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[sounds of water and clapping]
Voice: Oh yeah!
It’s just another day on the Jordan River.
Pastor: Brother homer let’s go!…. [clapping]
Stephen Smith: A Christian pilgrim from Vancouver Washington wades into the Jordan from the Israel side of this Biblical stream. Two pastors with the group are already chest deep in the murky waters.
Pastor: Homer, I baptize you in the name of our father, the son our lord Jesus Christ and the holy spirit.
[dunking and cheering]
This is Qasr el Yahud, a public park and baptism site. It’s where many believe Jesus Christ was baptized by the apostle John. Busloads of Christians from all over the world come here to be dipped in these storied waters. Joel Townshend is one of them.
Joel Townshend: We’d heard it’s a little muddy but we just wanted to follow in Jesus’ steps. He’s the hope of the world and the savior of every person who puts their faith in him. So we’re excited.
Unlike its description in the gospel song, Michael Row The Boat Ashore, the river Jordan today is neither deep nor wide. It is more of a small stream flowing south from the Sea of Galilee. It’s been aggressively tapped to irrigate fields and to supply villages. It’s tainted by farm chemical runoff and effluent from sewage treatment plants. The Jordan used to empty into the Dead Sea 80 miles south. Now it dries up in the Israeli desert before it can get there.
In a way the Jordan River is a symbol of water crises facing much of the planet: climate change, population growth, and overuse. Scientists will tell you that we have all the water there’s ever been and ever will be and that’s been true for the life of the Earth. But most of that is salt water and a lot of our fresh water is contaminated.
News Broadcast: California desperately needs rain. The drought that began in 2011 has grown worse every year since.
Persistent drought in California and the American Southwest has many Americans thinking about water scarcity for the first time. But for billions of people around the globe, the daily struggle to get water for drinking or growing food is an all-consuming burden.
[sound of Delhi traffic]
India is a vast and ecologically diverse country, and it suffers from water problems found across the globe: flooding, drought, pollution. Another huge problem is the lack of access to water for crops, or for drinking or washing – especially for poor people.
[sound of Delhi street]
This is a crowded street in Kusumpur Pahari…one of the huge slum neighborhoods in Delhi, India’s capital. Thirty year old Mukesh Kumar lives here in a small flat with 14 relatives. He’s down by the street using a hose to fill big plastic jugs with water from a well. The electric pump that draws the water is slow…and others are waiting.
Mukesh Kumar: [Hindi]
Voice Over: I come here at 8 to fill up. And it takes until 9 or 10. I usually fill up as many as 10 containers. The water lasts us about 24 hours. Then we come back again. This water is not for drinking but other household chores.
Kumar’s neighborhood has no running water. Delhi’s metro area is home to nearly 26 million people. And almost half the homes here are not connected to the municipal water grid. Wealthier people often have big storage tanks they can rely on. But not here in the slum. The water from this well is unsafe to drink- the groundwater is polluted. So clean drinking water arrives on Fridays in a tanker truck.
Voice Over: Every seven days a tanker truck comes. Each street has a designated day to get water from the Delhi water department. But it isn’t enough. There are so many people here, what can you do with one tanker? Sometimes we bring our containers and get nothing.
[sound of truck]
By late morning, a lumbering water truck arrives in Kumar’s neighborhood. It was sent by the Delhi water department. The truck squeezes down the narrow lane and parks by a carefully-arranged collection of about 150 containers. Neighborhood men use four large hoses to fill as many containers as possible as quickly as possible.
[sounds of water and crowd]
The crowd is anxious. Many people have been here since before dawn and they have no idea if there is enough water in the truck for everyone. A lot of the children here skipped school to get water for their families. One woman vents her frustration to no one in particular.
Woman at truck: After waiting all morning, we have one week of water. With this one week of water, how can we bathe the children? How can we wash our clothes?
A 45-year-old house cleaner named Papu lugged his containers here at 6 in the morning. He had to skip work today to get water. I asked him if it will last the week.
Papu: It is not enough. We have to measure it in small quantities, like measuring cooking oil for vegetables. We have to plan carefully how much to use until the next tanker comes.
From APM, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Thirsty Planet. I’m Stephen Smith. A report by the World Economic Forum warns that by mid-century 3 billion people will live in water-stressed countries. That’s one in every three people on the planet. Over the coming hour we’ll spend more time in India to explore a range of water challenges that face many countries. We’ll also go to Israel which is mostly desert and doesn’t have enough fresh water but has still largely solved its water security problems.
[sounds of Delhi street]
Back to the Delhi slum now, where a lot of the residents have migrated from rural towns and villages to find work. It’s a crowded, pungent place, where toilets empty into open sewers beside the road and enormous pigs feast on mounds of fetid garbage. An activist named Sonia Verma has lived here for more than 40 years. She does social work with women and children in the slum. She says many people here get water from simple wells called bore wells.
Sonia Verma: This is a problem because the sewage goes down the wells and contaminates the groundwater. The water department tested the wells and found the water unfit for drinking. But many people are unable to get water from the tanker truck, so they drink from the wells and get a stomach illness.
