Photo Gallery: The World's Growing Water Shortage


World without Water The Dangerous Misuse of Our Most Valuable Resource

Amid climate change, drought and mismanagement, our world's most valuable resource is becoming scarce. Much of the crisis is man-made -- and even water-rich countries like Germany are to blame. By SPIEGEL Staff

Men like Edward Mooradian are saving California. Indeed, there would hardly be any water left without them. And without water California, now in the fourth year of an epic drought, would be nothing but desert. That's why it's such a cynical joke and, most of all, a tragic reality, that men like Mooradian are also destroying California. In fact, they are actually aggravating the emergency that they are trying to mitigate. The Americans call this a catch-22, a situation in which there are no good alternatives. Either way, the game is lost.

On a Sunday morning in July, Mooradian is standing between rows of orange and lemon trees near Fresno in the Central Valley, the stretch of land in the heart of California that supplies the United States, Canada and Europe with fruit, vegetables and nuts. It is shortly before 8 a.m., but the temperature is already high and there is no wind. Mooradian, tanned and muscular, wearing a helmet and sunglasses, switches on the drill mounted on his truck. It gurgles furiously for a moment and drives a long pipe into the earth.

Mooradian is drilling for groundwater. He has been doing this day and night, seven days a week, ever since California's rivers and lakes began drying up. His order book for the next few months is so full that he no longer answers the phone. Were he to answer, all he could do would be to put off the callers, and hearing the desperation in their voices depresses him. They all urgently need water, the farmers, who are on the verge of bankruptcy because of the drought, but also the families, the elderly and the sick, who have had to live for months or even years without a drop of running water, here in California, the vacation paradise that calls itself The Golden State.

"The last well we drilled went down to 1,200 feet," says Mooradian, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm. He points to the hole, which is spewing mud at the moment. "This here is only supposed to be 400 feet deep. We can do that in our sleep."

The only question is whether he will find water down there. If he does his customer, a local farmer, will be saved, at least for the time being. The mile-long rows of small, seemingly identical fruit trees would stay green, in contrast to the devastation in the surrounding area, with its cracked earth, yellow meadows and dead trees, their branches protruding admonishingly into the sky like dinosaur bones.

And if he doesn't? "We recently drilled an 880-foot hole nearby, and it was dry," says Mooradian. "Oh man, it really made me sick. Those poor people. They went into debt for that well."

California's rivers and lakes are running dry, but its deep aquifers are also rapidly disappearing. The majority of the 40 million Californians are already drawing on this last reserve of water, and they are doing so with such intensity and without restriction that sometimes the ground sinks beneath their feet. The underground reservoir collapses. This in turn destabilizes bridges and damages irrigation canals and roads.

This groundwater is thousands of years old, and it is not replenishing itself. Those who hope to win the race for the last water reserves are forced to drill deeper and deeper into the ground.

Men like Mooradian help the thirsty and despairing obtain water. At the same time, however, their actions contribute to the impending collapse here.

Graphic: Where water is scarce.

Graphic: Where water is scarce.


The Earth may be a blue planet when seen from space, but only 2.5 percent of its water is fresh. That water is wasted, polluted and poisoned and its distribution is appallingly unfair.

The world's population has almost tripled since 1950, but water consumption has increased six-fold. To make matters worse, mankind is changing the Earth's climate with greenhouse gas emissions, which only exacerbates the injustices.

When we talk about water becoming scarce, we are first and foremost referring to people who are suffering from thirst. Close to a billion people are forced to drink contaminated water, while another 2.3 billion suffer from a shortage of water. How will we manage to feed more and more people with less and less water?

But people in developing countries are no longer the only ones affected by the problem. Droughts facilitate the massive wildfires in California, and they adversely affect farms in Spain. Water has become the business of global corporations and it is being wasted on a gigantic scale to turn a profit and operate farms in areas where they don't belong.

"Water is the primary principle of all things," the philosopher Thales of Miletus wrote in the 6th century BC. More than two-and-a-half thousand years later, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations felt it was necessary to define access to water as a human right. It was an act of desperation. The UN has not fallen so clearly short of any of its other millennium goals than the goal of cutting the number of people without this access in half by 2015.

