A man-made disaster

Israel facing its worst-ever water crisis. How do we get out of it?

leaking water pipe 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
leaking water pipe 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Too little rain has fallen this winter and it is not expected to get better, said Water Authority head Prof. Uri Shani this Sunday to the cabinet at an emergency session called as Israel faces its worst water crisis in history. As a result, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that despite all of the measures they had taken thus far, there would still be a gap of 100 million cubic meters between supply and demand in 2009. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the Water Authority to prepare a new emergency plan and present it for approval in the near future. In light of the gap, green Israel could become brown this year. The Water Authority, the government agency created in 2007 to consolidate responsibility for the water economy, will likely focus on cutting water in two places - gardening and households. While water rationing is still not on the table, Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor told The Jerusalem Post, it is hoping the public would regulate itself in response to the gravity of the crisis. Additionally, the authority could prohibit all watering of public and private gardens for the foreseeable future. While no one wants to go back to the days when Israel was more desert-like, there might be no other choice. How did the country get to such a state? The national investigation committee on the water crisis is currently probing all aspects of the water economy. The Knesset State Control Committee ordered the establishment of the committee in early 2008 to look into the water crisis and beyond and come back with operative recommendations and conclusions. As an official investigative committee, it has wide-ranging powers and influence. That committee started by interviewing experts, former water commissioners, representatives of interested parties and some government employees. Now, it has start interviewing government employees in earnest. The three committee members - retired judge Dan Bein, the chairman, and professors Yoram Avnimelech and Yoav Kislev - have requested all witnesses to submit position papers prior to their testimony. What emerges from these papers and the transcripts of several of the sessions (all available on the committee's Web site, www.court.gov.il/mayim) is extremely troubling considering how precious a resource water is in this arid country. Expert after expert points an accusatory finger at the government for critically mismanaging almost every aspect of the water economy. If it weren't so serious, it'd be laughable: Here we are with just about the best reputation in the world for water management technology, water conservation technology, irrigation technology and countless other water-related inventions, yet the government has consistently failed to maximize a resource which is growing scarcer by the year. In fact, while we may be light-years ahead of many other countries in many aspects, like 75 percent of sewage recycled and the most advanced desalination plants in the world, most of the experts agree the country would not be facing this current crisis if the government had stuck to its guns. If desalination plants had been built as initially set out in 2001, and sewage treatment plants as set out in 1999, we would have enough water to meet agricultural, industrial and household needs. However, the natural facts provide the backdrop to this saga of chronic waste. Five scarce rainfall years in a row have revealed how badly managed the water economy really is and how the country's water capacity has been pushed to its absolute limit. According to forecasts by the Water Authority, there will be a gap between supply and demand of 344 million cu.m. if, as expected, rainfall remains far below average. It is only through the use of new, drastic measures that the authority put together a plan to weather this year and close that gap. However, according to the latest forecasts, even those drastic measures may not be enough. The short-term natural facts are that the country's three main natural water sources - Lake Kinneret, the mountain aquifer and the coastal aquifer - are so far below the "red" lines that new "black" lines had to be created last year. The black lines indicate the point at which further pumping from any of the three will result in rapid, vast and irreparable damage. According to Shani, the country is rapidly approaching those black lines. WATER NEEDS are divided into household (which includes gardening), industry and agriculture. Households now use the most water, around 700 million cu.m./yr. Agriculture used about 500 million cu.m. in 2008. Industry uses about 150 million cu.m./yr. That puts total usage at roughly 1.4 billion cu.m./yr. To round out the argument that the current crisis is the product of natural phenomena, hydrologists have noticed that overall rainfall has begun to drop over the last 16 years. If, years ago, 1.4 billion cu.m. fell per year, that number is down to 1.2 billion or lower. Through a combination of measures, the Water Authority hopes to close the gap and stave off too much damage to the country's natural reservoirs. The main foundations of the plan are to cut water to agriculture, use the source water for the Kinneret now, remove the discount for water for gardening and perhaps prohibit entirely the watering of public parks and gardens, increase desalination, build facilities to replace agriculture's fresh water allotment with treated sewage water, and a massive PR campaign to encourage residents to conserve as much