More than 300,000 children in India die each year from diarrhea-related sickness. That’s 822 children a day. Waterborne illnesses are the primary cause.
Himanshu Thakkar: Most parts of Delhi the drainage system is in bad shape.
Himanshu Thakkar is a clean water activist in Delhi.
Himanshu Thakkar: Most of the storm water drains are getting the sewage and polluted water. Which they should not be. Half of the city is not sewered. The rest of the half which is sewered, lot of them is in old state and not properly maintained.
And once again, it’s poor neighborhoods that suffer the most from improper sanitation. Delhi’s current government was elected in 2015 with the promise of fixing and expanding the sewage system and connecting all of the city to the municipal water supply. Delhi’s water minister is Kapil Mishra. He says in the past, politicians used water to reward their supporters.
Kapil Mishra: He will ensure piped water in his particular area from where he or she is getting votes. And then other areas will be neglected. So we have changed that approach. We now have a clear cut action plan, timeline, we have a plan for the entire city.
In the Kusumpur Pahari slum, activist Sonia Verma is skeptical that there will be much change. She says if the Delhi government fails on its water promises, slum dwellers will do the same thing to get water that they did to force the government to install electrical service. They’ll tap the municipal supply running to more affluent homes…and steal it.
The people of Central and South India rely on two annual monsoon seasons for most of their rain. The southwest monsoon blows June to September…the northeast monsoon in October to December. But the monsoons have been behaving strangely in recent years. They’ve either brought too little rain or too much.
BBC report: It rained all through the night in Chennai. India’s 4th largest city experienced its heaviest rainfall in more than a hundred years.
The flooding in Chennai happened during the northwest monsoon in November and December 2015. Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu states, on India’s southeastern coast. The flooding killed hundreds of people and caused an estimated 3-billion dollars in damage.
[sound of bulldozer]
On a small farm in the Tamil Nadu countryside…a bulldozer is removing flood debris. The land is flat and dry…surrounded by low, scrubby trees. A small herd of goats relaxes in the shade. A farmer named Jayalakshmi never expected the nearby river to breach its banks.
Voice Over: It rained heavily for an entire month. But the damage was not too bad. Everyone was happy we were getting rain. But in the last days of the monsoon the storm was furious.
Before the flood, Jayalakshmi was growing grains and legumes. She had cashew and jackfruit trees and two huge pens holding 5-thousand chickens.
Voice Over: After the flood there was nothing here. Everything was washed away. The cashew trees, everything. When we saw it we just started crying. I cried for two days straight. The others in the village reminded us we were not alone, that the destruction was everywhere, and there was no use sitting around crying.
The floodwaters left behind a thick layer of sandy, reddish silt covering hundreds of farms in the district. That’s what the bulldozer was clearing away.
Revati: So it’s like 8 feet, 10 feet, 15 feet. Even in some places their houses are buried under the sand.
Revati works with an NGO that is paying for bulldozers and helping local farmers recover. She says the flooding was especially hard for people in the impoverished Dalit community, many of whom work as farm laborers but don’t own land. Dalits are at the bottom of India’s social caste system. They were once called “untouchables.” Revati says many Dalits have left to find work in the city.
Revati: When they couldn’t find anybody to support for their livelihood…or day to day life…they moved out of the villages because they don’t have any holding. Their houses washed out. All they owned are goats and ducks. Everything washed out in the flood.
While India’s legendary monsoons can be destructive, the damage in 2015 was exceptional. Typically, people welcome the storm.
Roxy Matthew Koll: The monsoon is the lifeline of more than 1 billion people of South Asia.
Roxy Matthew Koll is a scientist at India’s Center for Climate Change Research.
Roxy Matthew Koll: If you consider India, more than 60% of the country still depends on rainfall agriculture. So that means the agriculture, lifeline of country, is totally dependent on monsoon.
Koll co-authored a recent study of India’s monsoon patterns. It found that changing conditions in the Indian Ocean…combined with the effects of El Nino…meant trouble.
Roxy Matthew Koll: Among major oceans, Indian Ocean is the smallest, but also the warmest. And this ocean has been warming rapidly during the past decades. And this warming has resulted in weakening of monsoon over central south Asia. And at the same time, is has also led to long dry spells intermittent with extreme rainfall events.
So while there’s been flooding on the coastline, the weakened monsoon essentially runs out of rain before it gets very far inland. Farmers in central and south India are enduring another year of severe drought. Drought-related crop failure is blamed for a rash of suicides by small farmers and sharecroppers: more than five thousand a year. The state of Telangana has the second-highest rate of farmer suicides in India.
[cows and cowbells]
A boy drives his cows to pasture in a farm village called Pulkal. One story houses are clustered together surrounded by farm fields.
Srisaliam Akkula: [Telugu]
Voice Over: My name is Srisaliam Akkula. I’m 35 years old and live in Pulkal village. My father, Vittal, died a year ago. He committed suicide.
