Much hyped book a shallow sales pitch for Israel’s water industry

Here is a book review by Nancy Murray, a founder of the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine. If a university or town near you decides to pay the $20,001 to $40,000 speaking fee to hear Seth Siegel’s sales pitch, contact the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine.  We can help you strategize about how to turn the occasion into a demand for water justice.

Seth Siegel’s  Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World is lavishly praised on the Internet.  

It is called ‘inspiring,’ ‘fascinating’ and ‘brilliant’ by people both known (Tony Blair, Michael Bloomberg, Robert Kennedy Jr., Ariana Huffington, Shimon Peres) and unknown — among them Ruth Atar who read it after she heard it mentioned by Gov. Jerry Brown.  Her reaction: “Wow.  I had NO idea.  This book gave me a view of Israeli history I’d never had before, and insights on our own situation here in California.”  

Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, sums up Israel’s accomplishments this way: “In the last 50 years, one place has taken water scarcity and turned it into water abundance - Israel.  The Israelis did it with science, skill and by thinking 50 years ahead.”

And they are now marketing their water success to the US and the world, with Seth Siegel--described as a businessman, activist, writer, lawyer and entrepreneur --serving as salesman-in-chief.  

‘Turning water into a global business’ is how he titles Chapter 8, which begins with this quote from Israeli entrepreneur Amir Peleg: ’There isn’t a scarcity of water.  There is a scarcity of innovation.”   Just call on Israel, the plucky start-up nation, to set things right.

Siegel surveys Israel’s water ‘solutions’ — including its big idea of making water “the common property of all” with all water controlled by the state “acting in the interest of the people as a whole.”  Who exactly are ‘the people’ is never spelled out.  We read about Israel’s devotion to fixing leaks, drip irrigation, wastewater treatment, new water efficient seeds, and the huge sums obtained largely from American Jews to build hundreds of reservoirs and the National Water Carrier, a project that cost six times more than the US spent building the Panama Canal.  

Its development of desalination technology with the assistance of international companies like Veolia, is of particular relevance to California, which has signed a MOU with Israel to develop joint projects and where an Israeli company is building what will be the biggest desalination plant in the western hemisphere.  Israel now has five desalination plants built along the Mediterranean that, according to Siegel, meet 94 percent of its household needs.  

Absent is any mention of their potential environmental hazards, including the elevated levels of air pollution and greenhouse gasses they omit and the danger their brine deposits that are high in saline pose to the marine ecosystem.  Instead Siegel mentions how environmentally beneficial desalination plants are to Israel’s rivers, which now have an increased flow. 

It must be acknowledged that Israel has been a leader in water innovation.  But it is the ‘wow’ factor combined with the view of Israeli history that so captivated Ruth Atar that reveal Let There Be Water to be more akin to boosterism of the hasbara variety than a serious analysis of how to solve the world’s water problems.  The writing has a breathless, cheerleading, tone — ‘From Waste to “Wow!”’ is one of its headings. 

And wow!  A people without a land came to a land without a people, and made the desert bloom!   There is no suggestion in this book that the land that became Israel was populated by anyone when the Zionist pioneers arrived, beyond a few scattered allusions to the decrepit state of the ancient terraces and hopelessly primitive water system.  The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of the indigenous inhabitants is passed over in silence, although late in the book there is a mention of ‘refugees’ - who exactly they are is not spelled out. 

There is, however, one telling reference to “inbound Arab migration to Palestine” in the late 1930s.  In her thoroughly debunked 1984 book From Time Immemorial Jean Peters had depicted Palestinian Arabs as immigrants who arrived in what became Israel in the closing Ottoman years and during the British Mandate, with no special claim to the land as their ancestral home.   Is Siegel aiming to resurrect this wholly discredited idea?

As described by Siegel, the Zionists’ beef was not with the (invisible) indigenous inhabitants but with the British Mandate officials, who resisted giving Zionists access to water where it was most abundant in Syria and Lebanon, preferring to see the waters of the Litani and Yarmouk drain “uselessly” into the Jordan River and Mediterranean.  

In the early 1950s Israeli water experts went head to head with Eisenhower’s special ambassador Eric Johnston (also the head of the Motion Picture of America), who came to the region with a plan to divide the Jordan River, giving Israel less than it believed it deserved “and certainly less than it would need to enable the Negev to bloom.”  Johnston soon was persuaded that “unused water was needlessly flowing to the sea” and Israel “could make productive use of it.”

Where persuasion would not work, force would.  In 1967 Israel seized the water-rich Golan Heights from Syria which, Siegel writes, it would be “unlikely to relinquish” without ironclad security guarantees and “clarity on water rights to the Jordan River.”

