Israel's liquid asset

No longer the economic challenge and strategic obsession it has been since the Jewish state’s inception, water has been trickling its way back into Israel’s evaporating lakes.

International volunteer working on a fishing boat on the Kinneret (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
International volunteer working on a fishing boat on the Kinneret
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
 “All the miracles God did for Israel involved water,” said the sages, citing the parting of the Red Sea, the sweetening of bitter water in the Sinai desert, and Pharaoh’s punishments by the River Nile.
Theology aside, water, or rather its shortage, has long animated the Zionist project, whose achievements in supplying, saving and generating water have inspired pride, envy and even war.
Though drinking water is no longer an economic predicament and strategic obsession, Israel’s flowing water – or rather its creeping evaporation – looms as a major environmental scourge.
WATER WAS once such a problem that even in the lush soils where Lake Kinneret and the River Jordan meet, pioneers like Levi Eshkol would ladle water from the riverbank several miles away into buckets, transporting them to Kibbutz Deganya Bet with a mule-drawn carriage.
It was an emblem of the technological backwardness and harsh climate the Zionists would have to overcome should they ever make the Promised Land the home of millions, as pioneers like Eshkol resolved to do.
Technological change came when the British replaced the Ottomans’ system of wells and aqueducts with powerful pumps and extensive pipelines, like the one that multiplied Jerusalem’s water supply by linking it to the springs of Rosh Ha’ayin, 60 kilometers to the city’s west.
Taking stock of the British methods, pioneers like Eshkol dreamt of emulating them on grander scales, not to feed a lone city on a hill, but to create breadbaskets in barren soils.
Eshkol realized that dream three times.
First, as a Jewish Agency executive in 1938, he diverted water from the Kishon River east of Haifa to 16 farming communities in the Jezreel Valley; then, as Israel’s finance minister in the 1950s, he diverted water from Rosh Ha’ayin to the northern Negev; and finally, as prime minister in 1964, he inaugurated the 130-km system of pumps, pipes, reservoirs, tunnels, and canals that still irrigates the northern Negev from the same Kinneret whose water he once carried in buckets.
Known as the National Water Carrier, the project loomed as a monument to Israel’s resolve to defy nature by linking its arid south and rainier north. For decades, this project dominated Israel’s water supply, delivering at one point half of the country’s drinking water, even while using 80 percent of its output to irrigate farms.
So systematic was Israel’s collection of its water that it tasked a second project with catching flood waters along the coast, and a third with creating artificial rain by seeding clouds. This, in addition to an elaborate system of recycling stations and purification plants for agricultural use.
The costs were exorbitant. At one point, the National Water Carrier’s pumps used one sixth of Israel’s entire electrical output, as the Kinneret’s water needed to be channeled upward nearly 500 meters in elevation before beginning to flow from the Upper Galilee southward through gravitational force.
Water was thus a subject of both pride and fear, inspiring a culture of frugality encapsulated by the slogan “Every drop matters,” now an Israeli idiom, and once a dictum coined to encourage citizens to turn off any dripping faucet they might see. It was against this backdrop that Israeli engineers invented drip irrigation, the water-saving technology that has since been exported to more than 100 countries.
Water’s special place in the Israeli psyche was further dramatized when, in addition to its economic scarcity, it also became a cause of diplomatic contention and military brawl.
THE WATER CARRIER was anathema to Israel’s enemies, who claimed it “multiplies the dangers to Arab existence,” in the words of an Arab League statement in 1964. It was part of a broader political effort to thwart the project, which Arab leaders rightly feared would reinvent the fledgling Israeli economy.
Already in 1953, Israel’s waterworks were targeted, when Syrian artillery fired at a diversion works site in the Hula Valley.
The UN Security Council actually responded to that incident by backing Israel’s project, but Israel decided to move the pumping further away from the Syrians anyhow.
Unable to target it directly, Syria decided in 1964 to dry out the newly launched carrier by diverting the Jordan at its source: the Mount Hermon foothills. The IDF bombed the site of the Syrian diversion project, and, at one point, also had a platoon of tanks raze it, all of which triggered Syrian counter-bombardments.
Skirmishing continued intermittently until Syria gave up on this effort in 1966, but what came to be known as the “War Over Water” helped the following year’s Six Day War expand to the Golan Heights.
Like the cinematic Zelig, water was in the frame when Israel made war as well as when it made peace.
Water is at the heart of the peace accord with Jordan, in which Israel agreed to deliver annually to its neighbor 50-million cubic meters from the Kinneret, and also to help it build reservoirs along the Jordan River.
In the same spirit, water was a centerpiece of then-foreign minister Shimon Peres’s New Middle East vision through the establishment of a Middle Eastern water authority that would pool the region’s waters and redistribute them among its states while ignoring borders.
That would have meant, for instance, channeling seawater from Turkey to a special port in Gaza, and from there across the Negev into Jordan and Saudi Arabia through a pipeline, as Peres suggested in his 1993 famous manifesto, “The New Middle East.”
