Making The Desert Bloom, The Sequel


On Monday morning, Jews around the world will be praying for rain in Israel for the winter months as part of the Shemini Atzeret holiday service, a custom that goes back many centuries.

In Jewish tradition, water is seen as a divine gift for Israel, a land that is half desert. Tefillat Geshem (Prayer for Rain) is a plea as well for “water to crown the valley’s vegetation — may it not be withheld” because of our sins.

Water and rain have always been associated directly with blessings in our liturgy. The Shema prayer, recited every morning and evening of the year, includes God’s promise that “if you indeed heed My commandments with which I charge you today, to love your God … I will give you rain in your land in its season, the early and late rain…”

But as Seth (“Yossi”) Siegel explains in his lively, informative new book, “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), the early Zionist pioneers recognized the vital need for water in their parched patch of land and did not rely on Heaven to provide it. Instead, with the commitment, savvy and audacity that has come to personify Israel as “start-up nation,” the early leaders developed a sophisticated approach to water long before the creation of the state in 1948, and the results have been remarkable.

I admit that the prospect of reading a book that deals extensively with drip irrigation, desalination, aquifers and reusable sewage did not fill me with anticipation. But Siegel, a successful New York businessman and Jewish activist — he is a member of the boards of Cornell Hillel, the Heschel School and AIPAC — not only moves the narrative along but makes a convincing case that Israel, an acknowledged leader today in water technology, is doing much to teach the world at a critical time. California is suffering from a serious drought that has dragged on for four years, and the government predicts that 40 states, and an estimated 60 percent of the earth’s land, will face severe water problems in the coming decades. Yet Israel, with an arid climate, little rainfall and major growth in population, has developed the policies and technologies to transform itself so that it now has a water surplus, exporting water to its Arab neighbors and training countries poor and prosperous on water policy.

“I found the story of Israel’s success so inspiring, I was so moved by it,” Siegel told me. “We are commanded to be a light unto the nations and Israel is improving the quality of water for the poorest of the poor.” Still, he said his friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, told him not to write the book, because the topic was “worthy but dull.”

But Siegel pressed on. “That’s the challenge of a storyteller,” he said, to make a commendable issue interesting as well.

Siegel employs a clear writing style aimed at a lay audience. And the 14 months of research he spent in preparation, including 200 interviews, is evidenced in his ability to give a human face to this potentially dry (pun intended) story.

For instance, Siegel describes unsung heroes like Simcha Blass, the father of Israel’s bold and ingenious water revolution going back to the 1930s, and Walter Clay Loudermilk, an American soil scientist; when Loudermilk visited Palestine in 1939, he was so impressed with the restoration of the land that he wrote an influential book upon his return home called “Palestine, Land of Promise.”

It was Blass who became convinced that water from Israel’s north could be transported to the south of the country, and his decades of work on the project had a global impact on agriculture. Contrary to the British White Paper view on how to divide the disputed land, Loudermilk came to believe that a Jewish state could develop sufficient natural resources to take in millions of Jewish refugees. His book played a role in winning over key U.S. policymakers on the issue.

Siegel describes how, in the first decade of the 21st century, “Israel went from scarcity of water and fear of drought to abundance and independence from climate conditions,” made possible by 70 years of innovative preparation for the future. Today Israel is the world leader in the re-use of sewage for water, with an 86 percent renewal rate. (Spain is a distant second, at under 20 percent, and the U.S. rate is probably about two percent, Siegel believes.)

New York City gets water from an upstate reservoir where a leak, discovered in 1980, accounts for a loss of 35 million gallons a day and is only now being repaired, according to Siegel. Some cities in Israel, by contrast, are making use of a Distant Meter Reading (DMR) device placed on water meters in homes, which reports on usage every four hours. It not only saves the expense of having meter readers make individual house calls but it monitors leaks, saving the consumer money from a big water bill and potential property damage, and it saves the city water. Experts say the DMR will be used throughout Israel in the next 10 years and around the world in the next two decades.

“Water is the easiest resource to ignore,” Siegel told me, “but we do so at our peril.” Until now the U.S., like many other major countries, has given insufficient attention to water policy, assuming water will always be available, like air and sunshine. Siegel points out that while there are daily media reports about gas, oil and other forms of energy, water rarely makes the news. One of the goals of his book, he said, is to “prioritize the importance of water, and as you think about the problem, think of Israel as a model.”

“Let There Be Water” will invariably be compared to “Start-Up Nation,” the 2009 best seller that shows how tiny Israel has become a powerhouse in the world of technology and innovation. Co-author Dan Senor told me that his friend Siegel’s new book is another example of how “the world has a lot to learn from Israel,” in this case how a country of “problem solvers” has come up with solutions to a crisis that the rest of the world will be struggling with for decades.

Both books point out that in addition to innovation, Israel has created a culture of experimentation, where it is acceptable to fail along the way, and a society that values centralized planning, with a focus on success.

America has a long way to go in recognizing and acting on its water problems, Siegel believes. “Our leaders just aren’t dealing with it. What Israel does is say to the world ‘there is a solution that doesn’t have to end in catastrophe.’ That’s what I hope will be the outcome of the book.”

With a first printing of 35,000 copies and displays in every Barnes and Noble bookstore, “Let There Be Water” is well on its way to getting major attention. Whether it will have a positive impact on policy, like Walter Clay Loudermilk’s depiction of a “Land Of Promise,” remains to be seen.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at