Water: Jerusalem's precious resource

Historically, Jerusalem has always been vulnerable to drought with the consequent danger of famine and starvation. There are very few natural water resources in this city.

 A rainbow over open land in the Jerusalem neighborhood of North Talpiot before it was turned into an apartment complex. (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
A rainbow over open land in the Jerusalem neighborhood of North Talpiot before it was turned into an apartment complex.
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Jerusalem is perched on top of a mountain on the edge of a desert. Now that the rains have come, the parched city is completely transformed. Grass grows everywhere, and the ocher patches of dry uncultivated land have turned green. The wind blows and heralds the rain, true to the Amidah prayer that Jews recite from the end of the High Holy Days until Passover. So dependent is the city on rainfall that the Tanach (24 books of the Hebrew Bible) and Hebrew liturgy is filled with psalms, prayers, benedictions and supplications for life-giving water.

Three times a day when observant Jews recite the Shema prayer, they refer to the Yore (early rain) and the Malkosh (last rains of the season): “And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14).

Historically, Jerusalem has always been vulnerable to drought with the consequent danger of famine and starvation. There are very few natural water resources in this city.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, observant Jews are meant to follow the ritual of Tashlich. The name and the practice of casting one’s sins into a body of flowing water is derived from an allusion mentioned in the Biblical verse: “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the seas” (Micah 7:18-20).

As someone who spent many years living in the UK and Europe, this was never a problem. Streams, creeks, rivers and lakes abounded and were accessible to most Jewish communities. Not so in Israel and especially not in Jerusalem. Since biblical times and even before, the city’s primary source of water was the Gihon Spring in the Kidron Valley at the lower end of the City of David. This spring was the main source of water for the Canaanite city of Jebus that later became the City of David, the original site of Jerusalem.

 A rare natural trail in the Jerusalem Forest. (credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ) A rare natural trail in the Jerusalem Forest. (credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)

The Gihon Spring is one of the world’s major recurring springs and a dependable water source that made human settlement possible in ancient Jerusalem. The spring was not only used for drinking water, but also originally for the irrigation of gardens in the adjacent valley that provided a food source for the ancient settlement. So important was the Gihon Spring to Jerusalem’s survival that King Hezekiah (late 7th and 8th century BCE) built a channel diverting the waters of the Gihon. This prevented the Assyrian forces led by Sennacherib from gaining control of the water and laying siege to the city, as mentioned in Kings 2 20:20:

“As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city – are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?”

The tunnel leading to the Siloam Pool (Shiloah) is visited by thousands of tourists each year. The spring rises in a cave 20 feet by seven feet. Because its flow is sporadic, Hezekiah’s Siloam Pool needed to be carved out and made into a small reservoir to store the large amount of water needed for the city when the spring was not flowing. 

Over time and because of over-pumping in modern times, Jerusalem’s water table began to sink. The spring used to flow three to five times daily in winter, twice daily in summer, and only once daily in autumn. It has the largest output of water in the area, 600,000 cubic meters of water a year (compared with 125,000 cubic meters for the Lifta spring in west Jerusalem).

The issue of urbanization and the constant building that goes on in Jerusalem has always posed a threat to the city’s water resources. Over the years, when visiting Israel in the summer, I remember the warnings put out by the municipality about water wastage. People were advised to place bricks in their toilet cisterns to conserve water while flushing.

My late friend and “aliyah mentor” Dr. Yachin Unna, who grew up in the German Jewish community in Rehavia, wrote a wonderful book of memoirs in which he described how, when he was a child in the early 1950s, people only took a shower once a week because water was so scarce.

Luckily things have improved in this ancient city mainly because of Israel’s desalination program. Thirty one desalination plants are located in six areas including Hadera, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Palmachim, Eilat and Soreq. The “Fifth Line” to Jerusalem is designed to meet the water demand of Israel’s capital for the next 50 years. 

The Mekorot water company is doing this by greatly increasing the supply of desalinated water to the city. The water is elevated from sea level to an altitude of 900 meters. A 13-km four-meter diameter pipeline in the mountains will carry immense quantities of pressurized water via advanced pumping stations. 

Before desalination got underway, Israelis were obsessed with the water levels of Lake Kinneret. Everyone seemed familiar with the red line measuring marker which indicated that the Kinneret was dangerously below water safety levels bringing with it the looming threat of toxic water and the extinction of vegetation and marine life in the sweet water lake, not to mention severe drought. As of December 27, 2021, the lake was 1.945 meters from its maximum level of 208.80 meters below sea level and likely to continue to rise before the winter ends. This bodes well for the rest of the country as long as the weather does not become extreme. 

International water specialist, Phyllis Butler Posy, who lives in our neighborhood, confirmed to me that the majority of the domestic water supply in Jerusalem now comes from desalinated sources.

“The water is mixed with other natural sources, however the major part of it is desalinated,” she said. Butler Posy also explained how much of our drinking water in Jerusalem lacks mineral content: “Because so much of the water is desalinated, there is no magnesium in much of the water that we drink. People don’t realize this.” 

She strongly advises that people who live in the city should top up their vitamin intake with magnesium supplements.

“The fact that we have this available surplus does not mean that we no longer need to be concerned,” Butler Posy cautioned. She reiterated that in ancient times when it rained in Jerusalem, the water got soaked up in the soil and surrounding greenery. Today this greenery is fast disappearing in all the built-up neighborhoods.

“The water has nowhere to go, and a great deal of precious water drains off and is wasted,” she said. Her point is well made. Scientists now believe that climate change and the unusual variations in temperature, the wearing down of plant masses, and the intrusion of humans on arable land pose a real risk to urban water supplies in the future.

“It is a problem not only in Israel,” Phyllis reminded me. “Much of my consultancy work involves dealing with these issues in many cities across the globe.”

Jerusalem’s population in 2022 is now assessed at 944,188, compared with just 120,895 in 1950. Jerusalem receives 21 inches of rain each winter mostly in the months of December, January and February. As I write this, the winds are howling and driving rain pours down onto the glistening streets and sidewalks.

According to Jewish tradition, this must always be seen as a blessing, as if the Almighty is answering our prayers. But what if the weather becomes extreme? After all, this is an all too familiar phenomenon around the globe – there were 17 extreme weather incidents in 2021 involving catastrophic storms across the world.

Israel is not exempt from these events. In both December 2021 and January 2022, storms Carmel and Elpis wrought havoc across the country with the Elpis snow bringing down hundreds of trees in Jerusalem. Although it seems like we’ve had a lot of rain this winter, statistics tell us that we are still significantly short of the 21 inch winter average.

There is an old saying: God helps those who help themselves. Those of us who live in Jerusalem need to do our share to mitigate the effects of climate change on our beloved city. It seems that we need to do more to pressure those in authority.

Every day, as one moves around the city and its suburbs, one notices the overbuilding. Each week in the newspapers there are articles and advertisements announcing plans for new high-rise residential developments and business complexes. 

The tiny lobby of Green Advocates led by valiant people such as Naomi Tzur, one of the few champions of environmental sustainability and rewilding in Jerusalem (she was behind the Gazelle Valley and Hamesila Park projects) do their best to lobby the government.

Nevertheless, the city’s greenery and natural open spaces continue to be gobbled up by construction of every kind, with little regard for the ecological future of the city and the consequent negative impact on its dwindling precious resource: natural flowing water.  ■