Pooling their resources

An agreement has been reached over the allocation of the four main water sources at Ein Gedi. But what if there's no rain?

ein gedi waterfall298.88 (photo credit: )
ein gedi waterfall298.88
(photo credit: )
In the Middle East, the oil flows freely, but water is a scarce commodity. As such, its distribution is often a source of controversy. The plain facts are that Israel does not have a lot of water at its disposal, and accomplishments such as growing trees in the desert, the source of no little pride, come at a cost. Nowhere is this more true than at the renowned Ein Gedi oasis. Here exists one of Israel's most beautiful nature reserves, a robust tourist center and spa, and a historic kibbutz with an agriculture industry and a mineral water plant - the combination of which requires more water than is available at the source. Located near the Dead Sea, the Ein Gedi oasis has existed since biblical times. Three thousand years ago, King Saul narrowly avoided war with the future King David in Ein Gedi's caves. Today, however, the Ein Gedi site has become a modern battleground over the allocation of its most precious resource. Disagreements have raged for more than 20 years between the major players, with Israel's environmentalists representing one side and Kibbutz Ein Gedi on the other. Outside observers and the parties themselves concede that they both have valid claims to the water. Despite a history of somewhat bitter negotiations, the latest round of painstaking discussions (begun in 2004 according to some estimates) is set to yield an agreement that is satisfactory to the primary parties officially represented by Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) and the National Water Commission. What makes this agreement different from past attempts is the incorporation of new technology that will allow creative distribution of the water that was previously not feasible. The issue centers on how to distribute water from the four main sources in Ein Gedi consisting of the larger Nahal David and Nahal Arugot rivers and the much smaller Ein Gedi and Shulamit natural water springs. Since the nature reserve at Ein Gedi was extended from Wadi David to Wadi Arugot in 1987, it has needed extra water for the local flora and fauna. Things grew more complicated when Kibbutz Ein Gedi opened the Ein Gedi Mineral Water plant in 1997. Co-owned by the Jafora-Tabori Company, the plant can only take water from the two natural springs to produce its bottled mineral water. According to the numbers supplied by the NPA, the kibbutz currently takes around 40 cu.m. of water an hour from the springs which supply a combined total of 60 cu.m./hr (Shulamit produces 20 cu.m./hr and the Ein Gedi spring produces 40 cu.m./hr). That does not leave enough water to sustain the local nature, which the NPA claims needs at least 45 cu.m./hr. Under the proposed plan the kibbutz would take only 15 cu.m./hr.from the springs, leaving the remaining 45 cu.m./hr, and the full amount requested by the NPA to be enjoyed by nature. This arrangement would allow the Ein Gedi Stream, which connects to the spring, to begin flowing again after 35 years of drought. The kibbutz, though, will be left short of water, by at least 25 cu.m./hr. Yet by employing a new technological process that pumps water upstream, it can now take water from Nahal Arugot for all of its non-factory-related water needs. In the past, to ensure optimum water purity the kibbutz had to take water from the closest point upstream to the spring's origin. The new technology would allow the kibbutz to take water from Nahal Arugot after it has already traveled downstream, nourishing the various fauna around it, and been pumped back upstream to the kibbutz. For Raviv Shapira, southern director of the NPA, this plan is "revolutionary." "We are now getting back 100 percent from Nahal Arugot, Nahal David and the Ein Gedi Spring," he asserts. The NPA's head scientist Yehuda Shkedy says the increased water supply would also allow Ein Gedi's Sudani plants of African origin to grow once again. "Many of these plants have disappeared because of the way we misused the landscape," he laments. How much water the kibbutz has taken from the surrounding nature during its history compared to present times is a source of debate. Regardless, many at the kibbutz argue that they have a valid historical claim to the water - a claim backed by officials at the National Water Commission. The kibbutz was founded in 1956 with the strong encouragement of the Israeli government, which considered the region an important area for settlement at the time. Back then, the kibbutz's main source of income was agriculture, another strongly supported venture of the Israeli government. Kibbutz spokesperson Meirav Ayalon notes that although nature enthusiasts are critical of the kibbutz's mineral water plant, the kibbutz used far more water to sustain its now-defunct date plant crop. "The water factory takes less water than the dates used to take. Nothing has been changed," she observes. The kibbutz no longer grows its once-prosperous date plant crop as a result of the receding Dead Sea shore line which has created a phenomenon known as sinkholes. Sinkholes are areas of collapsed ground that destabilize the land, making it impossible and dangerous to use the land for agriculture. Currently, agriculture represents only 5 percent of the kibbutz's net income while the mineral water plant supplies 30%, according to Ayalon. Ayalon, however, argues that if more water were available, the kibbutz would use it to build up its agricultural production to 20-30% of its net income. The water plant, however, isn't the only the only consumer of water in the area. The 500 kibbutz members need water for their daily needs and both the kibbutz and the NPA require water to support a heavy tourism industry which currently provides 55% of the kibbutz's income. The water factory, however, is very important to the kibbutz as it the only reliable source of income that it has today, says Ayalon, recalling that the tourism industry collapsed in 2000 with the onset of renewed Palestinian violence. "The factory is a way of living. We do not have a lot of sources which we can use to survive here," she says. Were the plant to close down, its effects might also be felt by the Israeli public as the plant produces 40% of the mineral water on the market and retains 33% of the actual market share, according to 2006 data provided by Kibbutz Ein Gedi. As long as the kibbutz exists, however, it is entitled to a reasonable amount of water by Israeli law, says Uri Schor, spokesperson for the Water Commission which will also be a partner in the agreement and will ultimately pay for the costs of pumping the water back upstream. "The moment you have people settling somewhere, you must provide them with water - including water for living and water for income," he explains, noting that this philosophy is rooted in Israel's history of settling land. Of course, there are members among the "greens" who do question whether the kibbutz should exist at all today. Raanan Boral, head of the Nature Protection Division for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, acknowledges that as long as the kibbutz exists, the people living there will need a way to earn a living. "If Israel wants to have people in a kibbutz, and have a bottling plant, and have a nature reserve, there is going to be a cost," he says. "We will have to pay for it." Kibbutz members, however, contend that the nature reserve very much contributes to their livelihood and as such its protection is critical to them as well. "For us, it is another economic source. We won't destroy something that we need as well," argues Ayalon. The proposed water-sharing agreement, in which all the parties will serve as watchdogs, is likely to be officially approved in the next few months. The actual figures within it, however, will change each year depending on the amount of rainfall and the realistic amount of water available, Schor explains. That, of course, brings into question its long-term sustainability in years of severe water shortages or drought. Desert rainfall is not the source of Ein Gedi's water supply. Rather, according to Shkedy, it is the rainfall in the Western Judean hills (west of Hebron, Jerusalem and Bethlehem) that makes it way down a meandering roundabout route into the desert. Therefore a few consecutive years of low rainfall can lead to problems in water availability. Other than imposing severe restrictions on water usage, the only real solution would be to bring in water from outside sources, experts concur. Suggestions such as pumping water from Masada or connecting the Ein Gedi water supply to the National Water Carrier have been considered, but for now experts agree that the costs of implementing these options would be prohibitive. Schor notes, however, that in the past few years improvements in technology have made desalination a more economic and viable alternative, yet there are no concrete plans to execute such an option. In the meantime, the Ein Gedi oasis will hang in a delicate balance between man and nature, waiting for the day when Israel will find a solution for its scarcest resource.