Parched Israel

No army, and no economy, can function without an adequate, secure and dependable water supply.

tap water 88 (photo credit: )
tap water 88
(photo credit: )
While we await - please! - the first bountiful showers of our so far unseasonably summery winter, we are told that our water resources are so alarmingly deficient that new, draconian restrictions on household use are in the works. In the past relatively rainless four years, Israel has managed to amass a water deficit of four billion cubic meters. Consequently, 100 million cubic meters of water are to be cut from Israeli farmers' irrigation allowances, and municipalities are being urged to replace large stretches of lawns with less-thirsty flora. Things are so bad that desalination boats are being dispatched as a first-aid measure - to help out by turning even small amounts of seawater into potable water. According to the Society for the Protection of Nature, things needn't have reached this sad state, the dry weather notwithstanding. Had the government bothered to implement water-conservation schemes drafted at its own initiative in late 2005, we'd now be boasting 400 million more cubic meters of water than we have and the level of the Kinneret - our main natural water resource - would be 2.4 meters higher. The only bright cloud on the horizon, so to speak, comes via National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who informs us that over the next five years Israel will become considerably less dependent on precipitation and on the Kinneret because massive desalination projects will belatedly come online, generating 600 million cubic meters - 4.5 times what Israel currently desalinates. Yet even the optimistic Ben-Eliezer acknowledges that his upbeat assessment of the future should have become reality long ago. He faults the Treasury for parsimony. While Israel successfully markets desalination plants worldwide and helps other countries cope with pressing water needs, at home all this enviable knowhow is barely put to use. The bottom-line reason is chronic procrastination, which in the short haul spares us valuable outlays, with the money allocated elsewhere. But this shortsighted focus on immediate needs pawns our future and potentially compromises our independence. No army, and no economy, can function without an adequate, secure and dependable water supply. DESALINATION plants are already operating in Eilat, Palmahim and Ashkelon. A Hadera plant will soon join them, and Ashdod and Nahal Sorek are blueprinted for 2012. The Nahal Sorek plant is slated to be the largest, and a tender for its construction is due to be awarded shortly. But all that is woefully behind schedule. Had desalination targets set early this decade been met, Israel would now be desalinating 400 million cubic meters of water annually instead of 130. But both water conservation and desalination mean immediate expenditures. Agora-wise and shekel-foolish, each year the Treasury gambles on rain and scrimps on long-term water supply solutions. Nature, however, has failed to cooperate for five years straight. Current rainfall is only half the average for this time of year. The latest cutbacks for agriculture mean that this sector is left with just 40 percent of the water it had in 2000, that 60,000 dunams of citrus and fruit groves (mostly in Galilee) will have to be uprooted and that 50,000 dunams of vegetable and flower hothouses (mostly in the Negev) may be dismantled. Never in Israel's history has so small a proportion of national water resources gone to agriculture. The available reservoirs (including desalinated water) now stand at 880 million cubic meters, but domestic demand alone is for 722 million cubic meters, with only 454 earmarked to farming this year. Private gardens are doomed to wither; we're advised to opt for synthetic grass. Ironically, short-term remedies like the desalination vessels are significantly more expensive than desalinating water in conventional plants: 2005's overlooked water-conservation program would have cost NIS 147 million annually for five years and, by now, enriched our resources by nearly threefold the current desalination output. Prudently managing the little we have and dotting the country's Mediterranean coast with desalination plants is imperative. Israel lacks good neighbors on whose water largesse it can count. Indeed, some neighbors, like Jordan, are parched and depend on Israeli generosity. This, then, is no time for myopic thrift. A flood of words but a dearth of deeds today will cause thirst tomorrow.