The question is whether water is public property and a human right. Or is it ultimately a commodity, a consumer good and a financial investment?

The world's business leaders and decision makers gathered at the annual meeting in snow-covered Davos, Switzerland in January to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. One of the questions was: What is the greatest social and economic risk of the coming decade? The selection of answers consisted of 28 risks, including wars, weapons of mass destruction and epidemics. The answer chosen by the world's economic elite was: water crises.

Consumers have recognized for years that we need to reduce our consumption of petroleum. But very few people think about water as being scarce, even though it's the resource of the future, more valuable than oil because it is irreplaceable. It also happens to be the source of all life.

Germany is a fortunate country when it comes to water. Many of its lakes are clean enough that they are safe for swimming. Germans splash around in pools, they drive to the seaside and they shower as often and long as they please. But they also contribute -- unknowingly, in most cases -- to the growing scarcity of water in many other parts of the world.

A SPIEGEL team traveled around the globe to investigate what happens when water runs out, and what the potential solutions are: Brazil, which considered its surplus of water to be inexhaustible until recently; Spain, where many farmers produce strawberries for German consumers using stolen water; and California, where the record drought is jeopardizing the American dream. The question of who owns water led to a water war in Bolivia. Israel, blessed with neither water nor peace, has found solutions that can serve as a lesson to others.

Brazil: Destroyed Wealth

On the evening when the hydroelectric plant in Pirapora do Bom Jesus reduces the amount of water released through its spillways, the picturesque town is transformed into something out of a horror film. Dirty white foam rises from the Rio Tietê, which flows through the town 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of São Paulo. The foam creeps up the walls of buildings, coats the riverfront walk, encases the bridge across the river and drifts across the church square in flakes.

Recently, the mountain of foam reached to just below the kitchen window at Maria Luiza Villela dos Santos's restaurant, seven meters (23 feet) above the Rio Tietê below. "The river is dead," says dos Santos. It even smells dead, with a pungent, foul odor rising from its waters.

Every year, from May to August, during the dry season in southeastern Brazil, city officials in Pirapora do Bom Jesus declare an environmental state of emergency. The water level in the Rio Tietê drops and the concentration of residues of cleaning agents, shampoo and other chemicals in the water becomes even higher than usual. A small dam near the city churns up the water, which creates the foam.

The white wall is especially high this year, because the water level in the Rio Tietê is lower than ever before. Brazil's southeast, the country's most densely populated region, has been stricken with the worst drought in 80 years. The last rainy season was almost nonexistent.

In the Sistema Cantareira, an enormous system of reservoirs that supplies water to more than 9 million people in São Paulo, the water level has dropped to 18.4 percent. South America's largest city is at risk of running out of water.

Government officials blame climate change. "There hasn't been enough rain in three years," says Benedito Braga, the state official in charge of São Paulo's water supply. "Our system isn't designed for that."

But the water shortage is primarily man-made, and one that should serve as a warning to countries less well endowed with water -- in other words, all other countries. Brazil prides itself in having the largest fresh water supplies in the world.

Built on Water

The Brazilians believed that water would always be there, and that everyone could use it as they pleased. They dam rivers to produce energy, change the courses of rivers and pollute bodies of water with fecal matter and industrial waste. Cattle farmers deforest embankments, while fruit growers remove water from rivers and dump pesticides back in. In Rio de Janeiro, maids scrub the sidewalk with drinking water, and rich and poor alike often shower three times a day.

Only now are many realizing that this abundance is finite. In São Paulo, for example, the local water company reduced pressure in the pipes to curb consumption. As a result, hillside neighborhoods often see no water for days.

Ironically, the huge city is practically built on water. Hundreds of rivers, streams and springs permeate São Paulo. Their sources are in the green hills of the Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic rain forest, which once covered Brazil's coastal regions.

But most of the forest has been cut down, and most rivers are now covered with concrete or polluted. Garbage and fecal matter from hundreds of thousands of households flows into the Tietê and the Pinheiros, São Paulo's two most important rivers. Sofas, dead animals and sometimes even human bodies float around in the soup. The result is that water must be piped in to São Paulo from reservoirs located hundreds of kilometers away.

