, what also has happened here is that ideology and, frankly, government incompetence on the part of Hamas has created a situation where the water there is just woefully mismanaged. So, look, the climate and the topography and the water sources are not the different between Israel and Gaza and the same wonderful water present that Israel has, the Gazans could be enjoying something very similar were they to agree to get into a compact of some kind with Israel in terms of developing the water sources from the Mediterranean or otherwise.
REHMPeter, how do you see that relationship on water between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
GLEICKWell, probably -- I mean, I agree with Seth that there are solutions here, but there is a very serious political problem that's been unresolved around water and the truth is that Israel and the Palestinians do not agree about water. There is serious mismatch in control over access to resources. Gaza, in particular, has very limited water resources and does not have access to the bigger water sources that Israel uses. There's contention about Israeli use of ground water under the West Bank that originates in the West Bank in Palestinian territories, but it pumped by Israel from Israeli territory.
GLEICKThere are still serious unresolved management issues between the two parties and until those political issues are resolved, I'm worried that water will continue to be a source of tension and inequality between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
REHMSo to what extent have there been water reclamation projects? And I think of one especially in Las Vegas. How difficult was that to implement, Peter?
GLEICKWell, so by water reclamation, sometimes we mean different things, but there are all sorts of pieces to that. One of the most important that Israel's pursued very aggressively is the use of treated waste water, very high quality treated waste water for other purposes, putting water back to use. All around the world in the industrialized world, we collect waste water. We typically treat it to a very high standard in the U.S. because of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act and then often, we throw it away.
GLEICKIn Israel, about 75 percent, if I have the number correct, Seth, of the waste water in Israel is capture and treated and reused.
GLEICKIn California, it's only about 13 percent. And so that's a good example of something that Israel has moved very aggressively on, that California could probably take a lesson from, could learn from.
REHMDo you believe that the methods that Israel has used could be applied here in this country, Seth?
SIEGELWell, there's no doubt about it. Look, the scale of countries are different. Israel is a small country. It's about the size of New Jersey. So you can do some things in a smaller location than you can do in others. But what Israel has done, which I think all of us on this call or this show would believe is very valuable is that Israel has prioritized water as part of its national policy and conversation.
REHMSeth Siegel, he is the author of a new book titled, "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution For a Water-Starved World." I look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back for this month's environmental outlook. We're talking about one of the basic necessities of human existence, and that of course is water. We have three guests with us. Seth Siegel is the author of a new book, "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-starved World." Peter Gleick is on the line with us from Berkeley, California. He's president of the Pacific Institute, that's a global water think-tank. He's the author of nine books, including "A 21s-century Water Policy." Patricia Mulroy is senior fellow for Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program; senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at the Brooking Institution Mountain West and former general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
REHMAnd Pat, that's what's I wanted to ask you about. How have Israel's tactics, how have their approaches been applied in Nevada?
MULROYWell, I think there are great similarities. I mean, I've had the opportunity to go over to Israel any number of times. I've traveled the Negev. I've looked at their reclamation system. I visited their de-salters. And many of the same strategies are being applied. And the same political dynamic exists between the seven states that share the Colorado River that Southern Nevada depends on for 90 percent of its water as does the interdependence between Israel and its neighbors.
MULROYSouthern Nevada has, over the last 25 years, really transformed itself. It's a community that recycles 93 percent of its wastewater and reuses it. It's a community that, despite the fact that it was growing and added 400,000 new inhabitants, dropped its water use down by 40 percent. It is one that has entered into long-term partnership agreements with its neighbors in Arizona and in California, where we're actually banking water resources in Arizona and in California.
MULROYWe have entered into agreements with partners in Mexico. And I think one of the future supplies for all the inland states in the Colorado River is some form of desalination, but it's going to require going through that political maze that we were just talking about when it comes to the Middle East, and that's to find a way to stabilize the Colorado River.
MULROYI mean, the relationship between the seven states has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, and it has become one of cooperation rather than combativeness, and I think it lays a great foundation for us to be able to be able to partner with the various sectors up and down the river and be able to access resources that inland states wouldn't necessarily have the access to.
REHMThat's very, very interesting. I have an email here I'd like to ask you all about. It's from Victoria in Rochester, New York. She says, a few years ago, I heard someone say, pardon me, there's a constant amount of total water here on Earth and our atmosphere. So no matter what we do in the long run, if we don't attack population growth problems created by creating competing demands for water, that's going to get much more serious. Ultimately, that could lead to war, which of course is one solution to excess population. Peter Gleick, how do you see it?
