When the State of Israel was declared in May of 1948, it faced many challenges. Seth M. Siegel’s book, Let There Be Water tells the story of how Israel, with 60% of its land desert and the rest semi-arid, managed to achieve a water surplus and now exports water to some of its neighbors. It is a fascinating story that intertwines history, science and technology. It begins with the backdrop of how The British White Paper of 1939 curtailed Jewish immigration into Palestine (the present day Israel, West Bank, and Gaza), assuming this unforgiving land could never sustain a large population. This began as early as the 1920s, when British economists posited that mass Jewish immigration into Palestine would overwhelm scarce water resources. As Seigel writes, “There was no crisis that so tested the Zionist cause as the British White Paper of May 1939.”
This book tells the story of why those British economists were proven wrong. Since its founding in 1948, Israel’s population has grown ten-fold and now has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. How Israel was able to solve its water crisis is perfectly captured by Amir Peleg, Israeli entrepreneur, as quoted in the book, when he says: “There isn’t a scarcity of water. There is a scarcity of innovation.”
Thoughts and Reflections
Sometimes, the inspiration for innovation can come from a simple observation. Simcha Blass, sometimes referred to as Israel’s “Water Man,” was a young engineer when he noticed that among a row of trees along a fence, one was much taller than the others. Intrigued, Blass noticed that there was a tiny leak in the metal irrigation near the base of the tree. Blass hypothesized that the drops of water from this leak were going directly to the tree’s roots, causing superior growth. This observation is what led to the drip irrigation system, which on average, saved 50-60% of the water normally used when implementing other irrigation techniques. Additionally, drip irrigation produces crop yields much higher than other irrigation techniques. If drip irrigation was created today, instead of the late 1950’s, it would be referred to as a disruptive innovation. When thinking about this innovation, I’ll always remember these words from Blass:
“With enough water available, it raises questions of how you define quality of life. Among the questions you have to ask yourself is, how far does someone have to go to lie in a green open space? How far does a family have to go to be able to sit in a park under a tree? These are questions about the quality of life. Growing more crops is important, too, but life is about more than just that.”
Ita Freeman, quoted in the book.
Freeman illustrates an important point – there are often no permanent victories. Innovation rarely “solves” a problem; often when some things are addressed other problems are exposed. People and societies are always looking to improve the quality of life and the standard of living. Therefore, the need for innovative solutions perpetually continues.
“From its origins, Israel has had to build its society without natural resources like abundant water or energy in the form of oil or natural gas. This led to the elevation of brainpower and innovation as the key drivers in Israel’s economy and as a key vehicle for leapfrogging out of its region to the larger world.”
Israel is not alone in dealing with a scarcity of natural resources by emphasizing technology and innovation. Singapore and Taiwan have both adopted a similar mindset. This mindset becomes clear when talking to both school and government leaders in each country. I did a workshop for teachers in Taiwan and remember telling one of my companions how impressed I was with this group of teachers. They discussed issues not just characteristic of their classroom, but also what they were trying to do for society as a whole. They understood the needs of the 21st century economy and they wanted their students to become drivers, not just participants, in that economy.
Beyond a fascinating geo-political story, Let There Be Water is a great opportunity to look to the past for insights into how science, technology, engineering and math may be the key to tackling many of the problems that society is currently facing, and those we may face in the future. As we look to broaden participation in STEM subjects and fields, we would do well to share the stories in this book, because they all revolve around a bold and ambitious mission. This dedication to a greater vision is what inspires teachers and students, not infographics about the impending STEM job shortage.