Let There Be Water | Book Review

“With leadership, even seemingly insurmountable
obstacles can be overcome,”

inscribed inside the book sent by  Seth Siegel, is the perfect capture statement for this magnificent chronicle of national vision and leadership. Outlined as an historical narrative, Siegel clearly associates water policy as a reflection of governance. Useful maps (pp xxi-xxii) are included for following Israel’s geographical transformation. George P. Schultz observes: “In the middle of a desert and in the world’s driest region, Israel has managed and innovated its way to a water surplus.” (p. xxiii)

This review introduces Israel’s Leadership Philosophy regarding water, highlights several key leadership analogies, and examines the results of truly embracing and living this way for decades.

Introduction | Leadership Philosophy

Siegel trumpets a call to action, based on five macro trends – that have been the main drivers of an imminent water crisis, many of which are a long time in the making (pp. 4-6):

• Population
• Rising Middle Class
• Climate Change
• Tainted Water
• Leaks

Israel’s future vision of water started in 1939 (p. 20), and ultimately led to the following dozen elements which are separately and together a key to understanding Israel’s philosophy (pp. 236-251):

Israel’s Leadership [Water] Philosophy

• “The Water Belongs to the Nation”
• Cheap Water Is Expensive
• Use Water to Unify the Country
• Regulators, Not Politicians
• Create a Water-Respecting Culture
• All of the Above
• Use Water Fees for Water
• Innovation Wanted
• Measure and Monitor
• Plan Today for Long into the Future
• Advocates Needed
• The Time to Act Is Now

Analogy I | Abundance vs. Scarcity

This is perhaps the most significant analogy, as Israel is essentially an arid, desert country. Who had an abundance mindset? Simcha Blass, who was the central character in leading the thinking and planning about Israel’s water, and later in transforming agriculture around the world (p. 23).

The predominant, or scarcity mindset, was held by the British. They (p. 33) gave testimony to the United Nations (UN) delegates and reiterated their belief that the territory could not provide for the many homeless, stateless Holocaust survivors then in refugee camps in Europe, two years after the war had come to an end.

Blass proposed a three-phase approach to national self-sufficiency in water (p. 25):

• There were large amounts of water below the surface of the Negev desert that could be found by deep drilling.
• Proposed pumping water out of the Yarkon River, north and east of Tel Aviv, and transporting it to the Negev, primarily for agricultural use.
• At some undetermined time in the future, water would be brought from north to south via mostly underground infrastructure that would bisect the nation.

Notice that the first phase, if successful, could quickly dispel a paucity mindset. This vision set up Israel for a decades-long march toward their national objective. The second and third phases implicitly suggest a national strategy, in contrast with many countries. Siegel notes that many Western countries have sleepwalked into counterproductive legal and regulatory structures, while their citizens, agricultural sectors, and industries have carelessly adopted wasteful – even destructive – consumption patterns (p. 220).

Analogy II | Great by Choice

Israel’s story serves a perfect example of Jim Collins’ 20 Mile March from Great by Choice. Siegel calls out The National Water Carrier. It was a feat of imagination and daring, requiring engineering innovation and a variety of financing vehicles, including one that led to riots and deep divisions that took years to heal (p. 20).

However, the best leaders communicate a clear vision, align teams, and execute. Siegel observes: Large infrastructure projects that are completed on time and on budget give the larger public a feeling of civic pride and enhance national identity (p. 38).

A couple guideposts along this marathon: No other country makes the reuse of its sewage a national priority as does Israel. Over 85 percent of the nation’s sewage is reused (p. 78). Also, Israel learned along the way that reclaimed sewage is more reliable because it isn’t dependent on the vagaries of climate and rainfall, and even with all of the infrastructure required to develop it, reclaimed sewage is ultimately cheaper (p. 86).

