'Mismanagement to blame for worst water crisis ever'

Water Authority to double price of water for gardening use, initiate campaign to teach public to conserve.

kinneret 88 (photo credit: )
kinneret 88
(photo credit: )
Hours after the Water Authority unveiled an emergency plan on Tuesday to combat the "worst water crisis in the nation's history," top experts accused the government of resorting to short-term measures rather than adopting a long-term strategy. In interviews with The Jerusalem Post, they blamed governments over many years for "systematic mismanagement" of the country's water resources. At a press conference in Tel Aviv, Water Authority head Uri Shani outlined an unprecedentedly dire situation. "This is the worst crisis since records started being kept 80 years ago," Shani declared. "Like most countries, Israel is dependent on rainfall, and the amount of rainfall is decreasing. There is a drop of 100 million cubic meters per year." Shani described increasing damage to Israel's main natural water sources. He predicted that Lake Kinneret would reach its black line by December. The Kinneret dropped below its bottom red line on Monday, 213 meters below sea level. The lake's black line is 214.87 meters below sea level. The Coastal Aquifer has already "dropped below its black line," which means it has most likely already suffered damage, possibly irreversible damage, Shani said. The water level in the Mountain Aquifer was currently a meter above its lower red line, but was also expected to reach its bottom limit - the black line - this year, he said. He added that water levels in the aquifers had never been this low. Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva, V'din) water expert Naama Elad told the Post that the government had once again missed the big picture. "These are emergency measures, not a long-term strategy. The government has never put an emphasis on preserving Israel's natural water sources. Wells and aquifers have been polluted for years, and the government has never fought to prevent contamination or treat it," Elad said. Contamination was a man-made phenomenon and not divine, she added. While Shani blamed the current crisis on the lack of rainfall, Moshe Perlmutter of the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) disagreed. "The emergency plan comes much too late. In 2001, we were in a similar situation. The Kinneret had reached its black line then, too. In the wake of the crisis, the water commissioner launched a very effective conservation campaign. However, when he asked for an NIS 100 million annual budget to continue the campaign, the Treasury said no. The following year saw abundant rainfall so the Treasury stopped funding desalination plants as well. "If Israelis had conserved 10 percent of the 700 million cubic meters they use each year, that eventually adds up," Perlmutter, beaches and sea coordinator for SPNI, told the Post. Perlmutter also said that six years ago the government had declared a goal of desalinating 400 million cubic meters of water a year. "If we had been desalinating that much years ago, our situation could have been totally different today," he said. Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) issued a strident call to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to appoint a state commission of inquiry into the failure to prepare for and deal with the crisis. "The current water crisis is a colossal failure on the part of the government. The writing was on the wall, but the protectors of Israel's water economy fell asleep on their watch. The recommendations of a parliamentary committee of inquiry in 2001 were not implemented, and even now there are no answers to the crisis. A state commission of inquiry would determine who is to blame for the failure and recommend operative conclusions for the future," he said in a statement. Paz-Pines was a member of the parliamentary inquiry committee formed following the crisis in 2001. That committee found a series of governmental failures stretching back to the 1960s, most notably constant over-pumping of the Kinneret and the aquifers year after year, and near total disinterest for many years in advancing desalination. At present, Israel desalinates 130 million cubic meters a year. Shani said tenders were currently in the works to increase output by several million cubic meters. He said that desalination would rise to 230 million cubic meters per year in September 2009 when another desalination plant came on line near Hadera. Another 200 million cubic meters would become available from two more new plants in 2012. The Water Authority's master plan, prepared in 2002, had predicted the country would be producing that much desalinated water by 2004. Both Perlmutter and Elad sounded warnings over the government's apparent belief in desalination as a magic cure. "We don't fully know what the environmental effect of desalination is, so we should be wary," Perlmutter said. Elad went even further, saying "desalination plants are essentially factories built on Israel's coasts. They are huge energy consumers and produce air pollution and global warming. Desalination cannot be the total answer." The crisis would continue for the next few years, Shani told reporters. "Forecasts predict next year will be even worse, and the year after that might be just as bad, unless more rain falls than expected," he said. The Water Authority outlined a number of measures it planned to take to ameliorate the crisis. Their main effort to meet Israel's current water needs has been to "borrow on the future," Shani said. To that end, the authority will start pumping water from tributaries that feed into the Kinneret, water that was supposed to reach the Kinneret by 2010, according to Shani. He added, in apparent recognition of Elad's claims, that polluted wells would be purified. The authority has also undertaken a series of measures that will go into effect this week, measures that would limit the use of water for gardening. The price for gardening water will nearly double from NIS 3.90 per cubic meter to NIS 7.40 and perhaps higher, Shani said. If need be, the authority would prohibit gardening altogether and turn Israel yellow, he said. The Water Authority is also working on new regulations that would set up a dual pricing system for household water use. The cost for a base- level per individual would remain the same, but additional water would come at a higher cost. Shani said those regulations were still in the process of being legislated, but could go into effect next year. From the price hike for gardening water and the additional NIS 1 billion the government budgeted earlier this month, the authority will invest NIS 12b. in infrastructure, desalination, sewage treatment for agriculture, and conservation education in the next five years, Shani said. He said fresh water allocation to agriculture had already been cut drastically and that efforts would be stepped up to reclaim more sewage water for agricultural use. The press conference also marked the launch of a massive public relations campaign to be carried out through the media and on television and billboard ads to encourage the public to conserve water. Moti Shef, strategic adviser to the authority, confirmed that the campaign would especially target children. "Over the summer, we will appear on the Children's Channel, and in the fall we will be working with the Education Ministry to develop a conservation education program in the schools. Our research has shown that children are a crucial and receptive audience regarding conservation," Shef said.