Borderline Views: A new water policy for Israel

We should be thankful for the daily rise of the water levels in the Kinneret and, at the same time, should demand a new and comprehensive water policy for the country.

Black-headed gulls over the kinnere (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Black-headed gulls over the kinnere
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
The good news is that the Kinneret is filling up.
Thanks to the rains and the melting snow, the country’s most important water reservoir is likely to finish the winter season at its highest level for some years. The water experts and hydrologists tell us that if we have two such years in succession, the lake will reach its upper limit, perhaps necessitating the opening of the dam which prevents the free flow of water south into the River Jordan – or at least what used to be the River Jordan but is no more than a slow moving stream at present.
It is not only the abundant precipitation which has caused the lake to fill up. In recent years, Israel has finally started to desalinate water on a scale such that the pumping of water from the Kinneret though the national water carrier into the underground aquifers in the center of the country is not as critical as it used to be. For years, due to a combination of political and economic factors, the government refused to promote the construction of new water desalination plants, but given the severity of the water problem in recent years, they finally went ahead with the new projects, resulting in a significant increase in the amount of available sweet water for domestic consumption.
Regulating the pumping of water from the Kinneret in such a way that by the end of the rainy season, the country’s aquifers are filled to the maximum is a very delicate task for the country’s hydrologists and water planners. Storage in the underground aquifers is better than leaving water in the Kinneret if only because the rate of evaporation during the hot summer months is far lower. But pumping too much can deplete the Kinneret to levels which are too low, while pumping too little can bring about the potential flooding of the communities around the lake, including the city of Tiberias. The latter is offset by the opening of the dam, allowing surplus water to escape south into the Jordan River.
While this is positive in terms of the rejuvenation of the Jordan River and the tourism potential along the Jordan Valley, it is perceived as an exercise in water wastage given the long-term scarcity of water in the region as a whole. This, in turn, affects the amount of water flowing into the Dead Sea, which has been receding at the rate of almost a meter a year during the past decade. The northern section of the Dead Sea is, in effect, little more than an artificial lake, with much of its water – especially in the hotel tourism areas – flowing through a canal from the now disconnected southern section of the sea.
The renaissance of the idea of a Dead-Red Canal, in which a canal and pipeline would bring water into the Dead Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba to the south, increasing the country’s hydroelectric capacity on the way, would signify a total reversal of the of the direction of water flow into the Dead Sea. The canal idea, which is supported by Jordan, but which is strongly opposed by the environmental lobbies in Israel, would enable the production of hydroelectric power which in turn could be used for even more water desalination.
AN UNDERSTANDING of water geopolitics is central to any future conflict resolution in the region. From the mid-1960s, when the Israel Air Force bombed the dams being constructed along the Yarmouk River by Syria in an attempt to prevent the natural flow of water into the Jordan headwaters, and through to the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in the 1990s when Israel agreed to transfer 50 million cubic meters of water per annum to a country which has an even greater water scarcity than Israel, along with the multilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which have discussed the water quotas which will be available to both sides, water has always constituted a major geopolitical factor in this region.
Although a water transfer arrangement with Turkey was signed, it has never been implemented and, given today’s changed water economy on the one hand, and Israel’s worsened political relations with Turkey on the other, it never will be.
Within Israel as well, the allocation and pricing of water has always been a topic of major political contention.
The continued allocation of relatively large water quotas to a diminishing agricultural sector, at considerably lower prices than those available to the rest of the population, is a sensitive issue. The recent rains and the increase in desalination has not brought about the expected decrease in water prices for the consumer, and this is perceived by many as being due to the powerful political lobby of the agricultural sector – even today – rather than any logical balance between water supply and demand.
Ever since the construction of the national water carrier back in the 1960s, enabling the distribution of water from the Kinneret to the center of the country and even further afield, the country has lacked a longterm water planning policy. During periods of scarcity, there have been constant demands for a major restructuring of water exploitation, allocation and pricing. But each time there has been a rainy season, such as this year, and the debate has been shelved, the plans put away, with the result that the country goes on from one water crisis to the next one without making any major structural changes.
The demands for water in the Israel of today are vastly different to those of 40 years ago, when the current water policy was instituted. The population has increased six-fold, individual consumption needs have also increased as today’s Israelis irrigate lawns, wash cars and use water-consuming appliances such as washing machines and dish washers to a much greater degree than in the past. At the same time, the needs of a declining agricultural sector in an era when Israel imports agricultural produce, are completely different to the era when, for geopolitical and ideological reasons, it was considered of utmost importance to be totally self sufficient and not reliant on any external sources.
This year’s rains, coupled with the increase in desalination, has once again given the country a brief respite.
But the new government should not interpret this as yet another reason for shelving the water debate until the next crisis which, given the changing global climate, will only be a year or two into the future. We should be thankful for the daily rise of the water levels in the Kinneret and, at the same time, should demand a new and comprehensive water policy for the country which reflects both the internal and external realities of the present era, rather than continuing to rely on criteria which were relevant four decades ago.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.