Saturday 2 August 2008

The Water Conundrum

Water has always been a major issue for the countries of the Middle East. The State of Israel has had a particular challenge in providing sufficient quantities for the consumption of its residents, businesses, industries and agriculture. Until 2008, the Israeli government has somehow managed to get by in ensuring that sufficient has been available each year, particularly during the dry summer months.

I say until 2008, because this is the year that the taps are predicted to run dry in Israel. How could this happen? How could it come to pass that a country with the technological capability of Israel and some of the best brains in the world can allow a situation where, barring a major miracle, the taps will shortly run dry? The answer lies in many years of mismanagement of the limited water resources at our disposal, and particular mismanagement of the water consumption.

Israel's natural water sources are limited to the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret) and the underground coastal and mountain aquifers. Israel's current annual demand for water is more than 2 billion cubic metres. 65% to 70% of this demand is supplied by the above-mentioned natural resources. The remaining demand is satisfied by a number of smaller aquifers and underground reservoirs, with less than 10% of the country's current demand satisfied by desalination. This is despite the fact that the world's largest reverse osmosis desalination plant is located in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. There is a further much smaller plant at Palmachim. A third plant in the city of Hadera is due to begin producing water in 2009 at approximately the same rate as the Ashkelon plant.

The level of water in the Kinneret was measured at the end of June at 212.70 metres below sea level. The Government-set red line, representing the level beyond which water should not be drawn from the Kinneret, is 213 metres below sea level. Water will, however, continue to be drawn from the Kinneret below 213 metres up to the so-called black line at 215 metres below sea level. At this level, it has been determined that irreparable damage to the Kinneret will be caused. It is true that the Kinneret dropped to a level of 214.87 metres below sea level during the summer of 2001, but our water situation is much more serious in 2008. The reason for this is due to the precarious state of the aquifers which are at a much lower level now than in 2001. It has been claimed that some aquifers have already suffered irreparable damage due to over pumping.

Whilst it is clear that much more could, and should, have been done to supplement the supply of water, what can be said about the management of the consumption of water? The scarcity of water is something that all Israelis are aware of, and that children are educated about from a young age. Almost all toilets have a double flush system, gardens are watered using drip irrigation systems and few people take baths in favour of showers. These are all in-grained in the national psyche in the interests of conserving water. Despite this fact, I was surprised to read recently that Israelis use more water per capita than the Germans who have an oversupply of water.

My major issue, however, is the way in which the water disaster of 2008 has been handled by the authorities. It is true that water restrictions are in place which prevent certain wasteful uses of water. How well have these been advertised? And more importantly, how well are they being policed? It seems to me that they are not being policed at all. I recall drought years during my youth in South Africa. I also recall the measures that were taken to conserve the use of water. Every public water tap had a sticker warning the user to conserve water. Each household was given an allocation of how much water they were allowed to consume on a daily and weekly basis. There was not a resident who did not know what their family's daily consumption of water was. No household waste water was allowed to go down the drain. After washing the dishes, bathing or brushing your teeth, the waste water would be carefully conserved to use for flushing toilets or watering the garden. Most homes had rainwater tanks which would collect the rainwater off the roofs during the rainy season, and this water would be used for watering the garden. This was water conservation at its best.

Regrettably, we do not see any of these measures in place in Israel. This is largely due to the lack of political will to significantly beef up and police water conservation measures. But, more than this, there is a financial conflict of interests at play.

Local authorities in Israel make significant income from the sale of water. Whether the water is obtained from the city's own aquifers or bought from the national carrier, there is a good profit to be made from the sale of water to its residents. There is, therefore, clearly no incentive on the part of the local authorities to work to reduce the consumption of water by its citizens. On the contrary, the city's coffers are a good deal better off when there is increased consumption. It is my impression that this financial consideration is the main obstacle in the path of real water conservation actions that could make a measurable difference to Israel's consumption patterns.

Despite the fact that the government now has plans in place to increase the production of desalinated water sevenfold by 2020, I believe that, at the current rate of growth in usage, demand will outstrip even this supply unless the right conservation measures can be put in place.

The solution to the water conundrum requires a solution to the financial conflict of interests first. Lack of political will to resolve this problem will ensure ongoing water problems for the foreseeable future.

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