Finding water was never the problem

The government has not exercised the past water-obtaining options available, and is now facing water rationing.

Water 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Water 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The remark by National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer two weeks ago that "we will have to cut between 100 million and 150 million cubic meters" of water from that made available to farmers here takes me back quickly four years ago to a deal Israel made with the Turks and which was not carried out. The following is from an article which appeared in Haaretz on January 5, 2004. "The government yesterday approved the purchase of 1 billion cubic meters of water from Turkey. Finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Meir Sheetrit voted against the proposal, while 13 cabinet members voted in favor. An agreement in principle for the transaction was made between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Turkish energy minister Zeki Cakan in October 2002, under which Israel would import 50 million cubic liters of water from Turkey per year, for 20 years." The article does not mention that in return for the purchase of this water, the Turks agreed to outsource upgrades to their military equipment to Israel. As one would expect, the Turks carried out their part of the bargain according to schedule. The military upgrades were completed, and paid for. In anticipation of the drawing down of the water, the Turks also built an off-loading facility at Manavgat, just east of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast, fully expecting that very soon thereafter Israel would begin transporting the water from Turkey. AFTER THAT there followed delay after delay, and excuse after excuse. The government first claimed that the cost of transporting the water was too high, not understanding that the cost of not having sufficient water for the population here was probably even higher. Concomitantly, a long debate ensued about how the water could be transported. All kinds of scenarios were discussed including filling large balloons with water and floating them from Turkey, or laying a pipeline between the two countries. The most feasible method, of course, would have been to take decommissioned tankers, sanitize them and simply transport the water in ships. But this, too, was discarded as having too many potential health risks associated with the quality of the water, even though the water could easily have been further purified once it reached here. In a final attempt to pacify the Turks, who were more than a bit upset that Israel had not kept its part of the bargain, in January 2006 a team of Israeli experts flew off to Turkey to discuss the possibility of buying Turkey's potable water, imported via tanker ships. The delegation included officials from the National Infrastructures Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Water Commission. But once again, the talks led nowhere because the Israelis reported that the cost of importing water was simply too high, almost double the cost of desalinating water locally. THAT ARGUMENT, of course, was specious in its own right, as there was only one operating desalination plant at the time, in Ashkelon, with another plant scheduled to open in 2007 at Palmahim. Together these plants have a capacity of 135 million cubic meters per year. While important, if Israel was serious about building desalination plants to address its water needs, which total almost 1.5 billion cubic meters per year, we would have been bringing one of these on line every year for the last 15 years, at a minimum. Of course, even our small program of building desalination plants is now opposed by environmental groups which claim that they extract a high environmental and economic cost in their construction and operation (which consumes enormous amounts of petroleum energy). The environmentalists also claim that such plants require large amounts of coastal land, and will direct a high concentration of salts and chemicals into the sea, causing concomitant ecological damage. So, where does that leave us? We have an offshore water source that we don't want to tap. We have alternative means of creating potable water that we were slow to pursue and which some groups find objectionable. So the government, instead of exercising the options available to it over the years, did nothing and now is faced with the only alternative it seems to have in its inventory and that is water rationing. For a country whose hi-tech expertise is the envy of the entire world, too often we fail to use that intelligence for our own good. In this case, some simple long-range planning would have keep us out of this mess. But, then again, oftentimes long-range planning is not our strong suit, is it? Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, when he was still secretary-general of the UN, is quoted as having said "The next war in the Middle East will be over water." No doubt he knew what he was talking about. The writer is president of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other activities, represents the trade and investment interests of six US states.