The father had borrowed 15-hundred dollars for seed and pesticides to plant a cotton crop. In a normal year, the investment would pay off.
Srisaliam Akkula: [Telugu]
Voice Over: Back when the rains were abundant, we practically just threw the seeds to the ground and the crops would grow. Now with the drought we are forced to spend money on pesticides and other improvements. Things have become very difficult in the last few years.
The father had borrowed 100-thousand rupees from a pesticide shop and a private money lender. But without rain the cotton crop failed. Most of India’s farmers work small plots of land and make barely enough money to get by. Indebted famers are killing themselves as a matter of honor.
Srisaliam Akkula: [Telugu]
Voice Over: One day my father got a bottle of whiskey and mixed it with pesticide. He drank it. We rushed him to the hospital. Ten days later he died.
The problem with the heavier-than-usual bursts of monsoon rain, scientists say, is the water runs off Telangana’s hard soil to rivers and the sea. It doesn’t have time to soak into farm fields and recharge underground aquifers. So in a perverse way…a downpour leads to more drought.
Suhaas Raje: One single most important factor is the reduced number of rainy days.
Suhaas Raje is a retired groundwater expert for the state of Telangana.
Suhaas Raje: We do have a normal rainfall that is there supposed to fall. We do have it. But instead of falling in 90 days it’s falling 30, 35, 40 days. Leaving a lot of runoff, rather than recharge. That has resulted in this crisis.
This machine is adding to the crisis. It’s a drilling rig, boring through the soil to get at groundwater. Drought has made farmers more dependent than ever on groundwater.
Gollapally Jayaraaju: The Manjeera River, which is the main water source for my district, is totally dry due to this drought over the last 2 years.
Gollapally Jayaraaju is with the Peasant’s Union.
Gollapally Jayaraaju: So farmers are digging bore wells in their fields with the hope of getting water. Often they don’t. Some are digging two, three, even four bore wells in their fields.
The state of Telangana is about the size of Ohio. There are an estimated one-point-three million bore wells here. That’s a lot. There are so many wells pumping from an already stressed aquifer that the water table in Telangana has nearly collapsed. The deeper the well, the more it costs to drill. A farmer who is already poor borrows thousands of dollars — at high interest — to dig dry wells.
Gollapally Jayaraaju: He’s caught in a debt trap. The farmer sees no hope and kills himself. Both husband and wife are committing suicide with the hope that the government will come to the aid of their families.
The state pledges compensation of up to 10-thousand dollars to the families of a farmer who commits suicide. But Jayaraju says these cases often disappear in India’s notoriously corrupt bureaucracy.
The most water intensive crops grown in Telangana are sugarcane, wheat, corn and rice. These commodities are subsidized by the government…and were a central part of India’s so-called “green revolution.” In the 1950s and 60s…Indian farmers began using hybrid crops developed in the west that grew faster and produced higher yields. The hybrids also required irrigation systems, fertilizers and pesticides. Thirsty crops like corn and rice still dominate the landscape. They’re generally the most lucrative as long as they don’t fail. But some scientists and farmers in India say the crops their ancestors used to grow are a better bet.
[women threshing with sticks]
At an agricultural research farm in Telangana, women use wooden clubs to pound cloth bags filled with sorghum seeds. Threshing is an ancient process that separates the protein-rich seeds from their protective shells. The workers then use a sieve to separate the seeds from the chaff.
[sound of sieve]
This sorghum is a genetic hybrid developed by an Indian NGO with a mouthful of a name: the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics or ICRISAT. Sorghum can be ground into flour or used to feed livestock. ICRISAT scientists modified this sorghum to yield 3 times more iron than other varieties. It also grows faster and require less water. Suhas Wani is the ICRISAT’s director for Asia. He says the goal is more crop per drop…as in drops of water.
Suhas Wani: And in India we always used to say – we have a proverb, you know? [Speaks in Hindi] That means you are spending the money like a water. But now the terminology has to be reversed. That you are spending water like money.
ICRISAT promotes the cultivation of cereals…like finger millet and pearl millet, and legumes such as chick peas and lentils. These crops are high in food value and also drought resistant.
Stephen Smith: So whatta you got here?
Joanna Kane-Potaka: We’ve got…here’s some of the Indian products. This is a millet muesli.
Joanna Kane-Potaka heads up marketing at ICRISAT. On the shelves in her office she keeps a variety of products like the breakfast dish museli made from crops that thrive in arid regions.
SS: Freedom ancient grains super bar…
JKP: Yep. They’ve still got quinoa. But they’ve also got millet added there as well.
ICRISAT wants to popularize the term “smart food” because millets and the like are good for health. They’re said to be good for the planet because they use less water and don’t need chemicals. And they’re good for small farmers because they can thrive in poor soil and in a drought, they are the last crop standing. The problem is that in India, at least, these crops are seen as old fashioned and for poor people.
JKP: What we’re trying to do is actually change the image and create a buzz around it. At the moment it’s hitting niche markets. Particularly health conscious niche markets. I mean they basically can be the next quinoa.
