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Take That Malthus!

Walter Russell Mead, American Interest

Water scarcity has long been a favorite topic for the Chicken Littles of the world. But doomsayers who predict a coming global shortage of freshwater fail to account for one of the strongest forces on our planet today: human ingenuity. That innovative drive is on full display in Israel.

After its driest winter on record, the parched Mediterranean nation isn’t worried about not meeting its water needs, thanks to conservation measures and a slew of new desalination plants that make seawater into fresh. Haaretz reports:

[Avraham Tenne, head of the desalination division of Israel’s Water Authority] said the country has managed to close its water gap through a mixture of conservation efforts, advances that allow nearly 90 percent of wastewater to be recycled for agricultural use and, in recent years, the construction of desalination plants. […]

Since 2005, Israel has opened four desalination plants, with a fifth set to go online later this year. Roughly 35 percent of Israel’s drinking-quality water now comes from desalination. That number is expected to exceed 40 percent by next year and hit 70 percent in 2050. […]

“Basically this desalination, as a drought-proof solution, has proven itself for Israel,” [said Avshalom Felber, CEO of IDE Technologies]. “Israel has become … water independent, let’s say, since it launched this program of desalination plants.” By meeting its water needs, Israel can focus on longer-term agricultural, industrial and urban planning, he added.

Israeli desalination technology has the potential to transform the world’s water problems. One of the plants claims it can provide freshwater for as little as $1 per family per day—a dramatic decrease in cost that could make these plants a more workable solution in the developing world.

As with any infrastructure project of this scope, there remain trade-offs to negotiate and hurdles to clear. These plants are energy intensive; Israel’s four plants consume roughly a tenth of the electricity the country produces. Like power stations, they are also potential targets for terrorism, which is of particular concern in Israel’s corner of the world. But security can be beefed up, and further technological developments may reduce the amount of energy and cash required over time.

Humanity is proving it is at least as capable of coming up with solutions as it is of creating problems.

American Interest, 2 June 2014