Nevertheless, many Brazilians worship their rivers and waterfalls as if they were holy sites. "We treat our water as though it were sacred, and yet we take no responsibility for preserving it," says Malu Ribeiro, director of the environmental organization SOS Mata Atlântica.

Few politicians support the construction of sewage treatment plants and sewage pipes, primarily because such issues generate few votes in elections. "They prefer to build new reservoirs," complains environmental activist Adriano Sampaio, "and the construction companies bankroll their campaigns." Sampaio, a slim man dressed in a worn shirt, is standing in a park in São Paulo, a small creek bubbling at his feet. The water is clean here, at the spring, but it turns into a sewage canal a few hundred meters away.

Sampaio tracks down buried bodies of water. He created a lake in a park in the western part of the city and was once arrested for breaking open the asphalt on a square and exposing the ponds underneath. "If we cleaned up all the bodies of water in the city, we wouldn't have a water supply crisis," says Sampaio.

The authorities disagree. "These bodies of water are either too dirty or have too little water," says government official Braga. His recommendation is to drill wells -- even here, in such a water-rich country -- to tap into the groundwater.

Spain: Stealing Water for Strawberries

The ground is cracked and nothing but low, thorny bushes with hard leaves grows here. The sun beats down on the fine sand that accumulates in the grooves. The headwaters of the Arroyo de la Rocina have been dry since the beginning of the summer. Welcome to Andalusia, Spain's largest strawberry-farming region.

In the spring, the area is a sea of shiny plastic stretching to the horizon. The landscape looks as if it had been wrapped by the artist Christo, covered almost entirely in plastic sheeting designed to protect the valuable fruit, much of it destined for Germany.

Irrigated agriculture has been promoted here since Spain joined the European Community in 1986. That was also when the fever surrounding "red gold," or strawberries, began. "You can make easy money, and a lot of it, with strawberries," says Felipe Fuentelsaz of the environmental organization WWF.

But the large farms around the city of Huelva consume more than 20 million cubic meters (5.3 billion gallons) of water a year. Furthermore, about 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of forest have been cut down so far to make way for the plantations. According to a study by the WWF, 63 percent of this land was not leased, meaning the crops were planted there illegally. Two thirds of the fincas are irrigated with water from illegal sources.

The Rocina, a small river in the region, has lost half of its water in the last 30 years as a result of the heavy irrigation. But the river is also one of the most important waterways in the Doñana National Park, a preserve for rare birds and wild animals. In an area of 1.5 square kilometers, Fuentelsaz and his team found 52 illegal wells and seven catch basins hidden in the forest.

The Agriculture Ministry estimates that hundreds of thousands of hectares of land are being irrigated with water from half a million illegal wells throughout Spain. This consumes enough groundwater each year to serve the needs of 60 million people.

Avoidable Disasters

Flamingos stalk across the lagoon next to the pilgrimage chapel in Rocío, in the heart of the national park. But Spain's most important wetland region is shrinking. Fuentelsaz and his colleagues are constantly reporting cases of illegal water use to the Andalusian authorities. But local mayors allow their friends to do as they please, and conservationists are powerless to prevent politicians from promising farmers even more water. The Spanish government has approved a plan to divert water from the Guadalquivir River to the region. "It's insanity," says WWF activist Fuentelsaz, who argues that this essentially sanctions illegal farming. Besides, he adds, the Guadalquivir already carries too little water today.

It is ironic that one of the European countries most affected by climate change has the worst water management practices. And it promises to get worse in the future. Spain can expect to see higher temperatures, less rainfall and more evaporation, says Madrid climatologist Jonathan Gómez Cantero, who advises the European Parliament and the UN. If nothing changes, says Gómez, southern Spain will become a desert by mid-century. There are similar prognoses for the entire Mediterranean region, the Middle East and parts of India, China and Australia.

These disasters are at least partially avoidable. "The global trade in food is really about the trade in water," writes Canadian water activist Maude Barlow in her book "Blue Future." The trade becomes problematic when this "virtual water" flows in the wrong direction: from arid to water-rich regions, such as from Spain to Germany.

In the 1990s, British geographer John Anthony Allan developed the concept of "virtual water" to study how water is conveyed around the world through the trade in agricultural products. Dutch water management expert Arjen Hoekstra derived the term "water footprint" from Allan's concept of virtual water. Hoekstra's water footprint describes the amount of water that is used, directly and indirectly, to produce individual goods: 80 liters (21 gallons) for one orange, 109 liters for a glass of wine and 15,500 liters for a kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of beef.

