Troubled Waters (Extract)

Bureacracy and politics have, once again, brought Israel to the brink of a severe water crisis

05water (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract of an article in Issue 5, June 23, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Golden wheat sways into the horizon and rows of chickpea plants form a quilted green blanket speckled with white flowers in the fields of Kibbutz Einat. One morning in the early spring, Pini Maaram drives through these fields, stopping now and again to eat wheat seeds, pop open chickpea pods and thrust his hands into the soil around freshly-planted cotton, moist from the groundwater. "Everything is green and beautiful and organized and clean," he says. "This is our heritage, to keep open space." Though drought and grave depletion of Israel's water resources have for years threatened this heritage, and experts are now warning that the crunch is closer than ever before, Maaram is sanguine. "In another year or two or three or four or five they'll desalinize enough sea water for drinking and the rest will go to agriculture," he says. Maaram grew up on the kibbutz, located in the midst of encroaching urban sprawl 10 kilometers east of Tel Aviv. He served as its field crop director before becoming head of the national Field Crops Growers Association. But the irrigation sprinklers and vast fields of crops that drink up huge quantities of water, however picturesque and refreshing they look, are a source of grave concern to water experts, who are far from sharing Maaram's optimism. Israel is, yet again, facing a drought. But, even as little rain fell for the last five years, Israel's water managers have kept the taps open and the sprinklings turning, overpumping the supply. The writing is in the quickly emptying wells: If Israel does not institute massive changes in water management and usage, the long-term prospects are bleak. "If nothing is done ... agriculture will have to be massively scaled back," says Alon Tal, an environmentalist and a professor at the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "Poor people will not be able to afford high-quality bottled drinking water and will have to drink contaminated water from the taps. Bottled water will not save people from the contaminated water that gets them sick through dermal contact in the shower." In April, the Water Authority, the statutory body responsible for water management and quality, announced that there is a 500 million cubic meter (MCM) deficit of water. That's a quarter of the average yearly water budget. Experts predict that the level of Lake Kinneret, which supplies some 25 percent of Israel's drinking water supply, will dip below the "Black Line" by November. At that point, the water will be below the reach of the pumps of the National Water Carrier, the pipeline that has brought water from the lake down Israel's coast and into the Negev for 40 years. Should the carrier be empty, new wells will have to be drilled to keep the taps in the country running. Engineers are already drilling test wells to prepare for the worst, says Eli Ronen, chairman of Mekorot, the public company that pumps and delivers most of Israel's water. But the underground aquifers are also at dangerously low levels. "We know how to move water," says Ronen. "The problem is there is not enough." According to the Meteorological Service, the last big rains fell in the winter 2002/03, when an average of 115 inches came down. For four years after that, the average was about 75 inches, and then it plummeted to 54 inches this past winter, the driest season in the last nine years. Because there are few clean rivers and only one lake in Israel, rain makes or breaks the water budget, which is about 2 billion cubic meters a year. Furthermore, rain falls for only a few winter months a year and hot weather evaporates soil moisture in the other months. And Israel's geography, on the seam of the more temperate north and dry south, means that heavy rains or droughts are difficult to predict. But the water shortage the country now faces is not a purely natural phenomenon. Despite the dire warnings sounded by experts for years, the authorities entrusted with safeguarding the national water supply have not done much to prevent overpumping from the depleted Kinneret or the groundwater cache. When the coastal and mountain aquifers are overdrawn, there is not enough water in them to flush out contaminants or to prevent salinization. The results of water mismanagement are already clear: The Dead Sea is shrivelling up and the coastal aquifer has become so saline that, in some parts, it is undrinkable. Moreover, in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will likely have to give up some of its current 74 percent of the mountain aquifer, a large groundwater source which straddles the border between Israel and the West Bank. And also to be taken into account in any long-range projections of water supply is the danger that global warming may dry out naturally occurring water. The current disastrous situation could have been prevented. The legal structures and technological know-how are all available. Israel has one of the world's most monitored and centralized water infrastructures; in 1948, all wells and water sources in Israel were measured and nationalized, so that the state knows, at least in theory, where every drop is, according to geographer Eran Feitelson of Ben-Gurion University. Furthermore, Israel's water technology is as advanced as the Negev is dry - it has pioneered drip irrigation, exports plants for the large-scale desalination of sea water, and has even devised an apparatus to prevent shower water going to waste as it heats up to the right temperature. Despite the capacity for intense supervision and the advanced technology, the present drought has the government scrambling to try to solve a problem that recurs about once every seven to ten years. This rush to stretch a limited water budget raises questions about the government's competence, the role of agriculture and ecological awareness among the citizenry. Israel's ever-rising population and standard of living mean that each year more people are demanding more water each for personal use. The Kinneret, the coastal and mountain aquifers and small amounts of desalinated seawater supply most of the drinking supply, as well as some of the agricultural water. Also in the equation are the brackish groundwater and treated sewage that provide over half of the water used in agriculture. The last time a major crisis loomed, from 1999-2001, a Knesset commission of inquiry, headed by MK David Magen