Ongoing crisis as demand outstrips supply

The worst in the country's history - Aaron Priel outlines some of the measures Israel is embarking upon to strengthen its institutional water management and expand the use of desalination technologies in new areas.

Israel’s water crisis is regarded as the worst in the country’s history. The reason is very simple – Israel now withdraws more water from its natural resources than nature can supply. Successive droughts over the last three years have resulted in over-pumping of underground reservoirs. Saline water has penetrated into these aquifers, making them unusable for domestic or for irrigation.

The annual total water consumption in Israel is nearly 1.7BN metres³. Nearly 900M metres³ are used in agriculture – of which nearly 200M metres³ are recycled or saline water, used for industrial crops such as maize or cotton.

Too Little too late?

The water crisis has prompted the government, after extensive lobbying, to approve the construction of a desalination plant near Ashkelon, located on the coastal plain in the south, and the construction of five additional small desalination plants, in different parts of the country such as in the Negev and in the Arava, where latest findings estimate there are underground reservoirs of at least 500BN metres³ of water.

Another emergency measure is the plan to import 50BN metres³ of water per year for the next five years from Turkey, but the negotiations aimed at implementing this, based on a memorandum of understanding, have been delayed.

The new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who in the past served as Minister of Agriculture, will face tough challenges aimed at solving the water crisis.

Officials at Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, commented that the steps taken by Ehud Barak’s outgoing government, though ‘in the right direction’, were too little and too late. They believe the national water situation is so grave ‘that we can’t afford to wait for a long term solution’. The most recent report by Mekorot on the country’s main fresh water source, Lake Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee), from where the company normally pumps an average of 400M metres³ of fresh water per year, is that the Sea is in imminent danger of becoming salinated due to the falling water level, and that the coastal and mountain aquifers are becoming both polluted and saline.

Mekorot reported at the end of February 2001 that from the beginning of the current rainy season, only 100M metres³ of water flowed to the Sea of Galilee, less than 50% of the quantity of water during an average year which usually sees 250M metres³ of water flow to the Sea over that period. Under normal, average conditions, the flow of water to the Sea of Galilee amounts to 420M metres³ of water per year.

Mekorot Chairman of the Board, Uri Sagie, stated that if the country will not implement emergency measures to alleviate the water crisis, for supplying approximately 450M metres³ of water, ‘there will be no water. Pure and simple.’

He is urging the immediate construction of an additional desalination plant with a capacity to desalinate 50M metres³ of sea water per year, and the construction of an additional water carrier for transporting recycled water to a large existing reservoir in the southern part of the country.

Cross-border issue

Referring to the water issue as a lever for regional agreements, Mr Sagie said that, ‘In view of the fact that Syria has no water, the Palestinians have no water, Jordan is suffering from an acute shortage of water, and Israel has no water, it is essential, from a regional point of view, to increase without delay the water resources. Any new water project initiated by Israel should take into account the needs of Jordan and of the Palestinian Authority,’ Mr Sagie asserted.

In the middle of all this, water experts and economists maintain that restructuring government-owned Mekorot is a priority. Under the plan, Mekorot Holdings will be formed as a new business entity which will have full control of three subsidiaries: Mekorot Water Supply, Mekorot Initiatives and Development and Mekorot Assets.

A fourth subsidiary, the National Water Carrier Company (NWC) will be established and controlled equally by Mekorot Holdings and the government.

NWC is the country’s largest water facility, transporting an annual average of 400M metres³ of fresh water from the Sea of Galilee to the central and southern parts of Israel.

Restructuring Mekorot will enable it to raise funds by issuing bonds and to establish partnerships with local and international investors on joint ventures. In addition, the company will then be able to bid for desalination and water purification projects and compete to operate urban water networks.

Agricultural lobby

Among the emergency measures taken by the Water Commission of Israel is a 50% cut of the water allocations to the agricultural sector, while increasing the use of recycled water for irrigation. However, the Water Commission is planning to cut additional quantities of water for agriculture, a step which prompted representatives of farmers’ organisations to warn that if such cuts are applied, ‘over 10,000 hectares of fruit bearing plantations will dry up. This will cause irreversible damage to the country’s agricultural production infrastructure.’ Other suggested measures are:

  • Cutting water allocations for home use from 100m³/year per capita, by 10% to save 70M metres³ of drinking quality water each year;
  • Price increase of water for domestic use, to cover the costs of desalination by doubling the price local authorities pay, from $0.35 to $0.70 per metre³;
  • Compulsory installation of water-saving devices by public and private consumers;
  • Strict limitations on watering public and private gardens;
  • A regulation calling for planting crops that do not require large quantities of water;
  • Increase capacity for recycling brackish and saline water for agricultural and industrial use;
  • Accelerating the rehabilitation of wells, and expediting the construction of desalination plants.

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