Graphic: Water used in food and beverage products

Graphic: Water used in food and beverage products


According to Hoekstra, countries like Spain are exacerbating their water shortages by exporting products with a large water footprint -- the virtual water that leaves the country in the form of strawberries and citrus fruit is permanently removed from local water cycles. On the other hand, countries that import water-intensive products are protecting their own water sources.

Some 70 percent of the water consumed worldwide is used in agriculture. Because the agricultural industry is also subject to the laws of a system that promotes global trade and large corporations, massive amounts of virtual water are conveyed around the world.

If this virtual water were transported in the right direction, such as from Germany to Spain, it would lessen the plight of arid regions. Instead, Germany, of all places, is one of the world's largest importers of virtual water.

Spain should reorganize its agricultural production and limit irrigated agriculture, says climatologist Gómez. But some politicians prefer to promote the exploitation of water reserves for as long as possible.

German consumers who buy Spanish strawberries contribute to the possibility that Spain could one day find itself in a dire situation like the one California faces today.

The United States: A California Nightmare

"I didn't see the disaster coming," says Donna Johnson, 72, with short gray hair, neon-colored sneakers and equally bright earrings. "When there was no water coming out of our well, I thought the pump was broken." Like most people in East Porterville, the Johnsons get their water from a well, which pumps groundwater to the surface. But these wells are not as deep as those on the surrounding farms, and they run dry as a result. Half of East Porterville's 7,000 residents have been living without running water recently, some for as much as two years.

Johnson collects donations and takes bottled water to her neighbors, while the authorities deliver water tanks and mobile showers. Most East Porterville residents cannot afford to drill new, deeper wells. The town is located in a part of the Central Valley that is among the world's most productive agricultural zones, but it is of California's poorest regions.


It is a region where America, the global superpower, looks more like a developing nation, with its broken streets, run-down houses and residents without running water. Indeed, the water crisis is becoming a humanitarian one -- because the absurd agricultural policy of many arid regions in California is being carried to extremes. More recklessly than elsewhere, wetlands in the state are being dried out to make irrigated agriculture possible. Part of the American dream, at least in California, is to subjugate nature, including both the desert and the water cycle. Water is transported from north to south through a 1,500-kilometer aqueduct. This has allowed Los Angeles to grow into a megacity in the south and the Central Valley to become a key center of the agricultural industry.

The dire consequences of this policy are now becoming clear. Temperatures in the southwestern United States are rising faster than the global average, because the region lacks the balancing effect of healthy water systems. And as temperatures rise, evaporation increases, exacerbating drought conditions even further.

Agriculture makes up 2 percent of California's GDP, and yet it consumes 80 percent of the state's water. Yet when Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in April and ordered Californians to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent, he was not referring to farmers. They are still allowed to extract as much water from the earth as they can.

Digging Wells with Oil Rigs

The state grows about half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts produced in the United States, along with large quantities of milk and meat. Ten years ago, some 16 percent of these agricultural products were exported to other countries. Today, that number is 25 percent today. Four out of five almonds on the world market were grown in California. The water footprint of one almond is four liters.

"Should we buy our food from the Chinese instead?" asks Dennis Simonian, who grows more than 180 different varieties of fruits and vegetables on his farm near Fresno. Simonian, 72, is a sturdy man with gray hair combed neatly back. After 50 years, he still loves his profession. His grandfather and his father were also fruit farmers, and today one of his daughters works with him on the farm.

They sell their produce in their own store and through Trader Joe's, a supermarket chain that belongs to the German chain Aldi-Nord. His "golden jumbo raisins," says Simonian, are also shipped to Germany. We are sitting in his office with the shades drawn. The air outside is stiflingly hot.

This year, he was forced to leave some of his fields uncultivated, because his well wasn't producing enough water. "We are fighting a war over water here," he says, "and only the strongest survive." Simonian switched to a more efficient drip irrigation system many years ago, but there are still farmers who flood their fields, he says.

