“This is real Zionism,” says Mekorot CEO Eli Cohen, as we walk through part of a massive 13.5 km. tunnel on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
“I grew up learning that Israel had to ration water very carefully,” Cohen says. “There were instructions about the importance of reusing bath water for cleaning and watering plants. Now, we are in a position of being able to help provide water for others.”
The tunnel we are walking through, which extends from Moshav Eshtaol to Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood, is the highlight of the national water company’s new pipeline that will supply the capital with water for the coming decades. When it is complete, it will be one of the longest tunnels in the world for transporting water with pressure, and represents one of the country’s largest infrastructure projects ever. It’s an engineering marvel fit for a country that has used technology to rise from water scarcity in its early days to abundance today.
“During the time of King David, Jerusalem’s only water source was the Gihon Spring in the Kidron Valley,” Cohen said. “When my mother lived in Jerusalem in 1948, every day she would go out to draw water at the well outside of her house.”
At the time of Israel’s independence in 1948, the first water line to Jerusalem ran along the Burma Road from Kibbutz Hulda, with pipes that measured 19 inches in diameter. When that system was upgraded in the 1950s, the pipes grew to 24 inches, and a later upgrade in the 1970s used 36-inch pipes. The pipeline currently in use, completed in 1994, has a 46-inch diameter. The fifth water system, as the project is known, will more than double the throughput with gigantic 102-inch pipes that can pump 65,000 cubic meters per hour.
The population of Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, is nearing one million people, and projections show that the city and its outlying areas will keep growing in the future. That means that the city’s water consumption will rise from 340,000 cubic meters per day now to more than 1.65 million cubic meters by 2065.
“The problem is that the current water line isn’t enough for Jerusalem’s growing population,” Cohen says. “This new system is designed thinking 60 years ahead.”
THE NIS 2.5 billion project, which is scheduled to come to completion later in 2021, has been 15 years in the making, says Micky Elisha, project manager for the pipeline. The government tender for the Jerusalem water project was first issued in 2006, and approvals for the west side of the pipeline, a 22-km. stretch from Kibbutz Hulda to Moshav Eshtaol, were given three years later. Five years after that, in 2014, the western section was completed, and permissions were signed for the more complicated eastern portion of the line. Work on the 13.5-km. tunnel from Eshtaol to Ein Kerem began in 2016 and was completed in March 2020. Since then, workers have been laying the massive pipes inside the tunnel, with plans to finish later in the year, Elisha explained. An access tunnel runs along the length of the pipeline, with a small train track that can transport people and materials.
The tunnel, which was named Yael after Elisha’s daughter, was dug through mountains and reaches as low as 300 meters underground. Mekorot brought in teams from Germany and Austria with a powerful and massive tunnel boring machine (TBMs) that is 240 meters long and uses a 170-ton mining head. The machine would “bite” into the earth with powerful jaws, and send the stone out of the tunnel by way of a conveyor belt, while another arm lays a steel ceiling over the fresh hole for support. This process required workers on shift 24 hours a day, and progressed by about a meter per hour, with a tunnel diameter of about 4 meters. The occasional complication, like the unexpected discovery of a massive stalactite cave underground that had to be sealed off, led to temporary delays, but the tunnel was delivered on time. (Work on Shabbat was done by non-Jewish workers, Cohen notes.)
Unlike most water tunnels that pump water downhill, these pipes must pump the water from sea level to 860 meters above sea level. “Most water tunnels in the world are downhill, and rely on gravity instead of complicated pumps,” Elisha says. “We had to build the tunnel to be able to support a tremendous amount of pressure.”
It also means that it will require an incredible amount of electricity. The new pipelines will use more than NIS 100 million of electricity each year to pump the water uphill, and while there is a focus on energy efficiency to cut this down as much as possible, that still amounts to more than 10% of Mekorot’s annual budget, says Elisha. “Making the system even 1% more efficient translates to significant savings,” he says. “We are already Israel Electric’s biggest client, spending about NIS 800 million a year for our systems around the country.”
