JERUSALEM – At the peak of the drought, Shabi Zvieli, an Israeli gardener, feared for his livelihood.
A hefty tax was placed on excessive household water consumption, penalizing families with lawns, swimming pools or leaky pipes. So many of Zvieli’s clients went over to synthetic grass and swapped their seasonal blooms for hardy, indigenous plants more suited to a semiarid climate.
“I worried about where gardening was going,” said Zvieli, 56, who has tended people’s yards for about 25 years.
Uri Schor, the spokesman and public education director of the government’s Water Authority, said, “We were in a situation where we were very, very close to someone opening a tap somewhere in the country and no water would come out.”
But that was about six years ago. Today, there is plenty of water in Israel. As western areas of the United States grapple with an extreme drought, a revolution has taken place here. A national effort to desalinate Mediterranean seawater and to recycle wastewater has provided the country with enough water for all its needs, even during severe droughts. More than 50 percent of the water for Israeli households, agriculture and industry is now artificially produced.
“Now there is no problem of water,” said Shaul Ben-Dov, an agronomist at Ramat Rachel. “The price is higher, but we can live a normal life in a country that is half desert.”
The turnaround came with a seven-year drought, one of the most severe to hit modern Israel, that began in 2005 and peaked in the winter of 2008 to 2009. Desalination emerged as one focus of the government’s efforts, with four major plants going into operation over the past decade. A fifth one should be ready within months. Together, they will produce a total of more than 130 billion gallons of potable water a year, with a goal of 200 billion gallons by 2020.
Israel has, in the meantime, become the world leader in recycling and reusing wastewater for agriculture. It treats 86 percent of its domestic wastewater and recycles it for agricultural use — about 55 percent of the total water used for agriculture. The United States recycles just 1 percent, according to Water Authority data.
Desalination, long shunned by many as a costly energy-guzzler with a heavy carbon footprint, is becoming cheaper, cleaner and more energy efficient as technologies advance. Sidney Loeb, the American scientist who invented the popular reverse osmosis method, came to live in Israel in 1967 and taught the water professionals here.
Environmentalists say the rush to desalination has partly come at the expense of alternatives like treating natural water reserves that have become polluted by industry. “We definitely felt that Israel did need to move toward desalination,” said Sarit Caspi-Oron, a water expert at the nongovernment Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “But it is a question of how much, and of priorities. Our first priority was conservation and treating and reclaiming our water sources.”