A complicated system of water rights regulates who is allowed to consume how much water from aboveground sources in California. But now, two-thirds of the state's water comes from below the ground, where anarchy prevails. In September 2014, the governor signed a bill into law that regulates water use from below-ground sources as well, but it will likely take decades before it goes into effect.

Large property owners are having oil rigs shipped from Texas to drill for water, says Simonian, meaning that smaller farmers don't stand a chance. This, he says, is why the state needs to implement new rules now, "and not in 25 years." It also needs new dams and reservoirs. And why not build a pipeline to transport water south from Alaska? "After all, it works with oil."

The Global Business

The idea isn't all that far-fetched. Transporting water from water-rich regions to arid ones has indeed become an option today. Icelandic companies like Bruárfoss HF, for instance, are planning to ship domestic water around the world in giant tankers, just like oil and liquefied natural gas.

While politicians still shudder at the notion that water is not an inexhaustible resource, businesses and investors have long recognized the scarcity -- as well as the opportunities to turn a profit. Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citibank, summed up his industry's assessment in a strategy document four years ago, writing: "Water as an asset class, in my view, will eventually become the single most important physical commodity -- dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities, and precious metals."

Large portions of the private sector, as well as new technologies like fracking, cannot function without water. That explains in part why commodities companies have contributed a majority of the €84 billion ($93 billion) that private companies invested in water conservation methods between 2011 and 2014.

But the food and beverage industry also spends large sums to minimize its water use. In the fall of 2014, Nestlé, the world's largest food company -- and one which critics suspect of seeking to gain control over water sources worldwide -- opened a powdered milk factory in Mexico that requires no external water. Instead, it uses the water that is extracted from the milk during the drying process. The Netherlands-based company Dutch Rainmaker has built a wind turbine that uses the energy it generates to condense water out of the air. Other companies are developing washing machines and odor-free toilets that operate with almost no water at all.

The growing scarcity of water is increasingly attracting investors, who are betting on investments like desalination plants, water conservation technologies, water suppliers and waste water treatment plants. Many banks now offer the option of investing in water funds, which usually include a mixture of water supply companies with global operations, like French market leaders Suez and Veolia, as well as smaller, specialized water technology businesses.

Market Forces

The rise in the share price of Veolia shows how lucrative the water business is. Within the last 12 months, the stock, which is traded in Paris, gained 64 percent, almost three times as much as France's benchmark index, the CAC 40. The roughly 15 water funds, most notably the Swiss fund Pictet Water, have achieved annual returns of up to 22.5 percent in the last three years.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, president of the Nestlé supervisory board, has managed a blog about the water crisis since 2012. He told the Wall Street Journal: "Give the 1.5% of the water (that we use to drink and wash with), make it a human right. But give me a market for the 98.5% so the market forces are able to react, and they will be the best guidance that you can have."

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that it would take $1.3 trillion in annual investments to develop and expand the necessary water supply infrastructure worldwide. These investments would not only make sense, they would also save lives. Some 842,000 people die each year because they lack clean water for consumption and hygiene.

In light of these numbers, Western economists tend to advocate an idea similar to that promoted by Nestlé's Brabeck: Allow market forces to act. Institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) make it a condition of their lending that public utilities, such as water companies, are privatized. This is currently the case in Greece, where the IMF is acting in concert with the European Union.

Bolivia: The Water War

Bolivians refer to the months in the spring of 2000, which inspired books and films like the James Bond box-office success "Quantum of Solace," as "la guerra del agua."

Responding to pressure from the World Bank, Bolivia began to privatize its water supply, leading to a subsidiary of US corporation Bechtel taking control of the water system in Cochabamba, the country's third-largest city.

If there is a country that needs outside assistance, it is Bolivia, South America's poorest nation. More than half the country's 10 million people live in dire poverty, there is a high crime rate, and child labor is considered normal. The climate in the Andes is harsh and dry, and the soil is not particularly fertile. Making matters worse, Bolivia has been severely affected by global warming, with glaciers, which normally provide snowmelt in the dry season, steadily shrinking. Plus, there is even less rainfall than in the past.

