His Excellency, Arthur Lenk, Israeli ambassador to South Africa, explaining how a good irrigation system can prevent water loss.
His Excellency, Arthur Lenk, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, explaining how a good irrigation system can prevent water loss.

Resource management is, and has for some time, been a key topic of discussion. Given this framework, water management is without a doubt the most important theme that should enjoy attention.

There is no doubt that water is an extremely scarce resource. Not only do we have to use it very sparingly, but it has to be carefully managed with buy-in from role-players at all levels: government, consumers, agricultural users, industrial users and more.

For Israel, being an arid country, water scarcity has always been part of its history. “As a desert country, we realised that we could not merely trust our neighbours to be our only source of water. We realised that we did not only have to take care of every drop of water we had, but that we also had to increase the amount of water available to us,” explains Arthur Lenk, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa.

Government and other role-players, therefore, had to put certain plans into action to ensure meticulous water management within this country in the Middle East. Which water management lessons can South Africa take from Israel?

Enlarging the share

Increasing the amount of water available to a country seems like an impossible task, as water is a finite natural resource that cannot be ‘produced’. A country has only the fresh water which it receives through rain, underground systems, rivers and lakes. “However, Israel, as does South Africa, has an infinite amount of water within its reach: the ocean. The problem? It is salt water and cannot be consumed or utilised for agriculture.”

Israel therefore turned to technology that employs the processes of desalination and reverse osmosis to solve this problem. These technologies are used to remove the salt content in the water and to purify the precious resource. “These technologies have allowed us to increase the amount of fresh water available for use in Israel. However, implementing these technologies is very expensive,” says Lenk.

Not only does the process require large volumes of electricity, but the facility needed for this process to run smoothly and efficiently, is also very expensive to build. “To make this necessity a reality despite the cost, the Israeli government entered into a build-operate-transfer (BOT) agreement with an Israeli desalination company called IDE technologies.”

Today there are four active desalination plants in Israel which have been built through such agreements. “Israel is now building its fifth desalination plant on the border between Israel and Jordan. Through this initiative, both Israel and Jordan will receive fresh water desalinated from water obtained from the Red Sea.”

Protecting every slice of the cake

Another crucial aspect of water management is reusing every drop as far as possible. “In Israel most water used for daily purposes, for example sanitation or cooking, is recycled and reused for agriculture. Once systems are in place to collect, treat and reuse this water, a lot can be achieved in terms of water management.”

Lenk proudly shares the fact that Israel recycles more water than any other country – by a margin of more than 50%. This entails large-scale management by the government. One of the additional upsides is that there is no need to convince the public to spend time or money on recycling water in their homes.

Nevertheless it is extremely important that there is public buy-in in respect of water management. “The Israeli public has been educated with messages on saving water for many years, and they have truly become part of the Israeli psyche.” Furthermore, the high price of water naturally motivates the public to save water. “Due to its scarcity, water is really expensive in Israel and no one can afford to be wasteful with this resource,” he says.

Agricultural adjustments

Many adjustments had to be made in the agricultural industry due to the scarcity and subsequent high price of water, something which has led to better water management on farms. Among others, this led to the invention of drip irrigation by Netafim in that country in the 1960s.

“As everyone in agriculture knows, this technique allows for water to be delivered exactly to where the seed is planted, rather than the entire field being flood irrigated, resulting in saving large amounts of water.”

Greater water savings, adds Lenk, is not the only advantage, as this leads to produce being handled with greater precision throughout its growing period. This allows for the achievement of higher quality and increased production. Water scarcity and the soaring price of water have also forced Israeli farmers to rethink their enterprises, often switching to the cultivation of crops that are much less water-intensive.

Waste not, want not

Considering the above, accurate water pricing is an extremely important factor of water management. “I wholly agree with higher water prices to ensure better water management. However, this does not mean that water prices should be artificially high. All users, across industries, agriculture and the public, should pay realistic water prices, reflecting its true value.”

According to Lenk, a higher water price merely causes the farmer to reconsider the crop he would cultivate and makes the home-owner rethink that 20-minute shower. “It won’t punish them, but it will force them to be more efficient.”

All of this, however, has no impact if the resource is wasted due to poor infrastructure that encourages and supports wastage. Water wastage due to leaking pipes and other inefficiencies is a massive problem, but it is a problem with several possible solutions. One way is making sure that you have up-to-date infrastructure in place. Advanced metering is also very important in order to identify problems such as leaks.”

There are interesting new technologies available, some for example using smartphones, which can assist organisations in finding leaks, identifying theft and more. “Investing in infrastructure and metering is just as important as investing in the other aspects discussed in this article.” The most important factor, says Lenk, is that careful thought and planning should prevail at all levels.

Gravity of local water shortage

“I think the South African government and public are relatively aware of the dangers of water shortages. But improved and increased awareness is always possible. It has become crucial to look to the future and determine whether plans should be put into action to ensure water availability in the year 2020 and beyond.

“The government must do the math. How much water will this country need in the future? Will the lakes, rainfall, rivers and underground systems provide enough? Or perhaps not? Which steps have to be taken to ensure sufficient water availability?” –Marike Brits, Farmbiz