Quinoa is a nutritious grain, cultivated by the Inca, that has gained popularity among upmarket consumers in the United States and Europe. Even if ICRISAT’s greener farming methods become more popular, they may not do much in the near term to help people get more water to drink or cook with.
[bucket being drawn from well]
At least twice each day, women farmers in this Indian village walk to one of the local wells, drop in a bucket and haul up water.
Their steel pots carry up to four gallons and can weigh 50 pounds.
Vimla: We are forced to carry water in pots on our heads and fetch the water from a distance of more than a mile.
I’m in a village called Ranila, where the women are fed up with trudging miles each day to get water. Ranila is a farming community in Haryana state. I’m speaking with Vimla. She’s 62.
Vimla: It is all the more pathetic that the quality of water we fetch from so far away is extremely poor. It causes us skin allergies.
The canal that used to bring water to Ranila has been mostly dry for the past two years. Villagers aren’t sure why, but water in the surrounding state of Haryana has increasingly been diverted to keep water flowing in Delhi, 60 miles to the west. Ranila is one of thousands of farm villages across India with a water shortage. A farmer named Anita complains that she is forced to walk to a well nearly a mile away twice a day. And her husband is no help…
Voice Over: The men in our village don’t think its their job to help with the water. They are mostly busy playing cards or sleeping. Even after working in the fields all day…we do the household chores and carry water.
Jagmati Sangwan: Indian society is predominantly a male society. Male folk, they take it as an inferior work.
Jagmati Sangwan is the head of All India Democratic Women’s Association a leading women’s rights organization. She says girls start carrying water for the family as young six years old. Older girls drop out of school because they don’t have time for homework. Sangwan says the burden of fetching water traps millions of Indian women in a kind of water servitude that keeps them from getting more education or bettering their lives.
Jagmati Sangwan: There is a problem that they have to invest a lot of energy. And always their mind and brain is preoccupied with the problems related to drinking water. It makes them exhausted. The acuteness of the problem is very deep.
The challenge of providing safe water is not just an issue for Indian women. Researchers say untold millions of women in poor parts of the world face the same daily struggle.
This is Stephen Smith. You’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: Thirsty Planet. Coming up, How Israel used technology and conservation to vanquish drought.
Seth Siegel: In grade school and nursery school, children are taught how to brush their teeth in the most water efficient way. They are taught to bathe in the most water efficient way. And over and over again they are given the phrase that it is a pity to waste even a drop.
You can find out more about this story on our web site including photos of the people we met in India and links to resources. You can also find the American RadioWorks archive where we have more stories about the environment at home and abroad. That AmericanRadioWorks.org We’d like to know what impact American RadioWorks stories have on you. What’s this program making you think about? Will you share it with friends and colleagues? Please go to American RadioWorks dot org and let us know. Our program continues in just a moment from APM.
Shimon Mishkal picks his way across a rocky beach toward the Sea of Galilee. It’s actually a lake, not a sea. For more than 40 years, Mishkal came to this beach almost every day to read a gauge measuring the lake’s depth.
Shimon Mishkal: [Hebrew]
Voice Over: This is the measuring instrument. These pipes connect it to the lake and here are the gauges that showed the water level.
Mishkal reported his findings to anxious water officials down south in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem. In times of drought, the lake level was broadcast nightly on the news. For decades, the Sea of Galilee was Israel’s major source of water for drinking, agriculture and industry. It was said that the wellbeing of Israel could be calculated by the level of the lake.
Shimon Mishkal: [Hebrew]
Voice Over: There was a time the water dropped by 4 meters. Do you know how much we cried then? It was a real heartbreak.
From APM, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: Thirsty Planet. I’m Stephen Smith. India suffers from many of the water problems experienced by countries around the world and for a long time, so did Israel. But now, Israel is looked to as a source of solutions – solutions that were born of necessity.
Newsreel: It was the rising tension in Palestine that held world attention.
From its very first days as a country, Israel viewed water as a national security issue.
Newsreel: Partition had brought a new flare up in the strife between Arab and Jew.
In 1947, the United Nations general assembly voted to divide what was then British-ruled Palestine into two states: one for Arabs, one for Jews.
Newsreel: Arab opposition to the partition scheme has been violent. The call for a holy war against the Jews went out from Cairo.
Israel declared itself an independent state in 1948. In the wake of World War Two and the Holocaust, the country prepared for a wave of Jewish refugees to their new homeland.
Newsreel: A sealed train brings 500 Jewish refugees to New York. Another milestone on their long voyage to Palestine. Exiled by Hitler, they went to Shanghai. Today, after crossing the Pacific, they end the journey across the states from San Francisco. Greetings are cut short until Ellis Island, last stop before their Atlantic crossing, and home.
Israel had a surging population and enemies at its borders. So access to a reliable fresh water supply was critical for the new state.
Seth Siegel: Israel is 60 percent desert. The rest of the country is semi-arid.
Seth Siegel is the author of a book about Israel and water titled, “Let There Be Water.”
Siegel: The country has one and only one freshwater lake, the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus famously walked. And it has a couple of underground aquifers. And it has a few rivers, most of which only run for a few days of the year, during the winter rains. That is pretty much the water resources of the country. And when they realized that, they made the decision they would have to go outside the ordinary source of capturing water—they would have to go beyond capturing rain and have to go beyond using what they could from their aquifers and find new sources of water.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was determined to tap the Mediterranean. Siegel says at the time, large scale desalination was still science fiction. So Israel began experimenting. The effort went on for decades. Finally, a prolonged drought in the 1990s spurred the government to build a series of plants along the coast, just as Ben Gurion had envisioned.
[sound of water plant]
Miriam Faigon: These pumps are very quiet as you see, they are taking water up.
This is the Sorek desalination plant near Tel Aviv. It’s about a mile from the Mediterranean coast. Since 2013, Sorek has been turning seawater into freshwater. The Israeli firm IDE Technologies built the plant and runs it on contract for the government. Engineer Miriam Faigon gives me a tour.
Miriam Faigon: So, first of all where we are now is the intake. Where the water comes in through very big pipes. 3.2 meters in diameter…
Really big pipes. The pipes are big enough for a basketball player to stand up in comfortably. Sorek desalinates 800 million gallons of Mediterranean seawater each day. That’s 16 million bathtubs of water. Since seawater is full of all kinds of stuff, it goes through a series of grates to screen out the flotsam. Then to a system of big filtering tanks.
[sound of big pumps]
Stephen Smith: This is basically a medium sized swimming pool…
Miriam Faigon: Yes.
SS: That’s got some water in it and below that is a lot of sand…
MF: Sand cast.
SS: …which is an age-old filtering process, I mean after all that’s what the ground is.
MF: Exactly…very natural, very natural.
SS: And so the big particles clump together, they get caught by the sand, and the water that comes out is clean.
Clean but still salty. Salt molecules are smaller than a lot of the other stuff in seawater. So the next stage is a giant bank of specially-designed filters with tight coils of polymer membranes. They let water molecules through but trap the salt. Each membrane is very thin.
[sound of water plant]
SS: So if I was looking at it would it be thicker than a human hair?
MF: No! Smaller! Much, much, much smaller!
SS: I could hardly see it.
MF: Yes, yes.
The process is called reverse osmosis. It takes about 20 minutes for a given drop of water to make its way through the plant and become desalinated drinking water.
SS: So we’re walking over to a plastic tank that has a bunch of spigots. And some plastic cups. This is where we get to taste the final product.
MF: You want some?
SS: It tastes like water.
In addition to the final product, drinking water, there’s also a byproduct. It’s sloshing around in what’s essentially a big drainage pool.
MF: Ok. What we see here is the end of the whole process. Meaning after we desalinate the fresh seawater, the concentrate should return back to the sea.
SS: This is the salty…
SS: Briny water that is produced by the system.
MF: Correct, correct.
This brine is one of the things environmentalists don’t like about desalination. It can be hard on sea creatures.
Heather Cooley: Each species has a salinity threshold that it can handle.
Heather Cooley is with the Pacific Institue in Oakland California. It’s an NGO that works on global water issues.
Heather Cooley: The brine that we’re putting back is twice as salty as the intake water and many species just aren’t adapted to that.
Cooley says desalination can also use up to four times the energy required to pump from conventional sources.
Cooley: Because it uses so much energy it’s generating greenhouse gas emissions. And that, of course, is exacerbating climate change.
The Tel Aviv based Israel Union for Environmental Defense criticizes the country’s reliance on desalination, saying it has caused Israel to grow lax in protecting natural water sources. The Union’s Sarit Caspi-Oron points to Israel’s polluted coastal aquifer as an example.
Sarit Caspi-Oron: Over 300 drinking water wells been closed in Israel due to pollution. And the way water economy has been managed over years has forced us into being dependent on an energy-guzzling solution of desalination. Rather than using the more sustainable source.
Israel has five desalination plants along the Mediterranean. More than half of the nation’s fresh water now comes from the sea. Miriam Faigon says Israel can crank up water production in the summer when demand is high and throttle back in the winter.
Miriam Faigon: So this I think is a huge difference. You’re not limited any more — if it will rain or not, if the lakes will be full or not – because you have the seawater.
Israel uses high-priced desalination because the survival of the state depends on it. Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute warns that solutions that work in Israel may be far too expensive for many other parts of the world.
Heather Cooley: So Australia was in a ten, twelve year drought. They built six major desalination plants. Today four of those plants are now shut down.
Mothballed, she says, because the cheaper, natural sources of water recovered.
In addition to drinking water, Israel’s founding generation knew it would have to grow as much of its own food as possible for the growing population. Ben Gurion looked to the sparsely inhabited Negev Desert in the country’s south as a place for people to live and farm. Israeli seed companies became leading developers of hybrid crops that require less water to grow. Author Seth Siegel says Israeli officials also realized that sewage was too valuable to waste.