The resulting mindset from such a national journey is an optimistic, forward-looking one, captured by Booky Oren:

If Israel high-tech could be born without the military
as the driver, why couldn’t a technology-driven water

utility rethink the world of water?” (p. 153)

Analogy III | Collaboration

In our Academy Leadership Leveraging the Power of Conflict workshops we learn that collaboration (gain|gain) and compromise (win|win) strategies are preferred, and that collaboration is the best, yet often requires the most time. Zohar Yinon, former CEO of Hagihon, embodied this spirit early on:

“If I can help a company to develop a new idea in water, it is good for me, good for them, good for Israel, and, when they bring their innovation to other countries, good for the world.” (p. 51)

Collaboration was also necessary by the government. Siegel recognizes The Chief Scientist program represents the best of government engagement in industrial policy (p. 167). This allowed incubator program acceleration of numerous water developments.

Decades of this mindset led to the pragmatic vision of Eilon Adar:

“If we start to think of water as a commodity
and not as a symbol of national identity, we can exchange,
trade, buy, or sell water in its many forms” 
(p. 190).

Many differing people can work together when one grand idea links politics, economic development, water usage, and the environment (p. 194).

Analogy IV | Knowledge-Doing Gap

Pfeffer and Sutton’s The Knowing-Doing Gap informs us that when knowledge is treated as a process, rather than a static item to be stored, breakthrough performance results. Israel embodied this concept starting with Blass using the diversion of the Colorado River as a model (p. 26).

A perhaps counterintuitive example of knowledge sharing was Israel’s real pricing, or elimination of distorting subsidies. With no rationing or limit on supply, real pricing induced customers to cut their use of household water by sixteen percent (p. 47).

As vital new knowledge grew, leaders such as Nathan Berkman decided in the late 1960s and early 1970s to have his government division go into business and to start selling the group’s desalination know-how – such as it was – to others (p. 114).

Think of the challenging Israel | Jordan | Palestine relationship today. As a result of Israel’s water leadership, dialogue over water can be a vehicle for confidence-building measures that can led to progress in some of the other areas of dispute (p. 173). 

Knowledge sharing now has international reach. MASHAV (a Hebrew acronym loosely translated as Center for International Cooperation) embodies this spirit (p. 209): “We were there to help by teaching and training, but not by providing financial assistance” to African states, Asia, and South America.

Living a Leadership Philosophy | Influence

When we live our leadership philosophy or our organizational constitution (see S. Chris Edmondsthe culture engine), multiple breakthroughs are likely. The most significant example of an organizational constitution decision by the Zionist pioneers and the young State of Israel, having a greater impact on Israel’s water culture, was the decision to make water the common property of all (pp. 16-18):

• 1955 | prohibited any drilling for water without first obtaining a license.
• 1955 | prohibited any distribution of water, unless that supply was done through a meter.
• 1957 | placed river water, streams and rainwater under government control.

A visiting American soil scientist, Walter Clay Lowdermilk, aligned early with Israel’s philosophy, and rejected the prevailing White Paper doctrine (p. 28):

“The absorptive capacity of any country is a dynamic
and expanding conception. It changes with the ability of a
 population to make maximum use of its land, and to

put its economy on a scientific and productive basis.” 

By living within this philosophy, The Water Authority wanted to change [prevailing] culture and to use Israel’s cities as laboratories for new ideas in water (p. 48). Fast forward several decades: Israel is now a leader in plant research (p. 68), as a result of numerous water-efficiency initiatives.

Perhaps the greatest innovation to date: Due to the use of the RO (reverse osmosis) membrane, the water wasn’t just the highest quality water to be found in Israel in terms of cleanliness, low salinity, and high clarity; it also turned out to be about fifty percent cheaper than any of the cost estimates the Cabinet had received when deciding to pursue desalinated water (p. 121).


Ilan Cohen: Today we are in a period like the dawn of agriculture (p. 127).

Israel is the only country in the world which has less area
covered by desert today than fifty years ago (p. 98).

Note: Seth Siegel generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | July 2018