Birthright 2012: Israel Goes Green: Where’s the Water?

May 27, 2012 § 5 Comments

Miss me? Well, after surviving finals week, I trekked over the Atlantic to the land of my forefathers, the State of Israel. As a country filled with over 5,000 years of history, there was much to learn, a ton of places to explore, and many, many adventures to be had. However, there’s much more to Israel than its historical, political, and religious significance (though these shouldn’t be ignored). Israel is the number one nation in the world for startup greentech and cleantech, and is a leader in the world of sustainability.

History of Sustainability in Israel: I’m Thirsty

Israel may have been known as the biblical Land of Milk and Honey, but while it may overflow with these liquids, there’s one it seriously lacks – water. As with many other nations in the Middle East, Israel is mostly arid land, and a good portion of the country, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, is covered by the Negev Desert. This lack of water has been a major issue throughout history, but each of the peoples, kingdoms, empires, and countries who have controlled the land have had their own unique and successful ways of solving the problem.

One of the earliest governing bodies of Israel following the Jewish diaspora were a group of Hellenistic Greeks, led by the builder of much of ancient Israel, King Herod. To bring water to those who needed it, Herod started, and the Romans finished, a series of aqueducts along the coast, much like this one in Caesaria:

Caesaria Aqueduct

Aqueduct in Caesaria, Israel

As power changed hands in the final century BCE, the Romans continued to expand their power over Israel, now known as Judea, and with that power came more and more aqueducts. Water began to play an even more significant role, as the Romans used more water than any civilization up to this point. In addition to irrigation for farming and drinking water, the Romans needed water for their vast palaces, theaters, hippodromes and gardens. One thing that they didn’t seem the squander water on, however, were their public toilets.  These toilets, like the one below, were meeting places for the important people of the land. However, Roman toilets were technically extremely sustainable – no flushing means almost no water used, and there was no waste of paper as they used reusable brushes in place of toilet paper. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest reverting to these toilets. I may love the environment, but I’m sanitary).

Ancient Roman Toilet (With some friends)

As the Middle Ages dawned, Roman power fell and Muslim power reigned over Israel, the Crusades began, with the intention of regaining the Holy Land. Like in Europe, the Crusader knights built fortresses with walls and moats – but with a twist for the Middle East. Their moats? They were dry. Basically, they were super deep pits, with smooth, unscalable walls, just like this one in Caesaria:

Crusader moat in Caesaria

Crusader fortresses, as with any other stronghold in Israel or the Middle East in general, needed to be built to survive siege. This didn’t just mean that they needed to be strong enough to withstand the battle, but they needed to be able to store massive amounts of water in order to stay alive during sieges which could last months. To solve this problems, these fortresses were built with giant cisterns like the one below.

Cistern from the top of a Crusader fortress in Tzfat

Exploring the cistern in Tzfat

Following the Crusader period, power continued to change hands once again. Eventually, under the Ottomans and the British Mandate of Palestine, Zionists began settling the countryside. Like with all other periods of time, water became a major issue. These new towns were differently organized than in the past. Instead of aqueducts and cisterns, water towers were built. The water tower below is one of the most famous in Israel, having been built with money donated by the famous Baron Edmund de Rothschild, one of the biggest philanthropic donators to Zionism.

“Benjamin’s Pool,” the water tower in Zichron Ya’akov

Israeli Sustainability Today: Water, Water Everywhere

With such a vast and colorful history of water conservation, it’s no wonder that Israel is the way it is now. As previously mentioned, Israel is the number one country in the world for cleantech and greentech startup investments, and has created some of the most important technologies in water conservation.

Israel is credited with the invention of what is potentially the most important water conservation technologies in our modern world: Drip Irrigation. One of the most important improvements in the system was made by Simcha Blass and his son Yeshayahu in Israel, and involved the use of plastics in the system. The Blass system uses larger and longer openings to disperse the water, using velocity to their advantage.

Tomatoes and cucumbers growing in the Negev

Drip irrigation changed farming forever, especially in the Middle East. The south of Israel, which is covered by the Negev desert, has now begun to be a booming agricultural site, growing most of the nation’s produce, and has become a hotspot for Thai immigrants to come work the fields. I actually shouldn’t say fields, because most of this agriculture is grown alternatively – in netted greenhouses, in tracked rows raised above the ground, and in a whole bunch of other ways. This way, farmers get the advantages of the Negev’s climate – the heat and air are good for many crops – while being able to directly control the water intake of each plant. In the system shown below, water is slowly released into the soil in the hanging trays, then trickles down to the bottom and drips down the slightly angled rows to a collection tube, which collects the water and recycles it to water the plants again.

Strawberries being grown above ground in the Negev

With farming, water isn’t the only concern. Many farms, just like the one I was fortunate enough to visit, are also concerned with producing organic, GMO-free, pesticide- and chemical-free produce as well. Much of the produce is grown netted in, and Israeli companies are credited with the invention of a specifically bred insect that eats the bugs and parasites that threaten farms around the world.

One invention, while not invented by an Israeli, has taken Israel by storm: the Dual Flush Toilet. Invented by Australian inventor Bruce Thompson in 1980, this toilet works more like an airplane toilet than a traditional toilet, using gravity rather than a siphon to remove waste. The toilet has two flushing options – more or less water – activated by two different levers or buttons, to be used for two different bathroom situations (I don’t think I need to explain which is which). The toilet is effective – there’s an average of 67% water use savings when used correctly  a majority of the time. Sure, it’s a little more expensive, but it’ll pay off in the end. In Israel, a nation where water is scarce, the extra cash upfront is worth it, and it’s actually uncommon NOT to see a dual flush toilet everywhere you go.


My 9th grade Global History teacher once told me (and every student she’s ever had): Geography is Destiny. Three simple words, exemplified by Israel better than perhaps any other nation in the world. A state seriously lacking in water, it has found ways throughout history to fix this problem. In modern times, it’s no wonder Israel is at the top of the sustainability game – it has to be.


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§ 5 Responses to Birthright 2012: Israel Goes Green: Where’s the Water?

  • Bri Levitch says:

    This was such an impressive post, Zach! I wish I knew how concerned you were with sustainability during the trip because we probably could have blabbed about it the whole time! That was honestly one of my favorite parts of being in the country- observing all the environmentally friendly things there were all around.

  • Awesome post! Everything was covered beautifully! Reminds me of my time in Israel!

  • Andrew Feldman says:

    I read your blog!

  • Awesome! If only the American southwest would adopt some of these practices on a larger scale.

  • mordechai says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve never perceived the development of Israel’s history through the perspective of water and it’s conservation. Having lived in Israel these last 33 years one thing that stands out is it’s focus on water. It’s not uncommon during a typical weather report to get an update on the water level of the Kinneret, an indicator of the country’s well being.

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