The private water supplier increased prices overnight by up to 300%, and it even demanded payment for rainwater that residents collected themselves. "We ordinary people had to spend a quarter of our income for water," says trade union official Oscar Olivera, an older man wearing a leather cap and a baggy shirt. Standing on Plaza Principal, the main square of Cochabamba, he points to bullet holes in the walls. "Believe me," he says, "we were prepared to die."

Olivera was one of the leaders of the resistance movement at the time. Citizens erected roadblocks, threw stones and burned their water bills. When then President Hugo Banzer brought in the army, five demonstrators were shot to death and hundreds were injured. After a four-month struggle, the government finally conceded defeat, and privatization was revoked.

Five years later, Bolivians elected Evo Morales, a man of indigenous descent and a representative of coca farmers, as president. He created a Water Ministry and he enshrined the right to water in the country's new constitution. Unlike his predecessors, Morales knows what it means not to have access to water.

'A Public Good'

"When I was a child, we lived a kilometer away from the nearest well," says Morales. "My mother had to carry the water home in a clay jug." Sitting in an armchair in a dazzling room at the government headquarters building in La Paz, he says: "Water cannot be a business. It must be a public good."

His government is working to expand water networks and improve the supply of water for basic sanitary needs, says Morales, adding that he will not rest until all Bolivians have access to safe water.

Two million Bolivians are still forced to drink polluted water, while 4 million lack sanitary installations. Still, there has been some progress. Today 83 percent of Bolivians have access to clean drinking water, compared to less than half the population in 1990.

Similar stories, albeit not quite as dramatic, are unfolding in many countries. Expectations that private companies would be more capable than the government in providing citizens with clean, affordable water have rarely been met.

What works fairly well with electricity is essentially a fallacy with water, simply because only one concession can be awarded per community. There is no competition. Private water companies often take over pipes, pumping stations and reservoirs for free, use them at little cost and then dictate water prices. The expectation that they develop infrastructure in return has rarely been fulfilled. This has led many countries and regions, including Argentina, Indonesia, Ghana and Mali, to follow Bolivia's example and place their water under public control once again.

Geared Toward Profit

But there is no other place where more privatizations and joint ventures with private-sector providers are being reversed than in Europe, including Germany. In Stuttgart, a 2013 citizens' initiative forced the city to buy back shares in a private water supplier. In 2014, the state cartel authority in Stuttgart found that water prices were too high and ordered that they be reduced by 30 percent on average.

In Berlin, where water operations were partially privatized in 1999, prices jumped up by 28 percent after the stipulated three-year waiting period. Investments to preserve the infrastructure were reduced by more than a fourth. But Berliners also fought back. When a citizens' initiative launched a referendum and gained access to the agreements, something outrageous emerged: Berlin had given the two companies involved, electric utility RWE and Veolia, a guaranteed return for a period of 30 years. In 2012, the Federal Cartel Office ruled that Berlin's water prices had to be reduced by 18 percent. A year later, the Berlin Senate bowed to the pressure and bought back its shares in the privatized company.

The European Commission triggered protests throughout Europe in 2012 when it tried to include water in its directive on concessions, which would have opened the door to private water suppliers in many places. More than 1.5 million people signed a petition for free access to water, and they succeeded. Water was removed from the directive.

Popular opposition to privatization is probably no more vehement and emotional than it is with water. The general perception is that the most elementary of all goods cannot be left to market forces, which are solely geared toward profit.

Israel: The Miracle in the Desert

Even before the establishment of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, the country's first prime minister, dreamed of "making the desert bloom." Today, his successors are doing everything possible to make that dream a reality.

Avraham Tenne, 68, is one of the architects of this "Israeli water miracle." Until recently, he headed the seawater desalination department within the national water authority. Wearing suspenders and a red helmet, he is standing at the Sorek plant in Rishon LeZion, the largest desalination plant in the world. He fills a plastic cup from a faucet and takes a sip. "It's better than mineral water," he claims.

Salt water is pumped from the Mediterranean into the plant, where algae and marine creatures are removed. Then it is conducted into the "membrane building," the core of the plant, through pipes equipped with thousands of plastic membranes. Using a process called reverse osmosis, the seawater is forced through the system under high pressure, producing desalinated water and salt concentrate. The plant produces 26 million liters of water an hour, enough to supply the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

The technology of reverse osmosis consumes less energy than thermal desalination, in which seawater is heated. "We have developed techniques that can reduce energy use by 40 percent," says Tenne. Nevertheless, about 10 percent of the country's electricity production is used in desalination, which is high, given that Israel hardly uses any renewable energy sources. There has been little study to date of the environmental burdens that arise, for example, when the salt concentrate is pumped back into the Mediterranean.

