At the back of everyone’s minds, the worst fear regarding changing climate is how can we ever cope with a 4 degree Celsius temperature increase and increased drought, especially in regions like Tamil Nadu or Rajasthan? It’s not possible. I have heard scientists mention it off the record. I have felt it. And so, this thought, this fear leaves it sticky, hopeless residue on the actions we take or hope to take.
But in the past week, I visited a land that has not only overcome its lack of water, it has thrived, even to the astonishing reality today of exporting its water. It appears magical – especially since the country is in the middle of biblical realms – but it is not.
This land is Israel.
Seeing is believing and I saw Oranges and Jojoba plants growing straight out of desert sand. I was told earlier that cucumbers and mangoes grew here. Plants grow with higher yield and make commercial sense while factoring the full price of water. There are many lessons in this for us. Let me distil out the main ones. It is a parable of water.
When modern-day Israel came into being in 1948, it was a dry land. Water was to be found either in the northwest – in the Sea of Galilee or deep underground. About half the land was and is a desert. The mighty Negev in the south of Israel needed to provide food if the new nation was to offer a home to all the people flowing into it. So a grand plan was drawn up to divert the waters from the North East to the South. While that was a grand feat of engineering, there was an even remarkable concept supporting it. The Water Law passed in 1959 established water as a common property and removed the right to the groundwater found under the land from the person owning the land. In fact, even the sewage of a house in Israel does not belong to the household, it belongs to the state. Good riddance to bad rubbish, you might say. But in Israel, sewage, as we shall see, holds the key to making the desert hospitable.
Water is measured carefully in Israel and priced – everyone pays. While water was (and is) offered at a discount to the farmer, it was still priced. This has led to innovation to lower costs and improve profits. An early innovation was the invention of modern-day drip irrigation in the mid-1960s by Simcha Blass that allowed water to be directed to the roots of the plant thus minimising the loss to evaporation. He, in a joint venture with kibbutz Hatzerim (an agricultural settlement), founded a company called Netafim in 1965 that commercialised the technology. Drip irrigation has advanced considerably – both geographically and technologically. Often, all the nutrition and fertilization that a plant needs comes through the drip tubes and the soil has merely become an anchor to hold the roots of the plants. Indeed, I saw a company that places sensors on the plant to understand when the plant is “thirsty” and uses that information to turn on the drip!
Today, you can see the drip irrigation tubes everywhere in Israel: in the midst of small vegetation patches in the front of apartment complexes, alongside the orange trees in the farms, hidden 30 cm under the ground of the sandy desert watering the roots of the thirsty shrubs. A small price for water along with a carefully cultivated water-consciousness through repeated, consistent messaging has made the tubes affordable and desirable.
Add this to another innovation: the use of treated sewage to irrigate crops. Israel reuses 85% of its treated sewage or effluents – far ahead of any other country. This allows it to become “weather-independent” for its water needs. This journey of using reclaimed sewage water for agriculture also started in the 1960s and today has grown to be major source of usable water for the country.
You might think so what? The National Crime Record Bureau’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides Report says 11,744 farmers’ suicides occurred across India in 2013 with Maharashtra, a cotton growing state, accounting for 3,146. Studies on what drives farmers to commit suicide throws up water and irrigation issues as one of the main reasons. So when a water-stressed desert country can grow cotton at triple the yield of India, it warrants, at the very least, examination and nuanced emulation.
(Climaction is a fortnightly column published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the article are those of the author. The next article in this series will appear on November 13.
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(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming)