The issue of water was in the foreground during the trip to Israel of a group of professors from four different universities in northwestern Italy. Italy is periodically confronted with drought, but in Israel this is a common problem. Therefore, it was interesting and instructive to learn how it was dealt with and solved in different – but always remarkable ways.
The first occurrence of the issue was in a public park in the city of Herzliya. During winter rains, a great quantity of stagnant water accumulated right under the surface of the ground, making the area unhealthy and troublesome. Obviously, this problem has existed since ancient times – indeed the Talmud reports that the Cohen Gadol begged the Lord not to let the winter rains harm the people of the Sharon. Today the water is funneled into a plumbing system to create lakes, ponds, and creeks of landscape and environmental value. It was decided to keep the area’s “humid” nature, but – instead of abandoning it – water currents and circuits were wisely and skillfully created by means of phytodepuration. It is an unexpected situation in such a dry country, but do not forget that between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, chalutzim really had to fight against swamps and the resulting plague of malaria.
The following day, the issue was different. Not far from Herzliya, between Netanya and Tulkarm, there’s a plant that gathers and directs water coming from a district that includes a 140,000-acre area, 40 villages each one with different characteristics and a little over 40,000 people. A number of complex purification methods are implemented there. First of all, the government collects rainwater from the district. This includes the Nahal Alexander, formerly a semi-swampy and polluted creek, which from 1995 the JNF – thanks to donations from Italian Jews – turned into the core of a very charming and popular park. However, our visit was focused on the artificial lake built by the Hefer Valley Regional Council, to where water is funneled from different areas: wastewater from Netanya and some of the villages and drainwater from the valleys in the Samara region, upstream the Hefer Valley. The result was a large artificial lake, which is used as a tank for crop irrigation and as a refreshment area for migratory birds. Emek Hefer’s director showed us the “borders” of the “territories”. From the rooftop, we saw how narrow Israel would be: you can see its 7.5 miles with only one glance. A handful of miles on level ground that a hostile tank could cover in 15 minutes.
Leaving this small technological masterpiece and going South, a few dozen miles from Tel Aviv, we found the Palachim kibbutz, where young Ph.D. Iris Sutzkover-Gutman manages an uncommon “factory”: they “make” fresh water. They are located on the seaside and, though saving as much energy as possible, they collect millions of gallons of seawater and filter salt and boron out of it. Then they provide it to the whole of Israel and to Jordan, because of the 1979 peace treaty that obligates Israel to supply Jordan with over 13 billion gallons of water – and most of that water is “made” in the Palachim factory. Despite the dire prediction that the next conflict in the Middle East will arise from water ownership issues, who more than Jordan may wish Israel to live? The water extraction system used there is reverse osmosis. So they’re not saving rainwater, but taking water from our immense source, namely the sea. A different but equally meticulous way of reasoning: they are only a few miles from Emek Hefer, yet they think differently. Further south, in Meitar, Itshack Moshe showed us the JNF’s sophisticated technologies to slow down rainwater’s tumultuous flow, thus avoiding the erosion of the ground, and direct water to the forest. The amazing result, on the other side of a desert area, is a charming alpine-like forest. Yet the most amazing creations are located in the Arava.
A few miles from the legendary and biblical city of Sodom, the town of Hatzeva built some “greenhouses” for both study and production purposes. They are covered with thin hard-wearing fabric, rather transparent, that gives shade and protection from the desert wind, which would dry up the crops. In the greenhouses, the temperature is very high and the light is strong, but the climate is more temperate than outside. Drip irrigation with salt water from the desert’s aquifers allows salt to remain on the surface of the ground, while fresh water goes deep down to the roots of the plants. The results are impressing: shoots of up to 40 feet high, loaded with delicious cherry tomatoes; plants of over 6.5 feet high loaded with huge peppers; apricot trees ripening in mid-April; and blooming grapevines. Outside the greenhouses are boulevards of Medjool palm trees with fast-growing fruits. Eventually, we visited an original “botanical” garden at Ben Gurion University, in Beersheba, which included a wide range of succulent plants bearing all different kinds of fruits. The most promising of all are the pitahaya trees, very aromatic, with a slight taste of vanilla and beautiful flowers on their long thick branches. However, the most fascinating product is the thornless prickly pear. This mutation was introduced by professor Mizrahi and could be the starting point for a thriving agriculture in the world’s dry areas. Despite the climate, the leaves (scientifically called “cladodes”) of the prickly pear are rich in liquids that the plant gathers and holds. When used as fodder for dairy animals (cows, goats, and sheep), they can effectively replace the huge quantity of water needed to feed the animals.
All these solutions are related to one another through a common way of thinking. Even though research methods and uses of water vary a lot, on closer inspection all the researchers pursue the same goal, namely fresh water. For themselves, for animals, and for plants. After all, this is the several-thousand-year-old dream of the Jews who crossed the desert; technology is making it come true and turning the country into the Promised Land that the Lord pledged to the Jews who were hesitantly crossing the dry Sinai. It is surprising and amazing how Israelis studied the different technologies in an in-depth, radical way, but separated from one another.
Each method has its own logic, and each system its own separate life. They only meet at the end of the processes and support one another: unsalted seawater enters the aqueducts, from where part of the wastewater for irrigation comes out indirectly. The case is different with succulent plants or salt water from the desert: here you do not need to hit rocks to quench your thirst anymore, plants’ roots and desert’s aquifers will suffice.
*Roberto Jona is an agronomist. The article was translated by Federica Alabiso, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.