Inside the National Water Carrier

The Jerusalem Post gets a rare inside look at Israel's complex water system.

water carrier 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
water carrier 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Standing inside one of the largest pipes of the National Water Carrier (NWC) six meters below ground, one can almost imagine the swiftly running water which normally flows there. Voices echoed through the pipe Monday as Mekorot, the national water company, treated journalists to a rare look inside the pipeline which provides the public with its drinking water. The carrier stretches from the Kinneret through a new filtering station, and then south to the Negev. It splits into two at the Ze'ev station near Rosh Ha'ayin - where the journalists entered; the left-hand pipe goes down to the Negev and the right-hand pipe heads to the Dan region and Jerusalem. At its peak, 72,000 cubic meters flow through the carrier per hour, 1.7 million cubic meters in a day. Built in 1964, the massive pipe, which is three meters in diameter, looked well-used but solid, to this reporter's unprofessional eye. There are no small leaks or pieces of flotsam lying around. The carrier was closed, as happens every year, for service, thus enabling the rare peek. Right now, the National Water Carrier brings water from the Kinneret to the public. There are two additional aquifers, one along the coast, and one in the hills, which complete the triumvirate of Israel's natural freshwater sources. However, by August 2009, that could very well change, explained Arie Amsalem, head of the NWC for Mekorot. "Right now, water flows from north to south. By August 2009, we hope to mix the natural water with desalinated water and begin pumping the mixture from south to north as well," Amsalem explained. Desalination offsets a portion of the shortage Israel faces as a result of the changing climate. According to Eli Ronen, chairman of Mekorot's board, the fact that Israel has experienced five consecutive years of lower-than-average rainfall can be attributed to global warming. Usually, he said, Israel only has two or three bad years followed by a bumper year. "Right now, our 'overdraft' is 1.5 billion cubic meters," he said. Israel's total water use - household, agriculture and industry - is 2 billion cubic meters per year. While there will never be a dearth of freshwater for household use (in lean times agricultural use gets the ax), reduced rainfall does pose serious threats to the Kinneret and the aquifers. "There is always a danger of pumping too much out. Especially in the coastal aquifer, where there is a balance of freshwater and saltwater. If we pump out too much of the freshwater, the saltwater will seep in to compensate and we'll have salty water," Ronen said. Despite that danger, the quality of the water is very high, Ronen assured the assembled group. Chlorine is added to the water to kill bacteria, which explains the bad taste tap water can have. In addition, Mekorot just set up a new filtering station to cleanse the water from the Kinneret. Not many countries have such systems, Ronen noted. Water from the aquifers is naturally filtered by traveling through the sand, he explained. Because "necessity is the mother of invention," Israel has devised one of the world's most sophisticated water systems, from filtering to desalination to a complex water carrier. Within five years, Mekorot, which implements the policies set by the Water Authority, hopes to have five desalination plants running. At present, there is one in Ashkelon and one in Palmahim with a combined output of 136 million cubic meters per year. With all five running, output would increase to 505 million cubic meters, which would supply most of the 750 million cubic meters of clean water the public uses per year. Israel has also been supplying the West Bank and Gaza with water, Ronen added. The West Bank receives 40 million cubic meters per year and Gaza receives five million cubic meters. There is an aquifer below Gaza, which the Palestinians use to meet the rest of their needs. Fifty-five million cubic meters per year from the Kinneret also go to Jordan, Ronen said, in accordance with signed agreements. Israel is supposed to receive 15 million cubic meters of water from southern Jordan for farmers in the Arava, but at present only receives eight million cubic meters per year. Getting permission from the unhurried Jordanian government to build the required infrastructure has delayed full implementation, Ronen said.