GLEICKWell, Victoria is absolutely right. The amount of water on the planet is the same as it was billions of years ago. Water is a renewable resource. It cycles through the atmosphere, through the oceans, back onto our rivers and land through rainfall. But -- and as population grows, she's also correct, the demand for water increases. So the more people we have sharing the same amount of water the more pressure there is.
GLEICKI do believe that we can get our water resource management under control. I believe that we can deal with the population issue. But it is going to require a different way of thinking about water. It's going to require not just thinking about how to take more supply out of the system, find the next gallon if you will, but also thinking about how we use water. And as Pat Mulroy had mentioned, Las Vegas has done an enormous amount of work to try and reduce the demand for water by using water more efficiently.
GLEICKThey have a fixed supply, and they have a growing population, and they've managed through conservation and efficiency, as a major part of what they do, to live within their means. And I think that's a microcosm for what we have to do around the world.
REHMAnd doing that around the world leads to yet another question, this one from Shervan, who says, to you Seth Siegel, over 90 percent of the water in Gaza is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. It's said Gaza will be unlivable by 2020 according to the U.N. if it is not already. Can you please discuss the water access situation in Gaza and the responsibility of Israel regarding it, in addition to other neighbors?
SIEGELSure, thank you. I actually address Shervan's question at some length in the book, and Gaza is example of something that could be on the verge now of where the whole world could be going in a few decades if we're not careful, where problems will multiply, where political -- hard political decisions aren't made, and we could all be in a state of exception distress and scarcity if we're not careful. It's actually one of the great examples of what we need to do to reverse things so that there is ample water for everyone.
SIEGELNow the precise problem about Gaza is that they have an aquifer, which is adjacent to the sea coast, and as they withdraw more and more water, more and more seawater comes into it. It's a hydraulic balancing. And so what has happened is because governance is so poor in Gaza, there's no controls over agriculture policy, people can grow whatever they want, they can flood-irrigate as they wish, four out of every five wells drilled in Gaza are illegal, they're done without government consent because of bad governance, and so -- but the great solutions to Gaza's problems are twofold.
SIEGELFirst of all, they must develop desalinated water, must. There's no question that they must go that route. And second of all is they produce an enormous amount of daily sewage. That sewage is either dumped into the Mediterranean Sea right now, untreated, or it's put in these large lagoons, where they leech into the soil and then get into the aquifer, which further pollute the water.
SIEGELThe solution for both is actually partnership with Israel, and Israel has shown repeatedly a desire to do that, but ideology gets into the way. Number one is, Israel already sends quite a bit, not all of the water of Gaza by any means, but a significant amount of water every day to Gaza, and they're prepared to use one or both of their southern desalination plants to send more water to Gaza if a political agreement can be made on that.
SIEGELAnd second of all is they're prepared to buy, pay for, all of the sewage that Gaza produces, to treat it in the Western Negev so that its farmers there can reuse it as they do Israeli sewage. About 86 percent of Israeli sewage is treated and reused. So the solution is actually right at hand. It's easy to do. But you need to have a situation where Hamas, which has a rejectionist ideology, needs to come to terms with serving their people best.
SIEGELIf I could add one more word, there's an ironic piece here. Fata, which is the governing part of the Palestinian Authority, controls the West Bank. They were kicked out of Gaza in a coup a few years ago. Ironically, they are actually prepared to see Gaza fail in their water right now because on the one hand it shows the people of Gaza what bad managers Hamas is, and on the other hand they get to use this, as Shervon has pointed out, as a club with which to hit Israel. So it's an ironic situation. And again, this is not my view, this is comments from Palestinians who have shared this point of view with me.
REHMPeter Gleick, do you want to comment?
GLEICKWell, I'm a little reluctant to comment on the politics and the -- except to note that that is exactly right. It's not a technological problem. This is a political problem. We could solve the water problems of Gaza or California or Southern Africa, but we have to get the politics right, as well. And until the Israelis and the Palestinians are able to come to some kind of political agreement, I'm a little -- I'm a little -- I'm afraid that we're not going to solve (unintelligible) in Gaza, and it's going to continue to get worse before it gets better.
REHMAll right, well, let's talk about the water itself. And of course, Seth, you mentioned desalination.
REHMTo what extent is that approach fully available and usable now?
SIEGELIn Israel are you talking about?
