Israel - A regional water superpower

Israel is the world's leader in water reclamation with 87% of its wastewater undergoing purification and reuse for agriculture.

Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian mayors and municipal representatives participate in an event in the lower Jordan River, to call on the two governments to rehabilitate the river (photo credit: ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST)
Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian mayors and municipal representatives participate in an event in the lower Jordan River, to call on the two governments to rehabilitate the river
(photo credit: ECOPEACE MIDDLE EAST)
In honor of World Water Day, that was marked on March 22, Israeli-Australian water expert Gidon Bromberg was invited to participate in the US State Department Water Security and Transboundary Cooperation panel and brief US officials on the water situation in Israel.
Bromberg is the director of Ecopeace, a regional environmental NGO that focuses on water and has offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Amman. He is a man driven by strong sense of urgency. Some think he is naive or that he cries wolf, but he believes that after four consecutive years of drought, we are nearing a regional water crisis – one that Israel can solve.
Water scarcity is a defining feature of the Levant.
The need for water shaped the cultures that emerged in this region. In the Bible, both Abraham and Jacob leave the Land of Israel for Egypt due to extreme water shortage. Wells are often a source of dispute and the Book of Deuteronomy promises that should the Israelites worship other gods, “The Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain.” Even the Torah itself is compared to water in that they both come from the skies and give life.
Precipitation levels have been recorded in Jerusalem since 1848 and the data shows that some periods, like the last decade of the 19th century, were blessed with an average of 700 mm. rainfall every year, while other periods are far drier.
Between 1925 and 1935, a mere 390 mm. on average was recorded.
“This is typical of the region,” says Prof. Haim Gvirtzman, a hydrogeologist from the Hebrew University. “Therefore there is always a need to collect water for dry years.”
This year, Israel was prepared, and many Israelis aren’t even conscious of the drought.
“Ten years ago, after such a season, we would need to heavily regulate and perhaps cut water supplies,” says Gvirtzman, “but today we don’t need to limit agriculture water use.”
Over the course of a decade, as Gvirtzman put it, “Israel became a water superpower.” At the same time, there is a water shortage in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan that has severe consequences on the population’s health and the environment.
Could Israel’s superpower be used, as Bromberg suggests, to save the day? Already 70 years ago, Israeli policy makers understood that water is the key to survival and affluence in a land that, while often described as “flowing with milk and honey,” is mostly arid or semi-arid desert. Israel’s ability to cope so well with such dry seasons is not due to one brilliant breakthrough or policy, but to continuous research and holistic water management systems.
TODAY, ISRAEL is leading the world in reclaiming water – 87% of its wastewater is purified and reused for agriculture.
For reference, Singapore, second on the list, reclaims some 35% of its sewage water, and most countries, even the good ones, reclaim less than 10% of their water. Israeli farmers not only use reclaimed water, but they also do it wisely, with micro-irrigation systems that water plants directly at their roots, instead of flooding the fields. Israeli state-of-the-art desalination technologies are being implemented worldwide from California to South Africa and the five large desalination plants on the Israeli coastline have completely liberated Israel from its water deficit.
However, water isn’t only a domestic issue. Israel’s water policy stems from the understanding that in the Middle East, to take charge of water is to take charge of your security. For this same reason, deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi also sought water self-sufficiency. After he took power in a brutal coup in 1969, he initiated the construction of what he dubbed “The Great Man-Made River” – an enormous 4,000 kilometer network of concrete pipeline four meters in diameter buried beneath desert sand that pumped fossil water from underground water reservoirs and delivered it to the Libyan population.
Many wars were fought over water in this region. Former World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin said in 1995, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
Water conflicts have led to violence and wars since the 2000s. Tensions over water triggered the civil war in Sudan, and some argue it kindled the conflict in Syria. It is a source of anxiety between neighboring countries almost everywhere in North Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, water agreements were an essential part of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty and the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority already in the early 1990s.
IT WAS around the time of these events that Bromberg came onto the scene. He was born in Tel Aviv to an Israeli mother and Polish Jewish father who had emigrated to Australia. Bromberg completed a law degree in the University of Melbourne, then returned to Israel.
He became the first lawyer to volunteer with the Adam Teva V’din Israeli environmental advocacy group, while practicing commercial international law. He was then admitted into an environmental law MA program at the American University in Washington, DC, where he wrote his thesis around a question that seemed relevant at the time, “Is peace good for the environment?” His conclusion was that environmental considerations were simply not on the agenda of any side.
“I asked myself,” Bromberg told The Jerusalem Post Magazine, “how could we put the environmental issues on the table? There were plans for building 50,000 new hotel rooms around the Dead Sea and an enormous international highway made of asphalt to connect to Europe. These plans were made with complete disregard to the natural heritage of the area, and sustainability.”
Bromberg tried to find funding for a regional organization that would advocate for governmental and local cooperation over environmental issues. At first, he was politely refused by donors. Then, a person he had previously approached called him on the phone and said, “If you are able to organize a meeting of local environmentalists, I’ll pay for it.”
