Israel is currently experiencing an unprecedented drought – so extreme that such conditions this time of year have never been documented, according to the Water Authority.
Since the 10-day mega-storm that drenched the country in mid-December, Israel has experienced almost no rainfall, and the drought conditions are being felt particularly in regions surrounding natural water sources. Additionally problematic is the fact that this dry winter follows in the footsteps of a 2012-2013 rainy season that concluded early.
Water Authority officials said they had decided, however, to hold off on officially declaring a drought, in hopes that conditions would improve.
Nationwide, the country has received only about 64 percent of its average annual precipitation since the beginning of the rainy season, the Water Authority said last week. In many portions of the region – particularly in the Jerusalem area, the West Bank, the country’s center, and its northern tip – the month of January was the driest to date, the Israel Meteorological Services reported.
Although the conditions have been among the driest for many portions of the country, it has been too short a period to speak of trends in climate change, Dr.
Amos Porat, director of the IMS’s Climate Department, told The Jerusalem Post last week. Porat attributed the dry winter to a phenomenon called “blocking,” in which most of the rainfall systems have been “stuck” in Western Europe. Following the dry January, he also remarked that “February doesn’t look good either.”
Ongoing dry weather conditions are not only afflicting Israel right now, but also all of the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Water Authority emphasized. For other areas with similar climates, such as Australia, China, Arizona, Texas, and California, this has also been an extreme drought year thus far, the authority added. California, for example, recently announced drastic cuts in water supplies for agriculture and is examining the possibility of limiting water to other sectors.
However, “the State of Israel is quite different” from those areas, a statement from the Water Authority said. “Despite the rare climatic situation in which we find ourselves, the country is not drying up.”
Due to preparation of natural reservoirs and desalination, water supplies to Israel’s household, agricultural, and industrial sectors are guaranteed, the Water Authority said. Integrated management of the country’s natural water resources, combined with the use of seawater desalination and wastewater reclamation plants, have allowed for a steady supply of water to all consumers, the authority said.
Nonetheless, Dov Amitai, president of the Farmers Association in Israel, stressed that the shortage of rainfall has had a particularly negative impact on the cattle industry.
“The shortage in precipitation has caused a reduction in the volume of pasture, and at this stage cattle herders are concentrating their herds in limited plots and serving them food,” Amitai said.
Although expectations for potential rains next week had given the herders hope, it is uncertain whether grazing lands would be able to recover from such a long period without rain, he added.
A good rainy season typically provides ample cattle grazing from mid-December to mid-May, Haim Dayan, CEO of the Israeli Cattle Breeder’s Association, explained.
Meanwhile, the cattle feed purchased by the herders has become increasingly expensive.
“In the situation in which the rains come late, the period of feeding cattle becomes longer, and taking out the cattle for natural grazing is delayed,” Dayan said.
Yaron Solomon, head of the settlement department and coordinator of the economic, finance, and agriculture committee of the Israel Farmers Union, expressed hope that the government would declare an official drought, because such a declaration comes with compensation for the farmers, who pay sky-high rates for additional water.
“In Israel there is no shortage of water; the only problem is the price of the water,” he told the Post on Monday night.
Responding to complaints about the high price of water, Solomon criticized the Water Authority for its decision not to run its desalination plants at full capacity this year. Following two rainy winters that filled the nation’s reservoirs sufficiently, the Water Authority determined in January that Israel only needs to operate these plants at 70% this year.
For every cubic meter less than full capacity that the desalination plants operate, the government must compensate the desalination companies by NIS 1.40. Members of the Farmers Union, however, had offered to pay the government up to NIS 1.72 per cubic meter for desalinated water to supplement their allotted agricultural quotas, Solomon said.
Although farmers pay only about NIS 1.10 per cubic meter of tertiary-level treated wastewater and NIS 0.90 for secondary-level treated wastewater, when they exceed their allotted quotas they must pay NIS 3.75 per cubic meter, according to Solomon. Paying up to NIS 1.72 per cubic meter would therefore have been a relief for the farmers, he explained.
“The government has to pay more than NIS 200 million to desalination plants instead of selling it at a lower price to the farmers,” Solomon said.
Although farmers do receive help during hard years and have insurance packages, Solomon argued that the government should be helping to finance the insurance premiums.
“I think that the world is going berserk weather- wise,” Solomon said. “Something is really going wrong with the weather throughout the whole world. Just because of the fact that that’s happening, year after year, in different parts of the world and different parts of the country – that’s why I claim that they have to find some sort of insurance coverage that will help the farmers through the hard years.”
The lack of rain this season has taken a toll not only on Lake Kinneret, but also on the Dead Sea, which has been dropping at a particularly alarming rate. In January alone the level of the Dead Sea fell 8 cm., and that of the Kinneret rose only 11 cm. In comparison, the Kinneret rose 1.1 meters in January 2013.
While farmers and meteorologists alike expressed hope that Israel is just experiencing a temporary drought, a team of academic researchers from Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University, and the University of Haifa discovered that droughts in Israel’s past have lasted up to hundreds of years in a row. The researchers drew the conclusion by drilling at a depth of 460 meters below the bottom of the Dead Sea, during which soil layers gave them a window into climate conditions for the past 250,000 years, the University of Haifa revealed on Monday.
The researchers estimated that the Dead Sea has dried up once or twice during that timespan.
“Today, with the intervention of man, the Dead Sea basin dries at a rate of a meter per year,” said Dr. Michael Lazar of the University of Haifa’s marine geosciences department, who was involved in the research.
“The level now stands at 300 meters, which means that it will take another 300 years to dry at this rate,” Lazar continued. “Because man’s intervention was irrelevant to drying that occurred in the past, we are concluding that this occurred due to climate conditions of drought that lasted for centuries. In the past, the Dead Sea managed to rehabilitate itself, but then there was no human hand involved.”