SIEGELOh my goodness, it has transformed the country. There are now five large desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast. There are many inland desalination plants that are used for brackish water, which is salty desert water, and what is going on is that there is an opportunity now to share this technology worldwide. Israel is the -- recently build the world's most efficient and lowest-cost-of-water desalination plant in the world. Currently in Carlsbad, California, they're building, they're assisting in the building of the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere.
SIEGELDesalination has to be part of the technological mix of water as we look forward to a drier world.
REHMAnd Pat Mulroy, to what extent is that technique going to be applied to the drier states in this country?
MULROYOh, I think it's absolutely critical. I mean, whether you look at Texas, whether you look at California, whether you look at Florida, I think the future is all about finding ecologically safe and low-power solutions that involve de-salting, whether it's brackish water, or whether it's ocean water. The challenge will always be for those areas in the United States particularly and in other areas that are inland. I mean, when you look at Australia, Australia built any number of desalination facilities when the Murray–Darling went into its devastating drought, but their populations all live on the coast.
MULROYHere in the United States, it's different, and in order to effectively and at a reasonable price be able to move that water, it's going to have to be through an exchange mechanism. That means that the Colorado River itself would have to be stabilized. So it is a critical piece of the future of the water supply both here in the United States and around the world.
SIEGELYou know, it's interesting to note that around the world, populations are migrating towards the coasts so that well more than 50 percent of the global population now lives within 50 miles of a shoreline. So therefore 50 miles is not a terribly long water pipeline to build. I mean, it's expensive, it needs to be done, and it has to be financed, but it's technologically completely within our power, and we have water lines longer than that all over the world.
GLEICKYes, if I could add a comment about desalination, there's no doubt that desalination works, and I agree certainly with Pat that in the very long run, desalination is going to be an increasingly important part of the solution, especially in the Western United States. But I think that future is a little far away at the moment.
GLEICKWe have not done, in the Western United States, the water recycling and reuse that we've seen in Israel. We have not yet done the restructuring of agriculture that we've seen in Israel, and we still grow very water-intensive, low-valued crops with a huge amount of water in the Western United States. We have still not done the conservation and efficiency that's far cheaper than desalination. So...
GLEICKSo do those things first, and then I think we'll look a little more like Israel but be more efficient, we'll have a better agricultural system, and we might then have a use for desalination systems, as well.
REHMPeter Gleick, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I wonder, what's holding us back, Pat Mulroy, from making the kinds or taking the kinds of steps that Peter has talked about.
MULROYWell, I think it all depends on the area. I mean, in Southern Nevada, we've done it, and we continue to do it. It's not an event. It's a journey. I think California is going through that right now. I think the drought in California, the magnitude of the drought in California, was an enormous wakeup call. There are communities in the Central Valley and along the coast that never thought that water supply would become this scarce in the state of California.
MULROYAnd so with the governor's urging and with metropolitans' incentives, Southern California and the rest of the state have been able to reduce their water use by 30 percent. The challenge is going to be, and what we're all hoping for, is that that reduced water use stays in effect once the drought abates. We -- what we did is we put permanent solutions in place. We permanently changed the way Southern Nevada uses its water supply.
MULROYWe paid -- we paid our customers up to $2 per square foot to take their grass out, and when you do that, at the same time you have to change your land use regulations on landscaping in new construction. So in new construction, you can't have a lawn in the front yard, and you can only have 50 percent of the landscapable area of the backyard be grass. We are -- we have put golf courses on a water budget. That requires that they only use X amount of water per acre of golf course or they will pay a penalty at the end of the year.
MULROYWe have incentivized the hotel and resort industry, which is our largest employer, and their largest use is their evaporative coolers. They have invested millions of dollars in buying state-of-the-art technology for those evaporative coolers and have driven their water use down dramatically. You're seeing...
REHMSo Peter, Peter Gleick, you would say that what Pat is describing are good first steps but that need to be applied more widely across this country.
GLEICKYes, so Pat is absolutely right. This is a journey, and some -- some communities are farther along that journey than others. And the California drought has been a tremendous wakeup call. We are improving conservation and efficiency more than we've done in the past, although again, communities have been working in that area for a long time.
GLEICKWe're beginning to have the conversation about restructuring agriculture. We're beginning to ramp up expansion of water treatment and reuse, the kinds of things Pat has talked about and the kinds of things Seth described very explicitly that Israel has pursued. The drought opened the door to certain discussions that we weren't willing to have in the past, and I'm hoping that if it starts to rain again that those discussions won't stop, that we'll continue on this journey toward a more sustainable future because we frankly have no choice in the Western U.S. and elsewhere.
