Water in the Middle East "Israel's Water Balance Is In Real danger

The first session of the Manitoba-Israel Water Experts Symposium opened with experts presenting the current situation of the water economy in Israel and the Middle East from both its scientific and geopolitical aspects.

January 19, 2010 15:49

Uri Sagie_top. (photo credit: KKL)

The first session of the Manitoba-Israel Water Experts Symposium opened with experts presenting the current situation of the water economy in Israel and the Middle East from both its scientific and geopolitical aspects.

Professor Uri Shamir of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Grand Water Research Institute, Technion IIT - detailed the present position of Israel's water economy, with a cautiously optimistic view of the future. "The quantity of water in the supply network will change owing to new water desalination facilities coming into operation which will affect the role played by Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. We are utilizing our accumulated experience in the endeavour, which has tremendous value not just for us but for many other countries too. We are learning from the conditions of Israel's long-term water shortage. Not only has the quality of our water deteriorated whilst demands increased for higher water quality; but also that standard for a higher quality is going to increase even further. In addition, there is a question mark over our share of water available in the Middle East, and another question mark over the ministerial responsibility of our government in light of the constant turnover in ministerial positions which makes planning and implementation of water projects extremely complicated."

Returning to the subject of the weather, Professor Shamir explained that with the constantly changing climatic conditions, it becomes unfeasible to rely on an annual rainfall of 1,400 million cubic meters because five to seven consecutive years of less rain - in other words, actual drought - has created a deficit of almost 2,000 million cubic meters of water in the Israeli water economy and there is never any certainty of erasing this deficit. "Israel provides 185 cubic meters of water annually for each of its citizens whereas in Canada, in comparison, each citizen has an annual allocation of 1,600 cubic meters of water."

The Professor went on to talk of how Lake Kinneret constitutes every Israeli citizen's barometer of the water situation in the country, even though to date, it actually provides only about a quarter of the overall water consumption. This change has been brought about by several practical steps taken in the water supply system, primarily the fact that about half the quantity of water used for agriculture is now purified sewage water. Also, the price of water continues to be raised, approaching the real cost of producing the overall supply. At the same time, owing to Israel's sense of responsibility towards the Palestinian population, Israel has initiated establishing a desalination plant for the Palestinians near Hadera, to supply 50 million cubic meters of water every year, under international supervision and auspices. "We have proposed a water desalination plant of their own to the Palestinians. It will be set up in the coastal region near Hadera, and water from it will flow directly to the West Bank, with international guarantees for the arrangement. To date, they have opposed the idea, demanding instead a new agreement to exploit the mountain aquifer that we share."

According to the Water Authority's requirements, Israel has to deploy for the possibility of an additional supply of water amounting to 1,740 million cubic meters by the year 2050, even though this may well be merely a theoretical possibility. Shamir said that the water agreement with the Kingdom of Jordan is working well, although Israel supplying 20 million cubic meters more than stipulated in the agreement, owing to Jordan's tremendous water shortage, which is much more severe than Israel's.

The moderator of the symposium, Ambassador Haim Divon, who heads the International Cooperation Department of Israel's Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said in his introduction to the meeting that the water issue in the Middle East is inextricably intertwined with political, security and economic ramifications that cannot be untangled from it.

This statement was backed up by Major-General (res.) Uri Sagie, former chair of Mekorot, the national water company, who said, "The Israeli culture does not excel in its decision making and execution, at least insofar as water is concerned. Above and beyond all the experts and professionals, there is one fact of overriding importance: there is simply not enough water here. And that fact means that other expectations are being neglected. We are allowing our water and our soil to become dangerously saline and that is unjustifiable. And we do not deal sufficiently with environmental quality as this is the corollary of our agriculture." Sagie only hinted that it is unimportant what the drought models for 2050 will be if, in actual fact, we have difficulties in preserving our water as a strategic asset, thereby losing the possibility that water will remain a basis for cooperation instead of a basis for confrontation.

Sagie warned that the regional water balance is being violated. "We are likely to find ourselves in a situation in which elements affect the water balance in the north of Israel unilaterally. Jordan is a long distance from water, Syria has a great shortage of water, Lebanon is in a desperate search for it, and the Palestinian problem is going to stare us in the face because their water consumption is about 35 cubic meters per person. That could be considered inhuman by developed countries and Israel may not for long be able to resist an obligation to supply water to the Palestinian population. There is no doubt in my mind that Israel has to lead a national sewage treatment enterprise for our own sakes and for the Palestinians, so that such water can be used as a supplement for the farms in the northern Negev and to ensure a different environmental quality. In that way, we will also prevent the salinization and pollution of our underground water sources. Israel's water balance with its neighbours is in real danger with a deficit of two million cubic meters. A deficit like that, even with one or two rainy years, cannot be closed, so water must be produced."

Sagie went on to criticize several of Israel's government policies. "We tend to play a national sport: whenever there is a crisis, there is no attempt to solve it. The first thing that is done is to set up a committee of investigation. Eight government ministries deal with the water in Israel with the result that no-one is responsible. As part of the negotiations with the Palestinians, the Americans were ready to donate three desalination plants, for 450 million cubic meters of water to us and also to the Palestinians. It was a donation with the potential to solve the problem of water on a regional scale, but in the meantime little has happened. Israel has the experts, the knowledge, the technology and even the capital to solve the water crisis but the cause has to be addressed - not the symptoms. It is not enough to save water: other sources of water have to be produced."

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