Seth Siegel: They began planning for a future where the country would build a national, parallel water system where all sewage is captured, treated to an ultra-high level where you actually could drink it if you had to. Would be put in the parallel system and not touch drinking water supplies. And it would be shipped to farming areas, so no or little fresh water is needed to grow crops.
[sounds of Shafdan treatment plant]
Gal Shahom: Okay here is the special stage for wastewaters…
I’m visiting the Shafdan wastewater treatment plant south of Tel Aviv. The intake water is a mix of storm drain, kitchen sink, bathtub and, yes, the toilet. As you might imagine, this plant smells really bad. But engineer Gal Shahom is used to it. He’s also quite enthusiastic about his work, so the tour he gives is unstoppably thorough. Here we arrive at the biological aeration tanks…
Gal Shahom: At this moment we start to supply oxygen by aerators and they remove the nitrogen and the phosphorous.
To keep it simple: Oxygen helps waste-eating microbes and bacteria digest the organic pollutants in the sewage. This kind of sewage treatment technology is used around the world. But it’s the scale of the place, and where the water goes from here, that stand out.
Stephen Smith: This is the largest plant of its kind in the world, right?
Gal Shahom: This kind of plant you can see even bigger in other countries. It’s still huge.
SS: But for a plant that reuses the water for irrigation, this is the largest.
GS: We are the biggest.
SS: And how much of Israel’s wastewater is coming through this plant?
GS: About 50 percent.
SS: 50 percent is coming through this plant?
Nearly all of Israel’s total wastewater is recycled: some 85 percent. The United States only recycles about 5 percent. The water leaving the Shafdan plant is drinkable, but people don’t drink it. Instead, it flows south through special pipes to farms in Israel’s Negev desert.
[Man speaking in Hebrew, children singing in Hebrew]
This is Kibbutz Hatzerim about 75 miles south of Tel Aviv. A kibbutz is a communal settlement and like Kibbutz Hatzerim, many are farms. The children of the Kibbutz are singing a song for Naty Barak, a local resident who stopped by their class.
Naty Barak: Apparently there is a song in the states which says “Rain, Rain Go Away.”
Stephen Smith: Come again another day.
Naty Barak: Ok. And here, we are “Geshem, Geshem, mishamaim. Rain, Rain from Heaven.”
Kibbutz Hatzerim is an island of green in the Negev desert. But when the first Jews came here in 1946 to establish their collective farm, it was brown, scrubby land with just one Acacia tree on the horizon.
Ruti Keren: So this is the picture I always start with.
Ruti Keren was a 19 year old when the Kibbutz was founded. She pulls out a fuzzy black and white snapshot of the first slapped-together structures.
Ruti Keren: Many people came to help from over the country, who came to build. And in one day, all this was built– the fence, three huts, one dining room, two for to sleep. And then everybody went home and here stayed 30 people.
Uri Werber: It was a very small group of people in the desert…
Uri Werber was an early member of the community.
Uri Werber: The kibbutz was in very bad shape. You see we worked very hard but the results from the agriculture point of view were very weak, very poor. We found one day that we are sitting actually on deep layers of salt in the soil.
Kibbutz Hatzerim’s olive plantation grew fine looking trees but they produced meager fruit. The community tried other crops that also failed. Some residents gave up and left. Those who stayed realized they needed a new strategy to stay afloat.
Naty Barak: In 1965 we decided to look for some kind of an industry. We wanted it to be somehow connected to agriculture.
This is Naty Barak again.
NB: And we met the guy, the engineer Simcha Blass.
Simcha Blass was one of Israel’s leading water engineers. He was especially interested in how to grow crops in arid conditions. As a young man, he visited a farm and a line of trees caught his eye.
NB: And he noticed that one of the trees was exceptionally bigger than the others. And it was obvious that all of the trees were planted, it was of the same variety and all were planted at the same time, so he was curious to find out how come that one tree is so much bigger than the others?
Blass noticed that an irrigation line near the base of the tree had a small leak. Here’s Blass speaking in a film in the 1970s.
Film: With drops who fell near the tree. The drops penetrated the light soil. And the soil around the tree was dry.
From this observation, Blass conceived of an idea for irrigating plants. Much of the water in conventional canal-and-ditch irrigation is lost to evaporation or seeping into the ground. Blass wanted to build a system that would drip water slowly over the root zone of each plant, delivering just the precise amount of water the plant needs. He spent years working on the idea of “drip irrigation” but could not find an investor to back him. Then Kibbutz Hatzerim stepped in: licensing Blass’ concept and developing a system using plastic piping and precise dripper nozzles. Drip irrigation is far more water-efficient than irrigation canals or those big sprinkler booms you see in much of American farm country. Naty Barak says drip irrigation also helped with the problem of salty soil at the kibbutz by forcing the salt away from the roots.
NB: You know, at that time we had an orchard here. We grew apricots, pears, peaches. And the results were amazing.