REHMOf course that is an interesting point. Once it starts raining, people stop worrying, Seth.
SIEGELYes, actually I told a bit of a historical story in Israel is that it's -- it's part of the daily prayer for Jewish, observantly Jewish, followers to have a prayer for rain in the Holy Land. And it actually was interesting because policymakers found themselves in a conundrum. One of them, who was actually an observant fellow, said to me, I found myself praying for rain but praying that it didn't rain too much, he said, because I didn't want the policymakers to have an excuse to not have to spend the money.
SIEGELAnd there's -- at the break, after the break, maybe we'll talk a little bit more about that.
REHMSeth Siegel, his new book is titled "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-starved World." Short break here. More of your calls, comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about water in this hour. What Israel has done to insure that there's enough water for that dry land and how the lessons Israel learned have been, can be applied to us here in this country and around the world. Here's an email from Michael, who listens to St. Louis public radio, KWMU-FM. He says, "With all due respect to Mr. Gleick, desalination is a long-term, potentially permanent hedge against ever having drought worries again.
REHM"It's not about rain, but more about the snowfall and runoff from the mountains. Desalination will allow the agriculture experts to grow what they want to grow, without so much worrying about how to irrigate the crops." Do you want to respond, Peter?
GLEICKWell, I would just point out that the -- what we need to do is the right thing at the right time and spend the right amount of money at the right time. And I agree that in the long run desalination is going to provide an increasing part of water supply in water scarce regions. But at the moment in California, desalination is the most expensive alternative we have. It's far more expensive than conservation and efficiency that remains to be done.
GLEICKIt's far more expensive than the water reuse -- treatment and reuse that needs to be done. And it's never, I think, going to be an important part of our agricultural policy. Because, as was pointed out earlier, our agriculture is inland, farmers pay far less for water than do cities. So, sure, think about it as a piece of the puzzle, but do the right things in the right order.
REHMAnd one more question on desalination from Dawn, who says, "What's done with the salt? If it's put back into the water, the water becomes over-salinated and ecosystems suffer." Seth?
SIEGELWell, first of all, there's -- in most places there's just a lot of ocean out there. So by putting some of the desalinated -- putting the brine or the salty part of the desalinated water back into the ocean -- it's true that it, in a very marginal way, infinitesimally marginal way, it does salinate the ocean a little bit more. That is correct.
SIEGELBut there's a lot of ocean out there. And in places where there are ecologically special regions -- and I write about this also in the book -- like the Red Sea, which has a large coral reef there, what goes on there between Israel and Jordan -- another pathway to peace, by the way -- is that Israel and Jordan are cooperating on taking water out of the Red Sea, desalinating it, and then depositing the brine in the Dead Sea, which is already the world's saltiest waterway.
SIEGELAnd then also taking the desalinated water, using it for farming in Israel's Negev Desert, and then Israel takes an equal amount and swaps it into Amman, Jordan, where it has the need for the water. So Israel takes from its own supply and swaps that water there. So it's a pathway to peace, but at the same time it's being environmentally sensible.
REHMAnd here's an email for you, Pat. Rylie says, "I don't hear anybody mentioning how much water is used in sustaining a diet of meat and dairy. According to the Los Angeles Times, one burger takes 660 gallons of water to make. Could you please talk about a vegetable-based vegetarian or vegan diet and how much more sustainable it is in regard to water usage?"
MULROYI have long ago learned that I don't tell people what to eat. Yes, you're absolutely right. The increase in beef consumption around the world has driven, by definition, an increase in the amount of alfalfa that's grown. For example, one of the largest agriculture districts in the West and the largest on the Colorado River, exports about $1.5 billion worth of alfalfa into China every year in order to support a growing beef diet in that country.
MULROYSo, yes. The question becomes, if we can grow cotton, which is another water consumptive crop, using the techniques that Israel's developed in the Negev, are there ways of growing alfalfa that are more water efficient as well. And I think there's still a need to develop new technologies. I think innovation right now -- when I was at the Water Authority, we entered into a cooperative agreement with Mekorot.
MULROYAnd we are looking at spearheading technology development, which will not only include increased urban efficiency, but has a big focus on how do we help agricultural areas and invest in agricultural areas so that they can grow more food with less water supply.