Each pump station has about six pump units that consume 7–8 kilowatts (kW) each, and power substations near each pump station will supply close to 65 kW each, Elisha says.
As the pipes are laid through the tunnel, one side of the pipe is filled with concrete to remove the gap between it and the tunnel’s walls. The other side has an access tunnel that allows people and equipment to reach any part of the line.
Each portion of the pipeline has sensors that can identify leaks or other problems, connected to a central command center where the system is constantly monitored. “If we need to fix a pipe, we can shut off the pumping and send people inside the pipe to fix it,” Elisha says.
The pipeline reaches until Ein Kerem, the final station of the pipeline, where reservoirs and a pumping station are being built that will receive and store the water. From there, responsibility for delivering the water is handed over to Hagihon, the local water company responsible for supplying water, sewage and drainage services for the greater Jerusalem area. A separate pipeline will take some of the water north toward Ramallah and the Palestinian towns near there, Elisha notes. “At that point, it’s in their hands to finish the job.”
AS NOTED earlier, Jerusalem’s water supply comes from desalination plants along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, not the Sea of Galilee. While the Kinneret, as it is known in Hebrew, was Israel’s main water source for most of the country’s history, technology has changed all the rules of Israel’s water economics for the better.
“Israel’s water now comes almost exclusively from desalination,” Cohen says. “We currently have five desalination plants in operation, and another two are nearing completion. Another three will be ready within the next seven years or so, for a total of 10 plants.”
The Soreq plant near Rishon Lezion is Israel’s largest desalination plant, providing about 150 million cubic meters of water a year for Israel. The Hadera plant produces 127 million m3 per year, Ashkelon provides 118 million m3, Ashdod delivers 100 million m3, and the Palmachim plant offers 90 million m3. The new Soreq B and Western Galilee plants will provide an additional 300 million cubic meters in the near future, according to government information.
Water is transported throughout the country by the National Water Carrier, Israel’s network of pipes, canals, tunnels, reservoirs and pumping stations that was completed in 1964 and runs from the Kinneret in the North to the northern Negev Desert in the South. While this system was designed to transport water from the Kinneret, it has been expanded and rerouted to move water from the desalination plants.
About 85% of Israel’s water currently comes from desalination, with the remaining portion pumped from the Kinneret and underground reservoirs. “We actually don’t need the Kinneret’s water at all, but after the heavy rains of the past two years, we started taking out a little bit,” Cohen says. “Once the new desalination plants are ready, we’ll go up to 100%, and just keep the pump in the Sea of Galilee as an emergency backup.”
This comes after nine consecutive years of drought prior to the desalination era, when Israelis obsessively tracked how far the Sea of Galilee was under its “red line”, and how much more water could be pumped before permanent ecological damage was caused to the body of water.
Jordan’s King Hussein once said that the region’s next wars will be fought over water, Cohen notes. But now, a country that once perpetually feared drought has as much water as it needs.
More than 55 years have passed since Israelis developed drip irrigation to optimize agricultural water usage while increasing crop yields. Now, some 75% of Israel’s wastewater is recycled for agricultural use, Cohen says.
With Israel a world leader for water technology and innovation, water resource consulting for other nations has become a significant part of Mekorot’s operations. Since 2007, it has provided outsourced consulting, technology, engineering, operation, maintenance and management projects in Argentina, Mexico, the USA, Romania, Cyprus, Guinea, Malta, Azerbaijan, India, and other countries. The normalization agreements with Arab Gulf countries provide an opportunity for further cooperation, with various collaborations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain being discussed, Cohen says.
“The main water problem in the world is management – not technology,” Dr. Diego Berger, international special projects coordinator at Mekorot, told the Magazine in January. The Jewish state “is blessed by its lack of water resources” because it forces us to manage our water carefully and innovate, he said.
It is that attitude that has allowed Israel, a small country on the edge of the desert with scant amounts of water, to become the global water superpower it is today.