The bad news was that the rest of the region rejected such collectivist thinking, preferring to remain embroiled in multiple water conflicts, like the clash between Turkey and its downstream neighbors Iraq and Syria over the damming of the Euphrates and Tigris, or the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the damming of the Upper Nile.
The good news is that Israel, once the world’s most hydrologically embattled country, is now above such water-war waves.
THE BREAKTHROUGH in Israel’s water economy came in 2005, when the first in a string of coastal desalination plants (there was one previously in Eilat) opened in Ashkelon.
The plant’s role as a forerunner of an entirely new water economy was apparent in its size and quality. At the time, it was the most modern desalination facility in the world, and its annual output – 119 cubic meters – was also the highest.
A decade on, the Ashkelon plant has since been joined by four others: the northernmost in Hadera, one outside Rishon Lezion, one in Ashdod and a fourth in Palmahim, between Ashdod and Ashkelon. The plants in Hadera and outside Rishon now produce even more than Ashkelon’s.
Indeed, water is no longer a threat to Israel’s survival. The Mediterranean’s unlimited waters now account for half of the Jewish state’s drinking water, despite the fact that since 1990 – when the Kinneret’s limited supply dominated Israel’s drinking sources – Israel’s population has grown by 80 percent, from 4.8 million to 8.7 million.
Although the Kinneret still irrigates most Israeli farms, the role of farming in the overall economy has shrunk dramatically, from more than a fifth of GDP in the 1950s to less than a tenth today, and from nearly a fifth of the workforce when the water carrier was inaugurated to barely 2 percent today.
Since the Mediterranean has replaced the Kinneret as Israel’s major water source, the coastal water plants have become connected to the water carrier’s tunnels and canals, leading desalinated water further inland, with the eventual goal for seawater to reach even lofty Jerusalem.
WATER’S LOSS of its status as a scarce commodity resulted also in the marginalization of its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Time-honored wrangling over the mapping, ownership and usage of steadily dwindling aquifers feeding the West Bank and Gaza is dying down with the growing realization that ultimately, seawater will be everyone’s source of drinking water. Gaza already has one desalination plant, in Khan Yunis, and will likely build more.
Thanks to the development of desalination and agriculture’s shrinking share in Israel’s gross national product, the economy has largely been unaffected by the drought of recent years.
Unfortunately, this is not a cure-all for the environmental catastrophe that Israel’s two lakes and longest river now face.
VISITORS TO the Kinneret these days are astonished by its shoreline’s visible retreat.
Ambling toward the waterline through newly exposed gravel, bathers can see an island of several dozen square meters that has emerged at the lake’s southern end, not far from Eshkol’s Kibbutz Deganya Bet and the adjacent Deganya Alef, a proximity that has prompted some to nickname the islet Deganya Gimel.
The drought of the past four years has no doubt exacerbated the crisis – indeed, the surrounding springs’ inflows last August were the lowest in a century. But this autumn’s early rains raise hopes that the shoreline’s retreat will soon be at least partly offset.
Even so, the drought is but a circumstance.
The deeper cause of the Kinneret’s depletion is Israel’s historic water obsession – the predicament that has become an economic anachronism only after Israel pumped enough water from the lake to fill it four times.
The consequences are palpable well beyond the Kinneret.
To its south, just past the Yardenit site where Christian pilgrims come to be baptized, the Jordan has lost the Kinneret’s natural feed, due to its damming near Deganya, in order to feed the water carrier.
The dam is opened only in the face of extreme torrents when the river overflows, an occurrence that has happened only twice in the past 25 years. Consequently, much of the Jordan has been reduced to a trickle and in some places even less than that.
The situation is the worst at the lake that sprawls at the Jordan River’s opposite end: the Dead Sea.
Sinking an average of one meter below sea level every year, the Dead Sea is 40 meters lower than it was 90 years ago.
Long-abandoned piers are stranded far from the current shoreline, while sinkholes checker the new surface, where newly waterless salt deposits frequently cave in.
IT FOLLOWS that the same Israel that was so efficient at pooling, pumping and diverting its scarce waters must now reverse its course, and find ways to replenish its rivers, springs and lakes. Some actions have already been taken to this end.
Thanks to an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian project that will connect the Dead Sea to the Red Sea through a $1-billion power generating system of pipes and canals, the evaporating lake’s level will begin rising some time next decade.
As for the Kinneret, its flow into the Jordan was unlocked in 2013 for the first time since 1964, as part of a plan to restore the river basin. In addition, pumping has been brought to a near standstill. This, however, is due not to an environmental overhaul, but to the drought that has reduced the lake’s level to what every Israeli knows as “the red line.”
This means that once rains return and the Deganya Gimel islet again submerges below where Jesus once walked, pumping will resume in earnest, as the Kinneret remains for now Israelis’ wellspring.
In the future, however, the same seawater that is already feeding Israeli homes will also have to irrigate Israel’s farms. Once that happens, and the Kinneret’s roles as breadwinner, casus belli and national faucet all vanish, some will count the azure lake’s unfamiliar normalcy among God’s aquatic miracles.