And finally Palestinians enter the picture.  Chapter 9 is entitled “Israel, Jordan and Palestinians: Finding Regional Water Solutions.”  Siegel glides right over the vexed matter of the Mountain Aquifer being largely located under the West Bank, and shuns the word ‘occupation.’  

Instead we learn that when Israel got control of the West Bank “it was also a turning point for Palestinians’ access to underground water in the territory.”  No longer  were Palestinians consigned to being water-starved because of their primitive technology,  old-fashioned cisterns, narrow pipes and weak pumps.  No longer would women be forced to carry water in ceramic jars “as in Biblical times.”  

Instead, Israel did the Palestinian people a huge favor.  “Similar to what Israel had done with its own water supply, it made the water from drilled wells in the West Bank the common property of all, while springs remained the property of their traditional owners.  In principle, these actions were taken for the benefit of the greater good of the Palestinians, although some have said that Israel’s motivations were to obtain a portion of the Palestinian water to supplement it’s own water supply.”

Siegel dispatches further discussion of this jarring notion to footnote 12, in which he refers to two interviews he conducted in 2014.  

Ephraim Sneh, the former head of Israel’s civil administration in the West Bank, told him that “water governance in the West Bank was initially only focused on providing higher quality water and in greater supply, but that for a period during the late 1970s  and early 1980s when settlement activity grew robustly, there was an interest in taking Palestinian water” but “this attempt was often, but not always, frustrated by political opponents, media reports, and changes in national government control” and these “internal conversations ended after the West Bank was linked to Israel’s domestic water grid” - no further explanation given.

The other interviewee was hydrogeologist Clemens Messerschmidt who “believes that Israel’s primary interest in the occupation of the West Bank is not security but as a means of controlling and using Palestinian water resources.”  End of footnote and story.

While the subject of Israel’s theft of Palestinian water is buried in a footnote, the text informs us that thanks to Israel’s intervention, Palestinians enjoy high quality running water, with 96 percent of 2.4 million Palestinians getting it directly piped to their houses.  Why do Palestinian homes need all those plastic water containers on their roofs?  Siegel is silent on the matter.

He is not silent on the “water crisis of unimaginable scope” facing the Gaza Strip, but stoutly denies that Israel bears any responsibility for it.  Rather, Palestinians — and most recently Hamas - have wholly mismanaged the water infrastructure, with cities only providing water once or twice a week, failing to treat their sewage, and making the coastal aquifer unusable for centuries to come.  

To Palestinians who argue that “Gaza’s water problems are primarily the fault of Israeli restrictions on imports and the free movement of people in and out of Gaza” and who “make claims - rebutted by Israel - of damage to the water infrastructure as a result of the Israeli military operations in Gaza since 2008” he offers this rhetorical shrug:

“But even if so, these arguments only underscore the reality that there is no logical solution to Gaza’s water crisis without Israel playing a leading role.” 

If Hamas wants to import cement and metal pipes to fix the damaged infrastructure and enlist Israeli water expertise, it has to recognize Israel and foreswear future attacks.  The alternative is “an irreversible environmental collapse” which would not be good for, well, Israel.  “Israel will face a humanitarian crisis on its doorstep which, even if not of its making, will almost surely create political and security complications for the Israeli government.”

Siegel’s final word to Palestinians: forget politics and see what a friend you have in Israel!    Don’t be distracted by “settlements or the occupation” (one of his very few references to either), for “political solutions and water solutions can be delinked.”  A dialogue over water can be “a vehicle for confidence-building measures”  and a partnership can be formed that will enable the Palestinians to transform their water profile, with Israel’s help.

Indeed, according to the former head of the Israel Water Commission Shimon Tal, Palestinians should recognize a “a largely unacknowledged benefit” of living in such close proximity to Israel.  In a water-stressed region “Israel’s water abundance may already provide peace of mind to Israel’s neighbors,” enabling them to “piggyback on Israel’s growing water security” as a kind of insurance policy.

“Whether in Gaza or the West Bank,” Tal states, “they know that no matter how bad a drought may be or no matter what they do with their water, they know they will never go without water as long as Israel’s water inventory is as deep as it is today.”

Tell that to Israeli journalist Amira Hass and others who have written articles about Israel’s cutting off of water to West Bank homes that we have posted on our Facebook page.  And to get sense of just how much at odds Siegel’s slick packaging of the Israeli water experience is with the history and day-to-day reality endured by Palestinians, read the reports featured on this website.