Water independence

No army and no economy can function without adequate, secure water supply.

israel 60 224 promo (photo credit:)
israel 60 224 promo
(photo credit: )
On the eve of Israel's 60th Independence Day we can take pride in the fact that this nation has become an irrigation pioneer and a global superpower in helping other countries overcome their water shortages. Israeli water-management systems and desalination plants are hits worldwide. Yet this proverbial shoemaker goes barefoot. While Israel successfully markets desalination plants worldwide and helps other countries cope with their increasing thirst for potable water, at home all this enviable know-how is barely put to use. The bottom line reason is that our government - especially the number crunchers at the Treasury - is agora-wise and shekel-foolish. Procrastination is the default position. What can be put off needn't be attended to and paid for now. In the short haul, this approach spares us valuable outlays which can then be earmarked elsewhere. But this shortsighted focus on the immediate pawns our future. It potentially compromises our independence. No army and no economy can function without an adequate, secure and dependable water supply. This is something Israel certainly cannot boast about on its 60th anniversary. A THIRD of all Israel's water comes from Lake Kinneret. Some 30% of the national water resources goes to households and fully one half to farming, which contributes only 6% of the GNP. Israel's prodigious agricultural exports (another source of pride six decades from independence) are therefore tantamount to exporting water. But agriculture isn't the problem, especially as it uses more purified wastewater unfit for drinking than it does fresh water. The problem resides in the fact that Israel doesn't make use of what it markets to others - its remarkable hydro-technology. Desalination plants operate in Eilat, Palmahim and Ashkelon. A Hadera plant will join them next year and Ashdod and Nahal Sorek are blueprinted for 2012. But all that is woefully behind schedule. Seeking to penny-pinch, the government gambled on 2008 being a wet year. But nature didn't live up to probability forecasts, the Kinneret is drying up and other water sources suffer from creeping salination. The same occurred in 2000-01's dry winter. The drought then spawned lots of doomsday scenarios and resolve to combat water-shortage. The National Water Authority warned the government that by this decade's end Israel would lack 400 million cubic meters of H2O annually. It was decided to establish desalination plants to supply exactly that amount. But the next winter, 2002, was very wet and the urgency was washed out. The rain convinced the government to limit its projections to 230 million cubic meters and even this reduced goal wasn't met. As a result only 130 million cubic meters of water are currently desalinated in Israel, instead of the needed 400 million. Legal quibbles about tender irregularities are holding up the Ashdod project, leading National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to belatedly bewail "the looming catastrophe after five years of low rainfall." Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon has proposed the government obligate the larger seaside cities - Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya, Hadera, Bat Yam, Ashdod and Ashkelon - to erect desalination plants that would cater to their populations and sell off the surplus. Desalinated water no longer costs prohibitively more, though a plant to satisfy Haifa's 30 million cubic meters a year, for example, would necessitate an initial $60m. investment. At this juncture, though, moaning about expenses is immaterial. Even if heavy rains cause us to forget the current difficulties, the water shortage crisis is sure to be duplicated more frequently in future. Dotting the country's Mediterranean coast with desalination plants, under municipal and/or national auspices, is imperative now to underpin and significantly boost Israeli independence. Israel lacks neighbors on whose water largesse it can count. Indeed, some neighbors, like Jordan, are parched and depend on Israeli generosity. Ben-Eliezer, who now admits to "too much neglect and too many past mistakes," is right to caution that "we are in a race against time." This then is no moment for myopic thrift. A flood of words but a dearth of deeds today will cause certain thirst tomorrow.