In 2005 Tenne, who recently retired, decided to work for the government. Israel was suffering from a severe drought, the country's most important water reserves, the Sea of Galilee and ground water, had been overused, and the Jordan River had been reduced to a trickle, partly as a result of intensive irrigation in Israeli agriculture.

Global Leader

The government established a national water authority and introduced a progressive water pricing system, under which households are charged more for any water consumed beyond a standard level. The country also invested heavily in research, which is why Israel is now a global leader in many water technologies.

No other country recycles as much wastewater for use in agriculture. The recycling rate in Israel is 86 percent, compared to 17 percent in Spain and 1 percent in the United States. Drip irrigation was invented in Israel, as was a system that digitally monitors water lines to detect leaks. Israel is also the world leader in energy-saving desalination.

Four desalination plants were built during Tenne's tenure, and today they produce about 600 million cubic meters of water, satisfying close to a third of the country's water needs. "We filled the gap," he says proudly. A Star of David hangs on the wall behind him. At the end of our meeting, he says: "I would like to see us share the water with our neighbors. It should be a tool of peace."

But the country is still a long way from that goal. While the Israelis delight in their water miracle, water is available only once a week in many Palestinian households in the West Bank. Under the 1995 Oslo II agreement, Israel is entitled to 80 percent of the water extracted in the West Bank, while the Palestinians are entitled to only 20 percent -- an unjust solution that was meant to be temporary.

The example of Israel shows that a country can do many things right when it comes to water and still be in danger -- namely when others remain thirsty. Indeed, the situation in the Gaza Strip is even more desperate than it is in the West Bank. Some 96 of all wells in the Gaza Strip are contaminated with saltwater and wastewater. There is a shortage of drinking water, and the water quality is terrible. The Israeli military has warned that the water crisis in Gaza constitutes a security risk for the Jewish state and Israel recently doubled the amount of desalinated water it sends to Gaza.

In this sense Israel, a country of water miracles, is both a role model and a cautionary tale. It sets an example of how to provide water to a growing population despite a scarce water supply. Doing so requires lawmakers who recognize the value of water, and who feel responsible for ensuring that people have enough water to live a life of dignity. Delegating the water supply to private companies is not a solution.

But what is also needed is an agricultural policy that regulates how much water can be used without risking a California-like catastrophe. Water-intensive farming in arid regions, especially to grow products that are exported, is rarely a good idea. If a country cannot or does not wish to do without such farming, it should at least promote modern technologies to conserve water. And countries like Germany, which have no shortage of water, should question the importation of products that endanger the water supply in their country of origin.

California's response to its water crisis can be found on the 15th floor of an office building on Hope Street in Los Angeles. Rick Silva, an amiable, gray-haired man in a blue polo shirt, is the city's first "water cop." His mission is to teach residents to conserve water.

"I prefer to use education rather than punishment," says Silva. He isn't a real police officer, but instead works for the water authority. In that capacity, he writes letters to residents who water their lawns too often or at the wrong times, and are reported by their neighbors.

Sometimes he drives through Los Angeles in his light-blue Honda Civic, searching for people who are wasting water. He only issues tickets when he catches water offenders in the act: $100 for the first offence, followed by $200 and $300 tickets for subsequent violations. Revenue from the fines has been modest in the first half of the year, only $6,200.

Silva sees this as a positive sign. "I think people understand the gravity of the situation," he says. "Los Angeles is trying to help as much as it can." Since the governor has decided not to touch agriculture, he says, "we are focusing on the 20 percent of water consumption that we can influence."

But Los Angeles is a big city, and Silva can't be everywhere at the same time, nor can he replace public policy. He hopes that it will rain soon. Until then, he is getting three new employees. Then Los Angeles will have four water cops, responsible for 4 million residents.

By Nicola Abé, Jens Glüsing, Felix Lill, Michaela Schiessl, Samiha Shafy ( and Helene Zuber

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan