Environment: Making a sea change

We have the tools to overcome the water crisis, if only the gov't maintains its will long enough.

Jordan water 88 (photo credit: )
Jordan water 88
(photo credit: )
Water Authority head Uri Shani sat beneath an ominous black-and-red banner at a press conference on Tuesday morning and outlined what he called the "worst water crisis since records started being kept 80 years ago." Shani is a short, trim man, with a deadpan face and delivery, which only serves to emphasize the seriousness of his message. Describing natural water sources having reached or about to reach their black lines - lines beyond which irreparable damage could rapidly occur, later this year - he provided alarming statistics and numbers which the reporters busily wrote down. During the course of the special press conference to unveil the authority's emergency plan, Shani placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Heaven. Four straight years of far lower-than-average rainfall, combined with global warming and climate change, had led us to this point of crisis, according to Shani. But while there is little doubt that rainfall shortage and climate change play a big part in our current predicament, there is another element, not addressed, that deserves at least as much blame: the human factor. Rather than being solely dependent on rainfall, Israel could have been "making" its own water - mostly through desalination of sea water, but also through conservation and better management - years ago. David Ben-Gurion mentioned the potential as long ago as 1956: "If our science and technology people will devote their best research, and receive for this purpose all the assistance from the state, it will not be beyond them to find a cheap process for desalinating seawater. Irrigating the desert with purified seawater might seem to many today a delusion, but Israel should be the last state to be afraid of 'delusions' that could change the primal order by force of the power of vision, science, and pioneering capability." Prophetic words, but ones which went unheeded for many years. To a large degree, the country is paying the price in this decade for four previous decades of neglect. From mid-2001 to mid-2002, the Knesset Inquiry Committee on the Issue of Water met to review a situation very similar to today's: after roughly three years of meager rainfall, the Kinneret had reached its black line. The committee was formed because there were suspicions that the causes of the crisis were not solely natural in origin. What did it find? That from the 1960s until the beginning of this century, our water economy suffered from severe mismanagement, implementation and legislative failures. The committee's final report is fascinating in its historical summary and in its mostly succinct explanation of an issue never dealt with properly because authority was too diffuse. Many government ministries, several government corporations and various other entities were involved in cobbling together a water policy in line with laws which were strewn all through the body of legislation, rather than in one coherent code, according to the report. (Although much of the bureaucratic snarl has been overcome since then, that is mainly due to the establishment of the Water Authority in 2007, a full five years after the committee urgently recommended it.) The committee also found that the government had consistently adopted a policy of overpumping the three main natural sources of water - Lake Kinneret, the Coastal Aquifer and the Mountain Aquifer. Apparently content to rely on God for sufficient water, the government gambled that there would always be enough wet years to compensate for the deficit brought about by the dry ones. That policy led the country very badly astray, the committee found, and resulted in an ever-growing deficit. Desalination was an option that the government only belatedly took seriously. It was first suggested in the 1980s, as it became more economically feasible. The government did not decide to approve tenders and begin the arduous process of building desalination plants for another 20 years, however. Armed with the new government decisions, then-water commissioner Shimon Tal should have been able to proceed apace with conservation campaigns, desalination plant construction, sewage reclamation and contamination prevention and purification. But this was not to be, Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "The goal was to be desalinating 315 million cubic meters per year by halfway through the decade," said Tal, now an independent consulting engineer on issues of water and energy. Currently, only 230 million cubic meters will be desalinated each year at three plants by decade's end. Shani said the government had approved increasing that rate to 600 million cubic meters per year by 2013, and to 750 million cu.m. per year by 2020. The latter figure represents roughly the entire country's present household water needs, although by 2020 those needs are expected to be higher. Nevertheless, if the contracting companies can adhere to the construction schedule and actually desalinate that much water, experts say, then even several dry years should not be the crisis-producing factor they are now. Considering that desalination plant construction has fallen woefully behind, however, that's a big "if." Tal admitted that, during his tenure, he and his team were not be able to meet the schedule. "We didn't manage to implement decisions on time. Mekorot couldn't build a 45 million cu.m. plant, and two more plants for which contracts were signed with private companies were never built because they became too expensive for the companies to build at the agreed upon price," he said. Tal also noted that the Treasury had opposed desalination, noting that the Finance Ministry "continued to claim that we didn't need desalination plants. It also refused to fund a conservation campaign," he said. There were also ongoing statutory and regulatory issues to be resolved, Tal continued. "[At one point] I turned to the attorney-general to help resolve a dispute with the Environmental Protection Ministry over who had jurisdiction. To the best of my knowledge, he still hasn't resolved the issue." As the current water crisis shows, the government has not yet managed to cope with the vagaries of nature and Israelis' rising demand for water. Having allowed one water shortage in this decade to turn into a second, even worse one, the question is: Where do we go from here? Another former water commissioner, Meir Ben-Meir, told The Post earlier this week that if Israel could retrieve "100 million cu.m. of brackish water beneath our soil that could be purified, [utilize] the 100 million cu.m. of sewage that could be recycled annually, and of course take more conservation measures, then our water needs could be met." However, according to Tal, "most of the brackish water is already being used." Instead, Tal said, "desalinating sea water is the main solution. Not just here, but all over the region, which is parched for water. The PA and Jordan are in much worse shape. We cannot live in this region without desalination of sea water." Regarding sewage reclamation, Shani recently told the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee that much of the country's sewage was being recycled for agriculture and that he hoped to bring the overall percentage to above 90 percent shortly. According to Tal, there are three steps to be taken. "The main problem continues to be development. The next step is to take the Water Authority to the subsequent phase of its evolution, [which is] to be made independent from the Treasury budget. The water economy is pretty balanced now in terms of income and expense and the authority could support itself. With an independent budget, it could take care of the projects that need to be implemented," he said. In addition, "there are still bureaucratic problems, and enforcement against pollution is problematic, for example. There are also statutory problems. For instance, the Israel Lands Administration refused for many years to give farmers permission to build reservoirs," he said. Shani said part of the emergency plan includes purifying contaminated wells. "The government's role is to remove the statutory and regulatory hurdles that still block progress. If we manage to remove the obstructions, then the water crisis will become a problem of water quality, not quantity," Tal said. While Israel must still look to Heaven for bountiful rain, water experts agree that the difference between crisis and sufficiency lies in human hands. The price of water and its allocation to the various sectors (agriculture, industry and households), sewage reclamation, conservation and purification are all part of this equation. Clearly, water "production" is the most significant factor - and, despite environmental concerns about the impact of desalination plants on the ocean and their potential for pollution, desalination is no longer an issue of whether, but how much. As for the question of when this must be done, of course, we already know the answer: soon, before it's too late.