REHMAnd, Peter, this morning there was a piece on "Morning Edition" about growing almonds and how much water it takes to grow almonds, as opposed to other quite nutritious forms of nuts or any other kind of food.
GLEICKThe questioner raises a good point. And, Diane, you raise a good point. All of our choices about our decisions about what we eat and what we consume have implications for our water. It takes water to grow food. It takes water to make semiconductors. It takes water to make the clothes that we wear. And those choices determine how much water we take out of the system.
GLEICKA vegetarian diet is going to be less consumptive than a meat diet. A more efficient irrigation technology will let us grow food with less water. Farmers grow almonds because they make a lot of money growing almonds. Almond -- there's a great market for almonds at the moment. And farmers are smart.
GLEICKThey make decisions based on markets, on the equipment in their barn, on the climate they have, on the kind of soil they have. I don't think it's appropriate, necessarily, to vilify almonds. I think the idea is, how can we do the things we want with less water. And that's part of the puzzle.
REHMAnd what I understand from your book, Seth, is that Israel has experimented with drip irrigation. Explain drip irrigation and whether you believe that becomes more efficient.
SIEGELBy the way, it's not just experimented with drip irrigation. It was invented in Israel. It's a crazy story how it came to be invented, and it's a wonderful one, which I don't think we have time for now. But Israel today uses -- 75 percent of its fields use drip irrigation. None of its fields use flood irrigation, which is still very much the norm around the world. And what it does is it uses much less water, perhaps as little as 50 percent of the water you use normally for agriculture.
SIEGELAnd it produces yields that are significantly higher. Always at least somewhat higher, and as much as 400 to 500 percent higher yield. Now, what it does is, instead of putting all the water at once on the field, what it does is it puts a drop of water at the roots on intervals. So the plant is given water as it needs it, almost, rather than when the farmer wants to just put the water out there.
SIEGELIt's sort of, if you have a plant on your windowsill, you put a cup of water in it, that's flood irrigation. You take a misting bottle, that's spray irrigation. Or you take an eyedropper, if you could imagine that, and simply drop the water on the roots.
REHMBut how is that enough?
SIEGELIt is such a remarkable system and it has second order benefits. For example, if you think about this in the third world, in the developing world, women spend most of their days going back and forth getting water. When you drip irrigate fields in these developing countries, what happens is women still end up being the mules for water, but they make one trip a day instead of three or four.
SIEGELAnd as a result, they have more leisure time. The children can go to -- the girls can go to school. They are not as sick. They're not as filthy. And the water is cleaner that they have available to them.
REHMBut how is that drip irrigation applied manually?
SIEGELIt's not done manually. It can be done with a gravity-based system in a society that's pre-industrial, that doesn't have electricity. Or, the way it's done in California or other places or in the Midwest, it's done through a electronic -- electronics are used and hydraulics are used and computers are used.
GLEICKThese are sophisticated systems. And very simply, the idea is putting the right amount of water that a crop demands at the right time. Where flood irrigation, you'll lose a lot of water to evaporation, some of it seeps into the ground. It's just a more efficient way of applying the right -- not too much water, but the right amount of water to a crop.
REHMAnd, Pat, was that used in your own work?
REHMWas drip irrigation part of how you approached the water problems out in California?
MULROYAbsolutely. In the urban area, I mean, we told and we encouraged our customers to put in desert landscaping. All of which can use drip irrigation. And it was that conversion from the traditional sprinkler system to a drip irrigation system that caused enormous water savings here in southern Nevada.
REHMAll right. To…
GLEICKYou know, this is another good example where California's moving toward drip, but hasn't yet moved to the extent that Israel has. It's an area where farmers could continue to do much more than they're -- they've done so far and save water at the same time.
REHMAll right. To Bruce, in Jackson, Mich. You're on the air.
BRUCEHi, there. Hey, I'm a first-time caller and a long-time listener.
REHMThank you. Go right ahead, sir.
BRUCEOkay. Given the long-term projections for climates, especially in the American Southwest and the Midwest, do you ever foresee a situation where water from the Great Lakes would be diverted from the Great Lakes to the more arid regions of this country? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.
MULROYI'll take that one.
REHMAll right. Go right ahead.
MULROYThere was a compact signed between the states in the United States and the states in Canada, ratified by both the Canadian government and the United States government that forever and ever will ban taking water out of the Great Lakes and moving it across the country. So those that look at the Great Lakes and say they are 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply sits there, it's not going to happen. I think that the two countries and the neighboring states around the Great Lakes have come together to say, no, you won't.