So only a month after the Jordanian- Israeli peace treaty, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians met in Taba to talk about the environment.
“There was consensus that the environmental community should play an important role in ensuring that peace wouldn’t lead to over-development, pollution and unsustainable industries.”
To carry out this mission, they created Ecopeace, with regional offices in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt.
BY 1998, it was obvious that the peace process was crumbling. The Egyptian partners had to leave Ecopeace and the remaining offices needed to reevaluate their purpose.
“In 2005 we were in the seventh year of drought and the lack of water was felt across the region – first and foremost by the Palestinians and Jordanians, but several local municipalities in Israel were also badly affected; water levels in Lake Kinneret were reaching new lows, the Jordan River’s demise was critical and natural springs were dying. At that time, we decided to prioritize the water issue as the most urgent environmental need in the region.”
Since then, Ecopeace has worked fiercely on advocating for water solutions for the region.
“Working with all the governments is a mixed bag – they all speak in the same voice, underlining their self-interest. There are no nice guys. No one will be generous. Our job is to show how each side’s self-interest can lead to mutual gains. A better plan for sharing water can yield mutual gain, but currently we are all losers.”
What Bromberg means when he says “we are all losers” is that the broken water systems in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza are causing environmental damage to groundwater, the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, and that the human condition for Palestinians may escalate into a security threat.
“We are in a crisis situation, particularly for the Jordan Valley, where there is almost no drinking water. There is a sanitation crisis and water shortage in Gaza, and potentially an explosive situation in Jordan, which is hosting two million refugees from Syria who also need access to water. The existing situation in Jordan and the West Bank is that people do not receive water every day, sometimes only once month. In Gaza the situation is even worse. These problems aren’t only human, but come with a hefty environmental price.”
Poor water management in the West Bank and Gaza means that Palestinian wastewater pollutes shared water sources. Jenin’s sewage damages the Kishon River; Baka a-Sharkiya’s wastewater pollutes the Hadera River; wastewaters from Tulkarm and Nablus mix with the Alexander River; and sewage from east Jerusalem, which is under Israeli authority, goes to the Kidron River. In Gaza, sewage seeps into the groundwater and the sea.
Twice this year, the desalination plant in Ashkelon was shut due to pollution from Gaza. Bromberg says that some politicians cynically use this situation to say that we face a “sewage intifada rather than taking this issue on.”
Water issues are at the crux of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Article 40, signed under the Oslo Accords in 1995, meant as an interim resolution, allocate limited amounts of water resources and pumping groundwater to the Palestinian Authority. Some areas of the West Bank have more access to water and are better managed. Ramallah, for instance, tends to have better supply of water at least two days a week. On the other hand, in Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem and Yatta, people have only 30 liters per person per day, which is considered very little.
This calculation includes water used for drinking, cooking, showering, washing, cleaning and sewage. For reference, Israelis use about 220 liters per day on average, and Californians use about 500 liters a day.
Bromberg argues that to a great extent, the West Bank is dependent on Israel.
“The only source of water for the West Bank is the shared mountain aquifer. The current agreement limits the access and quantity they should pump. What we would argue is that this is insufficient for the needs of the population. Until recently, if you wanted to change a pipe in Ramallah, you needed approval from Israel and it required the agreement of the Joint Water Committee [a body that oversees cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority]. A new agreement simplified the process for increasing extraction of water in Areas A and B [which are under Palestinian Authority security control] which doesn’t need Israeli approval.
“Thanks to technology, there is a water surplus in the Israel; we have the capacity to desalinate 650 million cubic meters annually and are no longer dependent on natural water. The water pie has expanded. The question is how to utilize the technological advantage to make political diplomatic advances.”
DR. JAWAD Hasan Shoqeir also thinks that it is critical to tackle water issues, even if there is no peace process. Shoqeir is the director of the Soil and Hydrology Research Unit at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Al Quds University, Jerusalem and was recently appointed to the faculty of the Arava Israeli Research Environmental Center in the Negev. He says that during the Oslo negotiations the Palestinians lacked information about their water situation, but since they wanted to move forward with the agreement, they were willing to delay the water solution.
“According to the agreement, Israel is said to transfer 100 to 130 mcm. annually to Gaza and the West Bank. This was perhaps right for the time, but the Palestinians didn’t consider population growth. Now we buy almost 50 to 55 mcm. a year. The desperate need for more water damages industrial possibilities and causes a decrease in agriculture. It is paramount that the failure of Oslo be properly considered.
“In Area C [which according to the Oslo Agreements remains under full Israeli security control] there is a lot of water theft [by Palestinians] and it is the responsibility of the Israeli Civil Administration to take action. The theft itself isn’t the biggest problem, but the damage that is done contaminates the water in the pipe system for everyone.”
Shoqeir is frustrated with Israel’s inability to see beyond its immediate needs.
