Drought & the Treasury

Finance Ministry to blame for Israel's failure to have ample desalination facilities on stream by now.

Kinneret 224.88 (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Kinneret 224.88
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
With one eye on Gaza, where the situation remains tense and volatile, Israel is returning to its routine. That allows us to address another unfolding crisis with potentially dire consequences. According to Water Authority director Prof. Uri Shani, Israel is in the throes of the gravest water shortage this country has experienced in over 80 years. This has been the driest January ever recorded. Israel's winter calendar still has two months to go, but no great improvement is foreseen. The forecast is for 2009 to be extremely parched. The worst may be yet to come. Shani told the Knesset Interior Committee last week that we've had only 55 percent of the average rainfall expected by this point of the winter. The shortfall exacerbates the shortage accrued in 2008, when only 750 million cubic meters of rain came down. The annual average is 1,350. "Never in the state's history have we known so disadvantageous a ratio between growing demand for water and the condition of our aquifers," Shani reported. The condition of the Kinneret, the country's largest water source, is particularly critical. The ecological damage to the lake is already significant. And it's unlikely the skies will suddenly open up as they did six years back, when the lake's water level rose by several meters within a span of a few weeks. Desperate efforts are now under way to drill for more water on the Golan, in the Hula area and in the eastern Galilee. The first victims will be our lawns. Emergency edicts will soon forbid watering both private and public lawns during 2009 in order to preempt an irreversible depletion of existing reservoirs. But while lush lawns are luxuries, agriculture is not. Farmers, already straining under the severest cutbacks in water quotas, will now be docked an additional 100 million cubic meters. Fruit groves in the north and hothouses in the south will be lost. The damage to growers throughout the country will be heavy. For now, there will be no intermittent cutoffs of water to households, as some propose. The Water Authority estimates that aside from inconvenience, the measures that will be taken won't greatly change our quality of life. However, we will pay more for what we use, though the rates will be reduced for the minimal allotment (from NIS 4.17 to NIS 3.50). The catch is that the basic allotment will no longer be eight cubic meters per family, but 2.5 per person. Beyond that level, prices will double from next month. By some estimates, there will be households paying as much as 70% more for their water. THOUGH Israel's climate is arid and droughts are common, the severity of today's crisis could have been averted. Arnon Sofer, a professor at Haifa University's Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, said: "Had the Water Authority's minimal desalination plan of 2002 been implemented, there would be no crisis now." Why wasn't it implemented? The Knesset Control Committee prompted the Supreme Court to set up an inquiry commission to get some answers. While the Post has been assiduously reporting on the crisis, many Israelis may be unaware that a National Investigation Committee Regarding the Water Crisis, headed by retired judge Dan Bein, is already holding hearings. Shani, the Water Authority director, told the commission that desalination was stymied by the Treasury. The state comptroller had on several occasions pointed to recurrent shortcomings in setting up a viable desalination network. The Technion's Uri Shamir, a professor of civil engineering, argued that even expanding the capabilities of the few already operating desalination plants could have alleviated the immediate problem. The plants belatedly now blueprinted or under construction will, we trust, ease Israel's plight in the not-too-distant future. In five years these plants should generate 600 million cubic meters, or 4.5 times what we currently desalinate. For now, though, saving water is paramount. Israel's failure to have ample desalination facilities on stream by now is largely the result of a parsimonious Finance Ministry. Treasury bureaucrats stymied cabinet decisions, leaving us in the absurd position of providing cutting-edge water technology assistance to other countries, while at home this enviable know-how was not being put to ample use. Shame on the Ministry of Finance.