ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Israel’s Water Crisis

Israel’s Water Crisis

 

08 July 2008

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Technion professor and former water commissioner (1991 – 93) Dan Zaslavsky gave a chilling interview to the Voice of Israel radio station this morning when he blasted state water policies, declaring that Israel’s water crisis has fully arrived in the summer 2008. Zaslavsky is well known for having curbed water usage especially by the agricultural sector during his two year stint as water commissioner. He is often accused of having destroyed the “Jaffa orange” market by eliminating subsidies to citrus growers. His explanation in the early 1990s was that the Israeli public does not have to subsidize water prices so juicy oranges can be sold in Europe and North America. Furthermore he saw no reason why Israel should be wasting precious water supplies over an agricultural symbol. It was a blow to the Israel citrus industry but a blessing in disguise. Water might be seen as a commodity but in essence it was becoming a luxury.

Most importantly he demanded an overhaul of Israel’s water policies. One must plan for a future growing population and not deplete resources. Israel’s largest natural water resource is the coastal aquifer which over the years has been depleted to the point that 20% of its wells are saline due to the encroachment of Mediterranean waters, this caused by over pumping. The mountain aquifer is shared with the Palestinians and cuts through the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Jerusalem hills. Both Israelis and Palestinians dip in too deeply causing deficits here as well. Next we have the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) whose waters are below the red line and within a few months will be beyond the black line meaning the pumping facilities will be higher than the water line. Anyone visiting the Kinneret nowadays notices the shoreline has receded by tens of meters with water tables nationwide lower than anyone can remember. Overall Israel has a national water emergency, even if undeclared by the government.

Zaslavsky is convinced that by mid-summer water will be cut and possibly closed down to a good portion of Israel’s farmers due to government refusal over the years to allocate the necessary funding for desalination plants. Monies have been invested but not enough and not fast enough. Five years ago Israel had 29 small desalination facilities for brackish non-coastal waters and the medium sized Eilat plant built in the 1970s. Beginning in 2003 Ariel Sharon’s second government began a major project to build desalination plants along Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The expectation was that in 6-7 years Israel would overcome its water problems by constructing these four major plants.

In the 1990s the Jewish National Fund developed dams in the Bet Shean Valley for water conservation and in the Negev to catch flood waters. During the same period water recycling plants, in particular the Shafdan in the center of the country began recycling hundreds of millions of cubic meters of home usage water. Once recycled, these waters were sent to the Negev for agricultural endeavors. Today Israel recycles 75% of all its water. Despite all these efforts the country is water short and not only because of recurring droughts so common in this part of the world. Rather public awareness is very low, there is no real government information campaign and Israelis waste water. There is also little law enforcement.

Five years after the government finally stepped in there are two desalination plants on the coast, one in Ashkelon processing 100 million cubic meters annually and at Palmachim with a capacity of 30 million – a nice beginning but far from enough. As of May 2008 the Hadera plant (100 million) has gotten the okay but work has yet to begin while construction of the Ashdod facility (100 million) is held up in court. Minister of Infrastructure Benyamin Ben Eliezer spoke of the need to go beyond the original target of 505 million cubic meters to be recycled annually and to reach for 750 million cubic meters. This he believes can be done by 2013 and not by 2020 as originally planned but this would demand billions in water infrastructure development in the immediate future. Furthermore there are plans to recycle another 20% of waste water bringing to total to 95%.

Interestingly enough Israel has the technical knowledge to handle the water emergency but politics and budgetary considerations get in the way. Everyone knows what needs to be done and how to do it. But political parties push their own agendas and because water is an agreed upon issue monies are not allocated since it is a non-divisive issue. According to Zaslavsky certain economists believe desalination is too expensive. Only a crisis can bring about the immediate funding necessary. Well, the crisis is now.

As Zaslavsky pointed out in the interview we only need a lapse of a year or two to destroy decades of hard work as turning off the faucets to the kibbutzim/moshavim will kill off the deciduous fruit and citrus orchards. Certainly fish ponds and dairy farming will also suffer. People will leave their farms in the north and south of the country, essentially abandoning many of the border areas. As he put it “they will head for the Land of Tel Aviv”. Zionism will be urbanized, one of the great fears of the labor Zionist pioneers and in particular Israel’s first PM David Ben Gurion who spoke of Tel Aviv as a possible Carthage, a city state with no hinterland should Jews not live in the Galilee and the Negev. Zaslavsky warns not only of tens of billions of shekels (or more) being lost but of the unraveling of the Zionist idea.

To sum up, it may be too late for the government to get its act together. Zaslavsky predicts water shutdowns before long. Yet if planning and implementation move ahead at record pace (hardly likely but possible), by 2013 and not 2020, Israel could have 750 million cubic meters of desalinated water along with 475 million cubic meters of recycled water. Added together that is 1,225 million cubic meters (or 1 billion, 225 million), quite a tally.

Time is of the essence. A national water emergency needs to be declared, water rationed and laws enforced, meaning heavy fines for violations. This is the only way to bridge the gap between planning and implementation without doing ourselves irreparable damage due to lack of foresight.