water as they can. The plan submitted to Bein's committee earlier in the month was not substantially different from the one approved by the government in August. It continues to fail to specify what actions the authority would take if this winter is even worse than its projections, as is apparently the case. On Sunday, the authority offered no concrete solutions either. So far, just 60% of the median rainfall has fallen, making it an extremely lean year through the end of January. The first thing the Water Authority did last year was to tap the source waters above the Kinneret which were due to reach the Kinneret in 2010. Instead, an extra 60 million cu.m. was used in 2008 and another 100 million cu.m. will be used this year. In effect, as Shani has put it, "we are borrowing on our future supply now." The hope is that the lean years will eventually give way to better years and, simultaneously, desalination will be increased to make up the shortfall. There is also a flip side to the "natural" data above. According to Shani's testimony to the investigative committee in November, he believes the forecasters consistently overestimated the amount of rainfall there would be. Instead of looking at the median, they looked at the average. According to Shani, the median, which is below the average, is a more accurate measure. In practical terms, the forecasters have been overestimating the amount of water the country would receive by hundreds of millions of cubic meters a year. While Shani's point is that the basic assumptions upon which their estimates were based were quite likely wrong for years, there are even more seemingly egregious management failures. As one expert, engineer Gabi Shoham, put it bluntly in his paper to the committee, "The problem is solely the result of a systemic failure." Preparation for drought years should be an integral part of managing the water economy. While these five years may be the greatest number of consecutive years of little rainfall, with a statistical probability of 2%, there have been lean years at the end of each of the last three decades. Yet somehow, when lean turned to full, government officials seemingly "forgot" the bad years and the urgency they engendered disappeared. According to Shoham and many others, when the country should have been building more desalination plants and more sewage treatment facilities, it was instead cutting desalination goals, cutting budgets for sewage treatment and generally acting as if there would never be another water crisis. Again and again, experts and government officials blamed the Treasury for prioritizing cost-saving measures over long-term policy. Whether or not the Treasury felt justified, it seems clear the government was not conducting a long-term strategy which took into account the high likelihood of more drought years in the near future. HOWEVER, FORMER water commissioner Shimon Tal contended that most of the decisions were taken properly, but practically none of them were implemented. The Magen Commission, which looked at the water economy from the beginning of the state, also found in 2001-2 that various master plans were never brought to the government for discussion and many government decisions were never implemented. The primary conclusions of the commission were: "On the basis of the entirety of the evidence heard by the commission in the course of its meetings, and the written material presented to it, it states that for more than 30 years the Israeli water sector has been in a deep and continuous crisis, that recently reached a critical point. The crisis has manifested itself in the depletion of the water resources, causing a cumulative deficit of around 2 billion cu.m. in the country's natural water reservoirs. "This sad and astonishing result is the sour fruit of a continuous failure by Israel's governments that ignored the writing that has been inscribed on the wall for many years. 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!" It would not be surprising if the current investigative committee draws similar conclusions. While some of the Magen Commission's recommendations were implemented, such as consolidating responsibility into a Water Authority in 2007, many more went unimplemented or ignored. Practically all of the bureaucratic and budgetary problems which plague the water economy, experts told the new investigative committee, have been known for years. Perhaps the only positive result of the extended crisis is that it has helped keep the government pressing forward with projects which were approved nearly a decade ago but have yet to be implemented even to the levels set out at that time (not to mention updated goals in light of the current crisis). One could argue that the newly created Water Authority is trying to correct the past 35 years of mismanagement. Shani is convinced that entering the tender phase for desalination plants is critical. Once tenders go out and outside companies are engaged, the government has essentially committed to building them. If only the same could be said of sewage treatment plants which have been bogged down because of bureaucratic red tape. The Water Authority's emergency plan seems to be a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, the authority will have to scramble once again to cover the deficits. Moreover, it is still not clear whether a real shift in water policy has been achieved, even though Shani says that this government has made that crucial switch. Perhaps when the current investigative committee releases its final report, we'll be able to make pronouncements with more assurance. If the government hasn't committed itself to a long-term policy, however, expect another water commission in five to seven years.