So members of the kibbutz started a company to manufacture drip irrigation systems. They called it Netafim, a Hebrew word that means “dripping.” Naty Barak is one of its top executives.
[clicking of machine]
This is the factory on Kibbutz Hatzerim. It makes the drip irrigation parts. This machine is cranking out the dripper heads that attach to the flexible plastic pipeline.
NB: We manufacture the pipe and insert the drippers into the pipe through the manufacturing process.
[sounds of Kibbutz]
More than 50 years later, Netafim is one of the world’s leading producers of drip irrigation systems. It has 17 manufacturing plants and customers in 110 countries. Its two biggest subsidiaries are in the United States and India. Today Kibbutz Hatzerim is prosperous. It has 900 residents and a lovingly landscaped campus. It runs a dairy operation and has a large jojoba plantation. Oil from the jojoba seed is widely used in cosmetics.
The use of drip irrigation is growing worldwide, but most farms in the United States still use ditches, canals and sprinklers. Only about 7 percent America’s irrigated land is fed by a drip system. In Israel, it’s more than 75 percent, with the rest of the crops fed by sprinklers.
Israel manages its water very differently than the United States. First of all, Israel has one national water authority. In the United States, there are more than 200-thousand separate public water systems. Another big difference between the US and Israel is who owns water. In America, if you have water under or on your land, you generally have the right to use it. In Israel…
Amir Givati: Water belongs to the government, to the country.
Amir Givati is in charge of surface water for Israel’s water authority. Givati says the national water commissioner decides who gets what.
Amir Givati: He’s the one that can allocate water or give you permission to use, how much water to use, where to pump. You cannot pump here. If I want now in my yard to do it, it’s not allowed.
Stephen Smith: In other words if you wanted to drill a well in your back yard…
Amir Givati: You’re breaking the law to do it.
Consumers in Israel also pay more for their water than Americans do. In the US the water bill for most households is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Israelis pay the actual cost of the water and the systems built to deliver it.
Seth Siegel: Israel also is a society that culturally teaches conservation.
Author Seth Siegel.
Seth Siegel: In grade school and nursery school, children are taught how to brush their teeth in the most water efficient way, they are taught to bathe in the most water efficient way. And over and over again, they are given the phrase that it is a pity to waste even a drop.
[music/speaking in Hebrew]
For years the water authority ran ad campaigns on TV encouraging Israelis to conserve water. In this spot, celebrities speak to the camera as their bodies appear to crack like a parched lakebed.
“Israel is drying out,” they warn. “We must save the Sea of Galilee…we must minimize our domestic water consumption.” The nation responded. Water consumption dropped, and the government essentially declared victory over drought. So today, with conservation, desalination, recycling and drip irrigation, the ads are no longer needed. But the situation is far different across the green line separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories.
While the water runs 24-7 on Israel’s side of the border, in the West Bank water often flows just a few hours a week, if at all.
[dogs barking, speaking in Arabic]
About 40 Palestinian farm families live here in the village of Susya. There are several wells in the village. The people used to drink from them. Now they can’t.
Azam Nawajaa tosses a rock into one of the wells to show there’s water down there. Nawajaa is a member of the local governing council. He says Israeli authorities denied villagers permission to use the wells. When they did anyway, Israeli soldiers came.
Azam Nawajaa: [Arabic]
Voice Over: They brought the body of an old junked car and pushed it in the well with a tractor. Then they blocked it with these huge stones. Now we can hardly get water from there.
Nawajaa says soldiers also tore down a fence around another well. Now animal waste contaminates the groundwater.
Azam Nawajaa: [Arabic]
Voice Over: Before this, each of our families had at least 200 sheep. Now we hardly have 10 or 15. If we had the same amount of animals like before, we and the animals would die of thirst.
In 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a set of provisional agreements known as the Oslo Accords. Water rights and obligations covering Israel and the Palestinians were a fundamental feature of the Oslo agreements, which have still not been finalized. The village of Susya is in a part of the West Bank called Area C. Under the Oslo Accords, Area C is under the complete control of Israel. Area C makes up more than 60 percent of the West Bank. It is also where more than 300-thousand Israeli Jews have built settlements which are widely viewed as illegal under international law. The Palestinian families in Susya have to buy expensive water from a tanker truck. Jewish settlers nearby have piped water provided by the Israeli army. The pipe is just 100 feet from Nawajaa’s tent. Tapping it is illegal…but some Palestinians in Area C do it anyway. Those without running water often have to trek to a water source.
At another Bedouin community in Area C, a 14-year-old boy named Suhaib prepares to ride his donkey to a spring for drinking water. He straps two large plastic containers to the animal.
Voice Over: We fill the jugs with spring water because buying it from a tanker is too expensive. So I go to the spring 10 times a day, every day. The spring is slow so it takes time to fill the jugs….
On a hill in area C, a wind turbine spins in the breeze. Nearby is an underground cistern for catching rainfall.
[thumping on cistern door]
Elad Orian: You can actually record, there is some very nice sounds.