and composed of members of the informal agricultural caucus and the Environment Committee, was established to examine what went wrong. "The crisis was not brought about only by climatic changes that caused a fall in the quantity of rain, nor even by the steep rise in the size of the population and its standards of living in the last 50 years. The astounding failure is primarily man-made," the Commission found. Another significant move was the official response, in 2003, to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002. The government, then headed by Ariel Sharon, issued a "Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development in Israel," intended to latch Israel onto the global effort to conserve the environment. Many promises were made in that plan, but few were fulfilled. In March of this year, the Israeli Union of Environmental Defense (IUED) released a report taking nearly every government ministry to task for not following up on the commitments from 2003 and for leaning on desalinization as a magic solution instead of exhausting channels of conservation first. Among the unkept promises: The Interior Ministry did not embed green building rules into planning and building laws. The Construction Ministry did not make it mandatory to direct runoff and rainfall into the aquifers. The Health Ministry did not create standards for graywater reuse, which is a method of laying pipe in homes so that used shower and sink water can flush the toilet. The Environment Ministry fell short of its pledge to restore polluted waterways and the Ministry of Agriculture shirked its duty to encourage efficient water use in farming. Aharon Dotan, an ecologist with the IUED, says fully implementing all the report's recommendations would have saved as much as 580 million cubic meters, which is more than Israel's projected desalinization capacity for 2013. Officials contacted by The Report attempted to soften or refute the charges. An Interior Ministry spokesman says 2006 building standards require two-handled toilets and low-flow faucets in new buildings. Carlos Drinberg, chief architect of the Construction Ministry, reported that there are voluntary standards for directing rainfall into the ground, but that not every site is suitable for this kind of construction. The Health Ministry says graywater reuse rules are being written now, to take effect in a few months. Alon Zask, of the Environment Ministry's water division, says 20 million shekels have gone to restoring polluted waterways in the last ten years. And the Ministry of Agriculture has spent more than 96 million shekels over the last five years as incentive money for farmers to adapt drip irrigation, switch to low-water crops and collect rainwater for use in the fields, says spokeswoman Daphna Yurista. Uri Shor, spokesman for the Water Authority, says there have been steps to bring Israel's water budget into balance, such as raising prices for heavy domestic users, reducing freshwater allocations to agriculture, rehabilitating polluted water, and increasing desalinization. "We have a deficit of around 500 MCM a year, so spending 20 million shekels to fix the problem is not suficient," IUED ecologist Dotan says, pointing out that of more than 100 polluted wells, only five have been rehabilitated. "Investing in the water in Israel can be very cost effective because the damage, mainly irreversible, is in the scale of billions." Israel's per capita domestic water use is an average 160 liters a day, much higher than Germany's per capita use. German hydrologist Clemens Messerschmid, who has worked on water projects in Israel, Germany and the West Bank, says Israeli water habits are wasteful. "In Israel people wash dishes under running water," he says in a phone interview. "They don't fill a basin with water and then wash the dishes, which is what Palestinians who have no water do." He adds that in Germany, higher domestic water prices helped lower consumption in cities from 145 liters a person per day to 126 liters. The IUED report demands that the Water Authority enforce bans on washing cars with hoses and watering gardens in daylight and questions why the Authority does not reinstate an expired ban on private swimming pools. Shor says the Authority does fine individuals and municipalities for watering gardens in daytime and washing cars with hoses. The problem, however, is enforcement. "When you water a garden, you open a sprinkler for 15 or 20 minutes," he says, noting that it is simply not reasonable to expect the Authority to catch each offender wet-handed. He adds that the Authority has proposed adjusting water pricing to make heavy use - over 100 liters a day per person - more costly. This would make swimming pools, especially private ones, prohibitively expensive. Finally, he says, the Authority is running a pilot program to sell and install low-flow faucet devices that cut tap flow by about 30 percent. Milgam, the company that operates the program, has installed about 60,000 devices in 20 communities in its first year. A spokesman for Milgam says that the water savings will be measured in a year, when the pilot program is completed. "That program should have been promoted nationally," rails Hillel Shuval, professor of environmental health sciences at Jerusalem's Hadassah Academic College. "That can save water this summer, immediately." Furthermore the program saves water without opening a desalinization plan or destroying agriculture. However much water is wasted in homes and gardens, most experts agree that agriculture is the main culprit. Whereas domestic use accounts for 37 percent of the Israeli water budget, the lion's share - 60 percent, albeit most of it treated effluents, brackish groundwater and other marginal sources that are unfit for drinking - goes to agriculture and it is there that the greatest savings can be made. But this could be painful. From Zionism's earliest days, farming and making the desert bloom have been seen as the way to improve both the land and the nation. These ideals have faded somewhat, but they still have a place in the nation's consciousness, though perhaps not as much as in 1954, when the country's top songstress Shoshana Damari recorded "The Sprinkler Hora," which quickly became a popular hit. Even today, when less that 5 percent of the work force is employed in agriculture, the debate over the amount of water allocated to agriculture touches on core issues of Israeli identity: How much water, money and environmental damage is the romantic ideal of the land worth? Extract of an article in Issue 5, June 23, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.