Seth Siegel: An Interview about His New York Times Bestseller, Water Activism and the Right to Have a Swimming Pool

 “There are many great reasons to come to the Czech Republic, but going to Moser stores is high on my list.” That’s how the interview with Seth Siegel, a water activist and a New York Times bestselling author of Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, started. Seth was supposed to be the highlight of the Ekofilm Festival in Brno whose theme was water, but due to family reasons he could not come. Yet, he made time to spend an hour with me on fervent discussion about water issues – a topic that he’s been devoted to for the last five years and has talked about in Congress, the United Nations, the World Bank, and universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

PEOPLE DON’T SEE WATER AS AN ISSUE

Do you stop the water tap when you brush your teeth?

Nice of you to presume that I brush my teeth, but yes, I do (laughter). But I also did long before I wrote the book.

Your book has become an international bestseller and since its publication you’ve given about 250 interviews and lectures. What question haven’t you been asked yet?

Nobody has asked why countries aren’t more doing about what needs to be done. We know that we have a drinking water and water scarcity problem, so why aren’t we doing something about it? I think the answer is the combination of elected officials who are busy with more pressing problems with an awareness that there is a financial cost to getting this right. And also, the fact that the public is not adequately educated about water issues and not demanding change.

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Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Why do people care so little for water?

Because they don’t see water issues directly. If you are traveling on a road that has potholes or if you go to school that has broken windows, you’ll complain. But hardly anybody knows that the biggest problem in municipal life is that water pipes are breaking. Mayors all around the world know the water is leaking but they make a decision that it is cheaper to simply lose water than to put in new pipes. Jakarta loses 65 percent of its water, Dublin loses about 50 percent and cities on average lose about a third of water. I’d imagine that in the Czech Republic, most pipes were rebuilt after the World War II and they’ve got about five years left before they are at severe risk. We could bring down the world’s water leakage to 5-10 percent. But since water is underground, we don’t notice it. As they say, out of sight, out of mind.

What should we do to make water a priority?

Public officials should work on this issue, but the problem is they never want to call for anything that’s going to cost more money unless there’s a constituency behind it. It’s the job of people who care about water to bring awareness without putting pressure or threats so that political figures themselves begin getting educated and responding by the allocation of budget resources. The change needs to start at the grassroots level and over time influence other levels. It’s the same with many other movements. Ten years ago, 85 percent of Americans were opposed to gay marriage, now almost 80 percent are in favor. If you focus the public on a certain issue, you can get a real change of attitudes.

What change should citizens ask from their officials?

Most importantly, they should call for transformation of agriculture because it consumes 70-80 percent of every country’s fresh water. It takes 17 times more water to raise a pound of beef than to grow a pound of corn. Just imagine if we could transform agriculture to be more efficient in its use of water! We also need to treat to a pure level and then to reuse our sewage water for farming, agriculture, golf courses, gardens and for public parks. We should also develop proper pricing for water because as much as you try to educate people about using less water there’s nothing quite like pricing. Places that have a sea coast nearby and can afford it should be looking at developing desalinated resources.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Besides raising awareness about water issues and asking officials to bring change, what can regular citizens do to save water?  

It depends on whether they live in an apartment or a household. It’s unbelievable that an average household in the Western world uses 50-70 percent of its water for gardening. It would make sense for the governments to give people incentive programs that if you tear out your lawn you get a tax benefit for doing it. It’s worked well in Southern California and Nevada. As for the apartments, people should use better devices on their taps and shower faucets to save water. But as I said, a more pressing problem is how much water we lose in cities due to water leakages. We should focus on that.

ISRAEL’S MODEL IS AN INSPIRATION

In your book, you say that we should all get inspired by the water management and planning system of Israel. Why do you think Israel’s model is so good?

What’s different about Israel is that they’ve simply prioritized water. They knew that with the increasing number of people they could have water issues and so they created a sophisticated apolitical water management and planning system. Israel currently uses less water now than it did in 1971 since when it more than doubled in size. They are one of the few countries to pay full price for water and they have put into use excellent technology that decreased their water consumption. In households, they have more water-efficient showers and kitchen sinks, dual flush toilets, new toilet systems which flush 6 instead of 24 liters, and more efficient appliances in general.

Besides Israel, are there any other countries with good water planning and management systems?

Australia is adopting desalination. Singapore is doing a very good job. They take sewage water, treat it and put it back into the drinking water supply. Dry U.S. states like Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and California rely upon Israel’s model. India decided to transform its agriculture from flood to drip irrigation. China keeps talking about doing things and they spend a lot of money, but I haven’t seen any results yet. I project that they’re going to have a significant water crisis over the next few years. I think many countries are doing water management or talking about doing it or have taken parts of it, but I don’t see anybody doing it on a scale that Israel does.

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Can countries simply copy Israel’s approach?

Not everything Israel has done is relevant to everyone. For example, the Czech Republic is a landlocked country, therefore desalination makes less sense. Countries need to adapt the model to their environmental and financial conditions as well as human capital infrastructure. A poor country cannot build a $400 million desalination program. It’s not because of the cost because they could borrow the money from the World Bank, but because they don’t have the technical expertise to run the plants. But almost everybody can benefit from better governance, market pricing for water and integration of technology.

Israel’s success has been working on its water system since the 1930s. Can today’s countries – especially the developing ones – catch up?