Elad Orian pounds on the tank’s metal lid.
Elad Orian: The cistern, this one’s pretty old. It was built way before we were here.
Orian is co-founder of an NGO called Comet Middle East. It’s an Israeli-Palestinian organization that provides sustainable energy and water systems to some of the poorest communities in the Palestinian territories. A wide area around the cistern has been landscaped to channel water towards the tank.
EO: When there is strong rain: ten minutes. Maybe five minutes. And it just flows it’s like a river and you get massive flowing in the cistern and it fills in a matter of half an hour it can be full.
Without a cistern, it’s hard to survive here as a Palestinian. There’s piped water to a Jewish settlement on a nearby hill but none for the Palestinians. And the water table is too deep for wells. Orian says this cistern is legal because it was built before Israel took control of Area C.
Just a few steps from the Comet headquarters there’s a Bedouin family of five living in a cave. Farmers and shepherds have been dwelling in caves in this region for centuries. The Arriam family gets water from Comet’s cistern and electricity from the windmill so the cave has a TV and water. Amni Arriam is the matriarch. She’s been living here some 40 years.
Amni Arriam: Thanks to God we have goats and in the land around us we plant wheat and barley. We feed our animals and eat as much as god gives us.
Amni demonstrates the water filtering system Comet’s engineers have improvised. It’s a vertical box about five feet tall. A toilet tank stores water that comes in from the cistern. A turn of the handle flushes water down into a filter. Clean drinking water comes out below.
[Sound of pumping water]
Amni Arriam: The water comes from this tap and it’s good for drinking. This other bucket is water that we recycle and use for cleaning and laundry.
The water and electrical systems COMET builds are technically against the law. The Israeli Civil Administration controlling Area C denies COMET the necessary building permits and then issues demolition orders for a completed cistern or set of solar panels. Israel says many of the Palestinians are squatters and their encampments illegal. COMET is fighting the demolition orders in court.
Much of the West Bank sits over a large aquifer. Israel controls about 80 percent of the water resources in the West Bank and Palestinians complain that Israel pumps water from under their feet and then sells it back to them. Professor of Hydrology Haim Gvirtzman points out that when Israel took control of the West Bank after the so called Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967, it built the water system in what are now the major Palestinian communities, such as Ramallah. Gvirtzman says the Palestinians exaggerate their water problems, and they should be happy with what they’ve got.
Haim Gvirtzman: Israel by means of water is an empire. And they are lucky to live next to the empire. And to have the standards of living like what we have. No such Arab country, no such conditions exist in all the Arab countries around. You see the point?
A spokesman for Israel’s Water Authority, Uri Schor, says that Israel sells the Palestinian Water Authority nearly twice the amount of water required under the agreements. He says the Palestinians should work harder at recycling their wastewater.
Uri Schor: If they will recycle their sewage water they increase their amount of water by 30 to 40 percent. They can do it.
But the Palestinians argue that developing new plants is difficult under Israeli occupation. Deeb Abdel-Ghafour is an engineer with the Palestinian Water Authority.
Deeb Abdel-Ghafour: We do care about wastewater. And we know we must solve any remaining problems, minor problems of pollution that come from small stream of wastewater. But the main problem we face is how to implement it under occupation. Frankly talking, there is no real development under occupation.
Israeli and Palestinian officials accuse each other of using water as a political weapon in the ongoing conflict over Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Author Seth Siegel says water shortages and water pollution anywhere in the world are ultimately the result of failed governance.
Seth Siegel: With rare exceptions, water problems do not get sprung on you like a tornado. You have lots of warning before it comes. The aquifer doesn’t suddenly go dry. You know you have been over-pumping it for a long time. You don’t suddenly find that some water resource has gotten polluted. It gets polluted over time. You don’t suddenly have a spurt in population. Population grows over times. Therefore, we have the opportunity to plan for a more robust water future, if government is prepared to do so.
Experts like Seth Siegel say water scarcity is not inevitable. The United Nations…as well as many individual countries…are preparing for a water-stressed future. But activists worry that the pace of reform is too slow. The UN reports that more than 750 million people already do not have reliable access to safe water. And in the near future the need for water will grow, driven by population growth, climate change, and increased demand from agriculture and industry. By the middle of this century, demand for water is expected to increase by more than 50 percent. Without significant, global change in the way we use water, all indications warn that ours will be a very thirsty planet.
[Music up and under.]
You’ve been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “Thirsty Planet.” It was produced by me, Stephen Smith, and Samara Freemark. The editor is Catherine Winter. The web editor is Dave Peters, the web producer is Andy Kruse. Field production by Uri Blau and Kunal Shankar. Mixing by me and Craig Thorson. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Ryan Katz, Samara Freemark, Lila Cherneff, Emily Haavik, Ellen Guettler and Chris Worthington.
We have much more about the story of water on our website – American RadioWorks dot org. We’d like to know what this documentary made you think about, so please leave us a review of iTunes or let us know at American RadioWorks dot org. This is APM.