The roots of the water crisis

The country's deep historic and cultural commitments to agriculture have played a crucial role.

tap water 88 (photo credit: )
tap water 88
(photo credit: )
This country is facing one of its most severe water crises, triggered by the harsh droughts of 2006-2009. However the crisis is no less the result of the long-term chronic problem of overutilization of its limited natural water resources. This resulted mainly from demands for more and more water from the agricultural sector, even after the country's natural water resources were fully developed to their limit in the 1980s. To meet these growing demands, the agricultural and water authorities embarked on a conscious program of dangerous overpumping of ground and surface water resources, the precursor of the water crisis. Why was this done? We must examine the question of the relationship between water management problems and the role of the country's deep historic and cultural commitments to agriculture and a romantic vision of a pastoral Israel which still influences water policy. Since water resources are limited, we need to reevaluate the division of water allocations between the sectors resulting from rapidly growing domestic and urban demand associated with the growing population and the continued demands of agriculture for water. AGRICULTURE HAS, up to now, used some 50 percent of good quality drinking water, despite the fact that it represents only 2%-3% of the country's GDP and 3%-4% of the population. To understand this deep commitment to agriculture, an overcommitment as far as allocation of water resources is concerned, it is necessary to understand the historic evolution of the role of agriculture in our society and culture. The first period, which established the roots of Israel as an agricultural nation, goes back to biblical times when the Jewish people lived in its own land. During the 2,000 or so years of the Diaspora, the image of Israel as an agricultural nation was continually reinforced in the collective memory by religious rituals and Jewish holidays mainly based on the agricultural seasons in Eretz Yisrael. However, we only began to reestablish our national roots in the land with the establishment of the first settlements in the First Aliya of 1880-1905. This was followed by a more ideologically motivated period of settlement of the land of the Second Aliya led by such thinkers as A.D. Gordon, who in 1910-20 preached the religion of labor and the mystic need for the nation to reestablish its roots by working the soil in its native land. In the prestate period, the ideology, dream and vision of a pastoral agricultural nation was promoted in the popular culture - poems, press, books, youth movements, popular songs and children's stories. Every child worked in agriculture in school. THE ISSUE of the limitations of land and water became a serious existential political threat to the Yishuv when attempts by the British to cancel the Balfour Declaration where made by the Hope-Simpson White Paper in 1930 to end Jewish immigration to Palestine due to "lack of economic absorptive capacity... specifically lack of water and land." This led to a massive national drive to establish agricultural settlements - "dunam after dunam" - by the Jewish Agency. The national commitment to urgent agriculture development deepened. Thus, with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 the drive to establish hundreds of new settlements - moshavim and kibbutzim - became top priority, both to settle the land and assure the borders of the new state as well as to provide jobs for newly arrived immigrants and to provide food security. Over the years some 700 new agricultural settlements were valiantly established. However, in the view of Meyer Ben-Meir, former water commissioner, we overdid it and could never have met their water needs. Simultaneously, major efforts were made to develop the nation's water resources, regardless of costs and economic implications, including the National Water Carrier and more than 1,000 new wells. As a result of the very high cost of water produced by these heroic national projects, which was greater than most farmers could afford, the subsidy of water for agriculture became a basic part of national policy. While agriculture became highly efficient in water utilization, the heavy subsidy has resulted in farmers growing many crops that would otherwise not be economically feasible and using more water than economically justified. WHEN NATURAL water resources development reached its limit in about 1980, the country faced a dilemma - not enough water to meet both the growing urban needs and maintain the same level of allocations for agriculture. The agriculture-dominated water establishment developed a new strategy of "temporary" overpumping and "one-time draw-down" of aquifers to justify maintaining the high levels water of allocations for agriculture. The State Controller's Report points out that "as a result of overpumping and overutilization, underground water levels were lowered to dangerous levels below the red line, water reserves held for emergency use in case of droughts have dwindled and seawater pollution has intruded to contaminate ground water." The water planners naively even promised that eventually these dangerous overdrafts would be repaid with cheap desalinated water, which never came. Thus, based on the deep overcommitment to agriculture, the seeds of the water crisis were planted, which has resulted in the near collapse of rational water management. This short article cannot go into details, but some of the solutions to this crisis include a reevaluation of the role of agriculture, painful as that may be. This country can survive only as a hi-tech society and will have to reallocate water from agriculture to the domestic/urban/industrial sectors. We must end wasteful water subsidies to agriculture. It is illogical and immoral to dry up the urban parks, gardens and green areas, while exporting flowers grown with subsidized drinking water to Europe. New ways must be found to maintain as many of the agricultural communities as much possible by subsidizing green areas as the Swiss do, but not by subsidizing water. We must make major efforts to speed up the construction of seawater desalination plants and the building of treatment plants to increase wastewater recycling and reuse which can assure agriculture a growing source of water to replace fresh water. We will need to increase the allocations of fresh and recycled water to nature, gardens, parks and the environment to keep the country green so as to provide the green lungs required for the health and welfare of those who live in such a crowded urban society. A solution to our water crisis is possible, but requires giving up many deeply imbedded dreams and visions of the past. The writer is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem.