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Environmentalists Who Want A Greener America Should Follow Israel’s Example


What do punishing drought, lethal air pollution, a lack of natural resources have in common? They are all good reasons for a nation to pursue policies that steward its natural resources and diversify its energy supply.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” the proverb goes, and by necessity, Israel is a pioneer in water and energy independence. It leads the world in water technology and renewable energy, and is showing the world how necessity can lead the way to a greener future.

The first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, aimed at “making the desert bloom,” which anticipated the problems of supporting a growing Israeli population in the middle of a desert. Israel’s precarious relationship with its oil-rich neighbors—eight out of ten of Israel’s neighboring countries do not recognize its existence—makes energy and resource independence a national security priority.

Israel is located in one of the most water-scarce regions in the world. It is noteworthy, then, that this small country has become so resourceful with its water supply that it can both meet its own needs and have a water surplus. This has proven to be lucrative. Israel now markets their water-reuse technology and expertise to other countries, which has grown into a billion-dollar industry. It’s also a helpful bargaining chip to a country surrounded by belligerent nations.

Trading Water for Peace

Israel has invested heavily in mass water reclamation and desalinization initiatives. Israel recycles more water, proportional to its population, than any other country in the world. More than 80 percent of household water and sewage is reclaimed, treated, and reused for agricultural purposes, which makes Israel four times more efficient with water than any other country. Reclamation comprises 25 percent of Israel’s total water supplies and 86 percent of the water used in irrigation.

Desalinization is Israel’s other important water conservation initiative. Since 2005, the process of taking the salt and minerals from Mediterranean Sea water has come to generate 40 percent of Israel’s water supply. Both reclamation and desalinization are important because Israel’s traditional source of water—the National Water Carrier, which distributes rain gathered in the Sea of Galilee to the south of the country—has seen lack of rain bring its production to record lows in recent years. Its 83 miles of piping, tunnels, reservoirs, and open canals have also caused extensive damage to the environment.

The National Water Carrier, reclamation, and desalinization are all important to Israeli security: providing water to Jordan in exchange for peace was a central tenet of their 1994 peace agreement. The Israel-Jordan peace treaty established that in exchange for peace, Israel would transfer 13,208,602,618 gallons of water to Jordan each year and support Jordanian development of desalinization technologies. Both countries also agreed to help one another survive droughts.

Israel honed its water conservation technologies to simply meet the needs of its people. But it has proven to be so successful in this realm, through developing sophisticated salinization and reclamation technologies, that it was able to pacify Jordan, a historically volatile enemy. All this was accomplished because Israel’s survival and national security required it, which demonstrates what can be achieved with properly aligned incentives.

Well, the Middle East Does Have a Lot of Sun

Israel’s security needs are also a main cause of its innovative developments in alternative sources of energy. In a region of the world best known for producing and exporting oil, Israel is an outlier. Israel has few exploitable indigenous natural resources, and endures constant political animosity with its neighbors. These factors make the pursuit and development of alternative energy sources necessary.

Israel has historically been highly dependent on foreign supplies to meet domestic energy needs, but has recently focused attention on diversifying its energy dependence beyond fossil fuels and leading the world in renewable energy technology, or “clean-tech.” Israel is a world leader in water heating by solar power: about 95 percent of households use solar water heaters, which reduces Israel’s energy consumption by an estimated 3 percent annually.

Although solar energy still cannot match the low prices of fossil fuels, solar power is not far behind. Leaders in Israel have acknowledged that working toward energy independence bolsters national security: “I view this as a national goal of the highest importance because the addiction to oil has led to the Western world being dependent on the oil producing countries and harms the standing and security of Israel,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when presenting a plan to invest more than half a billion dollars to ensure 10 percent of Israeli electricity is from renewables.

Countries with few indigenous natural resources to speak of (such as Germany) and countries that are arguably too reliant on a singular resource (such as Nigeria) can benefit from looking to Israel’s renewable policies. With experts continually predicting the fast approach of Peak Oil—the point at which the world’s oil production will have peaked—interest in renewable energy, or sources of energy that are indefinitely replenishable, remains.

When You Need to, You Will

In one of his first acts as prime minister, Ben-Gurion established the Research Council of Israel with the intent of harnessing science “to help a new country having virtually no natural resources.” Israel has harnessed science to “make the desert bloom” because its very survival has depended on it.

Israel shows how self-interest prompts change, and how change can become increasingly possible when political necessity makes cost less relevant. This trend holds in other countries, too. For example, China, the world’s biggest polluter, has begun to take air pollution seriously after a recent study found it was a factor in the deaths of more than 1.6 million Chinese this year. An example from history includes Hitler’s commitment to energy independence, which resulted in the innovation of producing synthetic fuel from coal.

Many countries are moving towards cleaner forms of energy, and attempts to conserve life-sustaining resources, like water, continue to grow. President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency resurfaces questions over whether renewable development will continue when there is a surplus of cheap fossil fuel available from fracking. Yet as costs of these technologies are falling—solar has come down 78 percent in five years—countries will continue to look to alternative energy in the years to come. Israel will be leading the way to this brighter, greener future.