“If Palestinians don’t get water they won’t have jobs, and if the socioeconomic situation keeps worsening, it will become a problem for Israel. We saw the rise of right-wing and left-wing governments in Israel; nothing has changed. We need to put in place a holistic solution for the region. Can Israel solve the water issue without a security risk?
“The West Bank is a ticking bomb,” continues Shoqeir. “The Palestinian Authority and the Israelis think that they are in control, but they are mistaken. It’s a pressure cooker and it will blow. It took the Israelis many years to understand that the Palestinian water issue is their issue as well. The blame game goes on and the water situation goes wrong. I’m not saying it’s easy to set the water issue free from the claws of the political conflict, but it is a mutual interest of all parties.”
The water shortage takes its toll not only on the environment and industry, but also on public health. Dr. Mahmoud Thaher heads the World Health Organization sub-office in Gaza.
Thaher, who holds a PhD in public health, is familiar with the Israeli health system. In his previous career, he was a nurse and from 1988 to 2002 worked in Hadassah University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, and Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. He told the Magazine that from a health perspective the water situation in Gaza is bad and worsening.
“Since running water isn’t even usable for showering sometimes, the population needs to buy water from private desalination companies that aren’t regulated and are often contaminated. As a result, there are more and more stomach problems among kids, parasitic infection, hepatitis A, infectious diseases, viruses – and this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we don’t find a replacement, a solution, to bring more water, creating a new desalination plant – if we don’t do all that, it may have disastrous implications in terms of public health.”
Thaher stresses that “infections do not stop at borders. Taking control of this issue is therefore not only a Palestinian interest. Near the northern part of the Gaza Strip we discovered a resurgence of the polio virus. We don’t want such an epidemic – not in Gaza and not in Israel – and polio flourishes in bad water systems…” What does Hamas do about it?
“The question is who is doing something. All parties involved – Israelis, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – are responsible in different capacities. The Israelis should open the gates to Gaza so it will be possible to build new and better water systems. We understand the Israeli security problems, but we also want Palestinian rights to be realized. The Palestinian Authority has the responsibility to develop the systems, give the services, maintain health, and the government in Gaza should allow all of this to be implemented.”
According to the deputy head of the Palestinian Water Authority, Rebhi El-Sheikh, internal divisions further complicate the water situation. The piratical water desalination plants – he says there are more than 150 of them in Gaza – sell contaminated water to the public. Since there is no practical control over this market, the public is at constant risk.
“If we evaluate the water sources of Gaza,” he says, “we see that we have a limited capacity of water production of 55-60 mcm. per year. This means that in order to maintain good quality of water, Gaza should not extract more than 55-60 mcm. a year, but the demand of the domestic, agriculture and industry is much greater, and therefore we extract 200 mcm. This means that the groundwater is out of balance. The low level of groundwater allows seawater infusion.”
Israel recently increased its water supply to Gaza, but El-Sheikh says that to resolve Gaza’s water problems it needs additional water sources, so it will be able to reduce extraction from the natural resource.
“We started a plan for three large desalination plants to meet these needs – the Central Gaza desalination project.” The largest plant is funded by the EU and is already working, but due to the electricity shortage, it doesn’t produce water continuously or to its fullest capacity.
“Since Gaza is under blockade,” says El-Sheikh, “it’s hard to make progress and we are seeing long delays in the plans. In 2012 a UN report concluded that unless we advance the plans, the groundwater in Gaza will be irreversibly contaminated by 2020. We are nearing a humanitarian catastrophe and this requires special attention from Israel.”
GVIRTZMAN DEPICTS an entirely different picture than his Palestinian counterparts.
“Gaza and the West Bank have enough water for domestic use,” he tells the Magazine. “They want more water for agriculture. The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is great. They are just whining. Israel is a water superpower and those living under its shadow benefit from the situation. Palestinians, as much as they are crying, enjoy much better water than most of Asia and Africa. Their situation is much better than in Iran, Egypt, Turkey. They simply talk nonsense.”
One of the problems Gvirtzman points to is that Palestinians don’t pay for water.
“Consumers need to pay for the water. In every country, they pay for water. Here, Mekorot [Israel’s national water company] gets paid by the State of Israel for Palestinian water. The Palestinian Authority should charge money. Their sewage system is that of a third-world country, it’s untreated. They are carrying out an ecological holocaust and blame the entire world but themselves. We don’t need to help them anymore.”
Yuval Steinitz, national infrastructure, energy and water resources minister, has a slightly different understanding of responsibility than Gvirtzman.
In September 2016, the Israel Water Authority brought a long-term master plan for Steinitz’s approval. According to the plan, Israelis would enjoy 100 cubic meters of water annually, while Palestinians would receive only 60 cubic meters a year. Behind closed doors, Steinitz rejected the master plan and demanded a new draft that allocates equal amounts of water to all.
During Passover, many Israelis will stop praying for rain every morning, possibly not even knowing that much of the water they drink comes from the sea. Perhaps, as Bromberg suggests, it’s time to pray for something more – not just more water, but a better way to share it.