REHMThat's interesting. Seth, you say you've had that question throughout your book tour.
SIEGELYes. It's quite remarkable. Everyone seems to want to -- it's the Willie Sutton thing, you know. Why do you go to -- why do you rob banks? It's where the money is. Why do people ask about the Great Lakes? It's where the water is. But the -- but it really points out to me -- and I'm sure Peter and Pat would agree -- is that we fail by not having a national water policy. We fail by not having water as a key part of the national conversation.
SIEGELAnd one of the key points that I try to make again and again in the book is that what Israel has done is -- sometimes they do it right, sometimes they do it wrong, but in the main, what's important is, is that water is always front and center as part of that conversation. As we go into an ever-drying world, 40 of our 50 states are now projected to have water scarcity issues of some kind or another within the next 10 years.
SIEGELWhy is it that our national leaders are still not talking about national water plans and how we're going to resolve this? I'm not saying we should be taking water from the Great Lakes, but I do think we need to be thinking about this holistically and what is best for us in terms of what we grow, where we grow and how we develop our communities.
REHMAnd population growth.
SIEGELBut people are going to have children. Population will grow, and more importantly people will be living longer. That's the biggest part, perhaps, population growth, is that people's longevity is factoring into this. And we don't want to have an anti-humanistic policy necessarily.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Donovan. He's in St. Louis, Mo. Donovan, you're on the air.
DONOVANYeah, hello, Diane.
DONOVANI'm a water engineer. My business has always been distribution for utilities around the Midwest. I live in St. Louis. Regarding the -- real quick, regarding the Great Lakes concept, one of the -- I think the second or third water user in, I mean, power user in St. Louis is the water companies. The idea of huge amounts of water -- the idea of huge amounts of water being moved from one part of the country to the other is impossible because of the huge energy demand.
DONOVANBut the point I wanted to make by calling is that there is great need for technology to developed for the third world countries, where the water supply there is available, but it is so polluted it can't be used. And the technology to develop methods of treatment -- simple methods of treatment, where a villager can take water from a dirty pond and make it drinkable, is a technology that you'd think would be simple, but it's not being investigated because there's not much money in it.
DONOVANThings like desalination is a huge industry because first world people need it. Third world people need real simple solutions. And that's where if there's ever a government water policy, that's where it should be.
REHMAll right. Peter?
GLEICKYeah, I think Donovan's points, both of them are absolutely right. Where Pat's correct that we're not going to move water from the Great Lakes to the western U.S. for political reasons. But Donovan's right and we're not going to move it because it takes a huge amount of energy. And it would just be too costly. And he's also correct that some of the water quantity problems that we have are water quality problems.
GLEICKIf we cannot clean up water resources, then the amount of water that's available for anyone to use is more and more limited. If we can come up with inexpensive methods, especially for developing countries, for cleaning up some of the very severe contamination there, that will expand the amount of water that's available for humans and, frankly, for the environment as well.
SIEGELYeah, I want to point out one other thing. It's that we also aren't looking far enough down the road in another way, which is that our foreign aid dollars -- although we're doing some wonderful projects around the world in some of the most needy countries, we only spend about 3 percent of our foreign aid dollars on global needs in water areas. But what I think is more important is that we're not realizing the extent to which, if we don't get this right, we're going to be seeing mass migrations. And that's going to cause enormous global instability.
REHMAren't we already seeing those?
SIEGELWell, we're seeing some of that obviously. Look at the distress being caused by, still a significant number, but a relatively small number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Imagine now this on a continental scale. Imagine what would happen if the water starts to go bad in large parts of the world, and what that will mean for instability. And so the world that we see ahead of us is one that we can get all this right.
SIEGELI'm actually very optimistic. And the book ends on a very optimistic note. We can get all this right. There's a pathway for us to get this right. But if we don't get it right, the consequences for our inaction and our political dithering is going to really be profound.
REHMAnd all of this takes money, does it not?
SIEGELIt does. But you know what? The smarts about private equity now, financial engineering has become so sophisticated that one of the reasons why desalination plants are succeeding where they are is because they have figured out long-term ways of recouping the investment made now. You spend a great deal of money now, and you recapture that money over a 25, 35 or even 40-year period.
REHMAnd we'll leave it at that, on that optimistic note. Seth Siegel is the author of, "Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World." Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. He's author of, "A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy." And Patricia Mulroy is senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at the University of Las Vegas, Brookings Mountain West. Thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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