Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau unveiled an extensive project by his ministry to rehabilitate Israel’s rivers and streams at a Green Growth conference in Ramat Gan on Tuesday.

“If the Kinneret is the heart of the water sector, the rivers are its arteries,” Landau said. “We want to see them flowing. And we will do what we can in order to make that happen.”

As Israel has begun to depart from its water shortage crisis – with desalination and recycled water activities taking a stronghold – now is the time to repair the country’s natural aquifers, Landau explained. The ministry is therefore working on a plan to significantly advance the rehabilitation process in a practical fashion. In the past two years, authorities have already begun to allocate both fresh and brackish (water with a salinity between fresh and seawater) water to Israel’s streams, with 15 million cubic meters of fresh water added in 2011, as well as 8 million cubic meters of fresh water and 6 million cubic meters of brackish water already this year, Landau said.

A good model to work off of is the Yarkon River rehabilitation, and the Mekorot National Water Company is already leading several stream rehabilitation projects as is the the Sewage Infrastructure Administration in the Water Authority, according to Landau.

“The State of Israel owes nature between 1.5 and 2 billion cubic meters of water, which we pumped during dry years,” Landau said.

Starting in two years, if all goes as planned, Landau said, Israel will return about 150 million cubic meters of water per year to its streams, so that in 10 years the debt can be eliminated.

The Society for the Protection of Nature, which has long been leading a campaign to return water to the country’s rivers and streams, praised Landau’s announcement.

“Today, in light of the growing quantities of desalinated water, the Society for the Protection of Nature believes that conditions have ripened for a national plan for the restoration of water to streams and for their rehabilitation, with an emphasis on cooperation among the relevant ministries,” a statement from SPNI said.

This cooperation will contribution to the “important and worthy goal of rehabilitating the streams after 60 years of neglect and drying, which caused fatal and sometimes irreversible damage to the rivers,” according to SPNI.

Acknowledging that he had met with representatives of SPNI two weeks ago, Landau said that he intends to adopt their proposals as part of the ministry’s plant to clear Israel’s debt with nature, and he said he is open to hearing the suggestions of other organizations.

“I call upon all bodies and organizations to whom Israel’s rivers are important, to join hands under our patronage for the huge undertaking of rehabilitating the rivers,” he said.

On the same day as Landau’s announcements, MK Amnon Cohen (Shas), likewise stressed the importance of “restoring the rivers for future generations,” in a Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee meeting. Cohen called on the government to establish an interministerial committee in order to promote a national program toward the rehabilitation streams.

Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, praised Landau’s intention to restore the water to Israel’s streams and called the move “a positive step.”

However, rather than just relying on the ever-increasing supply of desalinated water to fulfill Israel’s needs, the government also must adopt a policy of water conservation and demand management, according to Bromberg.

In addition to discussing his plan to rehabilitate streams, the minister also emphasized the importance of advancing periphery sewage projects, with a special focus on communities in the Arab sector, to create proper sewage infrastructure for all communities and thereby help remediate the country’s groundwater.

The Finance Ministry had assigned the Energy and Water Ministry a budget of about NIS 480 million for this enterprise, and in 2011, 81 projects were already budgeted for a total of NIS 355 million, according to Landau.

“This is environmental, this is equality, this is green, and this is advancing green industry,” he said.

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