Water crisis looms

Article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Three successive winters with below-average rainfall have intensified Israel's chronic water shortage, with experts warning of possible irreversible damage if this year's rains come up short again. All of the country's main water reservoirs, including the Sea of Galilee, the coastal aquifer and the mountain aquifer shrank during the last year due to insufficient rainfall, and are approaching critical 'red lines.' The drop in the Sea of Galilee's water level is especially worrisome, as it has fallen by 1.9 meters over the past three years, and is now at its lowest level in five years. "If an aquifer falls below the red line," explains Uri Schor, spokesman for the Water Authority, "it is in danger of being contaminated with sea water, which can make it so saline that it becomes useless as a reservoir, possibly irreversibly. That is why we are concerned - another dry winter and we may be touching the red lines." According to Schor, population growth and rising living standards are causing demand for water to outstrip supply - despite the introduction of two large desalination plants, one in Palmahim, which supplies 30 million cubic meters of water per year and one in Ashkelon that produces 100 million cubic meters, making it the largest desalination plant in the world. A new desalination plant is set to start operating in Hadera by 2010. The Water Authority has adopted the ambitious goal of reaching a level of 505 million cubic meters of desalinated water annually by 2012. However, Professor Emeritus Dan Zaslavsky of the Technion, a former Water Commissioner, told The Report that in his view grave mistakes were made in recent years that have worsened the water situation. "Investment in research and development on water conservation measures shrank abysmally, and even when new advanced technological solutions are available, we don't always use them," says Zaslavsky. "We are paying over 50 cents per cubic meter of desalinated water when there are techniques that can reduce that to 25 cents within three to four years, but these are not being implemented. With more R&D, we can do even better. And these figures mean that all talk about water importation is ridiculous because if we were to import water from, say, Turkey, that would cost over $1 per cubic meter." Zaslavsky also regards current policy on sewage water recycling to be 'a sin.' "There are 200 sewage collection pools in Israel that can and should be purified to the point of general usage," he says. "But there is still a fear of using purified sewage water, so it is being used only for agricultural use. In the meantime, the collected sewage water is leeching out and polluting natural water sources." Schor counters that 65 percent of sewage water is currently being recycled for agriculture, and that there are plans to raise that figure to over 90 percent within a few years - a figure that would constitute "a world record," he says. Schor does not believe that there will be a need to recycle sewage water for household use. "Singapore does that, but for Israel's purposes if the recycled water all goes to agricultural use, and that frees up other water sources for household use, that is sufficient," Shor told The Report. Both Schor and Zaslavsky agree that the public has an important role to play in water conservation. "In water crises in the past, the public was urged to adopt measures such as not watering gardens during the day and using drip irrigation as opposed to sprinklers," says Zaslavsky. "When the public was galvanized into taking these steps, we saw significant reductions in water waste. But when crises pass, people stop being careful - which only means that the next crisis will soon come." Article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.