Yes, they can. I mean, it’s the same with any other technology. Developing countries did not have to go through 100 years of landlines. They jumped straight into cellphones. Similarly, they can jump right into drip irrigation. They can borrow smart parts and apply them in their fields.

But isn’t all the technology too expensive for them?

Certain technologies like desalination are a rich countries’ choice and that’s why I wouldn’t recommend it for poor countries. But advanced water treatment, reuse of water and drip irrigation are not very expensive. Poor countries can buy lower cost versions that are not as good but still a significant step better. There’s even a drip irrigation system that works without any electricity. These countries may not be able to do everything on the first day, but if they are systematic, focused, not corrupt and have governance that cares about their people, then over a relatively short period of time, they can achieve very significant results.

Least-developed countries usually lack this type of governance. Who should help them?  

Ideally, government agencies and nonprofits. But very often charities raise money from very well-meaning people all over the world, they make a pump in a village in Africa or Asia and when the funding dries up, they leave. Six months later nothing is working anymore and there’s nobody to fix it. One of the opportunities in the developing world – instead of having nonprofits, charities and outside government bodies come in and impose solutions – is to come up with a free market solution. If local people suddenly start to make money from drip irrigation, reuse sewage or water pumps, they will try to be smart about it and care that it works, is well-maintained and nobody steals anything.

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Photo by Tucker Tangeman on Unsplash

Can you see any functioning models?

There is a nice Israeli NGO called Fair Planet and the woman who heads it founded a charity in Ethiopia where 95 percent of the economy depends on agriculture. She taught 250 farmers how to grow tomatoes in a very cost-effective way with little water and the yields have grown 500 percent. Now there are 40,000 farmers who use this technique. These people are not backward. Someone just has to open the door and show them how to do it.

Another example is Sivan Ya’ari, the founder of Innovation Africa, who drills for access to the water in villages in many African countries and helps small farmers use drip irrigation. To be sure that everything works as it should, they install remote control systems and monitor via cell phone technology back to Tel Aviv every fifteen minutes. As a result, these little farms now produce more food that they can also sell. Women can go to the water pump once a day instead of making six or eight trips a day and girls can go to school.

TECHNOLOGY IS NOT THE ONLY SOLUTION

In the book, you speak a lot about technology. Do you consider it the only solution to water scarcity problems?

No, absolutely not. There is water pricing, education, long-term planning and apolitical governance structure. All of those are very valuable in getting things done.

What about decreasing the consumption of water? I haven’t heard you speak about it.
I believe people should be given a free choice to do whatever they want but they should also pay the real cost. If somebody wants to have a swimming pool, that’s fine, but they should pay the real price for the water including the sourcing of it, the administration of it and the cleaning of it.

But if everybody wants to have a swimming pool in their garden, we’ll have hardly any drinking water left. 

But that defies everything we know about market economics. The more prices rise, the less water people use and more importantly the more prices rise, the more substitutes we find. You could say that there are no substitutes for water and you’d be right, but that’s when technologies kick in. All of a sudden, we’ll have technology that will allow us to use water more efficiently. I think that what most people will do once water prices start rising is they will change their consumption patterns. Market forces have historically worked well and I think that we should let them do their job.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

However, the price of water is currently subsidized, and people use too much of it.

Yes, that’s because there are no market forces at work that would reflect the real-world cost. We must be brave and talk about being charged the right, full price for water. Every home and business has to have a water meter. We can collect data and know what people are using and then charge them for their actual water usage. It’s the most effective way to curb consumption. In Israel, introducing water pricing led to a decrease of water consumption by 18 percent in one year, compared to a public education campaign on saving water that decreased consumption by 9 percent.

How can other countries achieve such decreases?

The role of governments is to make it happen but unless common people force them, nothing will happen. Powerful rich people tend to get their way until they don’t. In 1970, there were no pollution controls in the United States on anyone dumping water into a waterway. But once the government passed a law that created an incredible number of restrictions, people stopped dumping chemicals into the water. Now are all the rivers in America clean? Absolutely not, more than half are not, but the law reduced the flow of the worst pollutants by 80 percent.

What are your projections for the future? Do you think we’ll see wars over water?

I don’t think that we’ll be fighting wars over water in the 21st century. It’s enticing for governments to use water issues as a way to incite their population against another country, but it’s not a good idea. Wars are way more expensive than figuring out a technological solution for water problems. For example, Egypt threatened to blow up Ethiopia’s Renaissance dam that will open in 2019 and block the Nile’s flow of water into Egypt. But the cost of starting a war would be much higher than building desalination, using drip irrigation and water capture programs. Likewise, with Pakistan and India, China and other countries down the river, or Turkey and Iraq.

The UN estimates that the world population will reach 10 billion in 2050. Will we face water scarcity?

I think it’s certainly a possibility that we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have enough water for our needs. And if we don’t get going we’re really going to be in trouble, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee that just because we’re going to rise to 10 billion people that we’ll be water starved. Maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t. It’s possible but not a certainty. It’s in our hands to prevent a bad outcome.

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Photo by Seth Siegel

Seth Siegel is a serial entrepreneur, water activist and New York Times bestselling author. He is the author of the international bestseller Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World. The book was translated into 15 language editions in more than 50 countries and has won praise from Tony Blair, Michael Bloomberg, Shimon Peres and Robert F. Kennedy. Seth Siegel has spoken about water issues before hundreds of audiences on four continents, including Congress, the United Nations, the World Bank, Davos, Google’s headquarters, and dozens of universities, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

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