Sunday 22 February 2009

The Long Dry Winter

Whilst Israel has been preoccupied with a war in Gaza and a general election over the past few months, the country's water resources have quietly been drying up. Maybe it has not been so quiet as it has received significant press coverage and air time. It's just when you are fighting a war of survival, water problems seem to take a back seat.

The water problems are not new. Israel is a country that does not see a drop of rain at all for approximately 5 months each year over the summer period. The winter rain is, therefore, critical to fill the main water storage sources to cover the summer period as well. The three main water sources are the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), which provides most of Israel's water, together with the underground coastal and inland aquifers. The winter of 2008/9 has proven to be a long dry one with barely any rainfall. The rains to date have been scarcely sufficient to cover the water demand over the winter, never mind provide supply for the summer. And this after the water situation at the end of the summer in 2008 was dire.

For the first time ever, the water level in the Kinneret has dipped below the "black line". This is the level of the pumps in the Kinneret, and below which it is impossible to pump any water. The Israeli government had previously determined a "red line" for the Kinneret below which it was not advised to continue to pump water for fear of damaging the Kinneret. A "lower red line" was subsequently coined to allow pumping for up to approximately 5 metres below the red line. The black line, more than a metre below the lower red line has now also been breached. Fortunately, some rain in recent weeks and snow on the Hermon has succeeded in raising the level above the black line for now. When the snow melts, this will hopefully direct more more water into the Kinneret. This will clearly, however, not be anywhere near enough for the summer months.

The water shortage has been driven by a combination of lower rainfall and higher demand. The government, whilst being aware of the impending problem for a number of years, has been slow to react. This is not to say that no action has been taken at all.
  • Desalination plants have already been built that currently satisfy approximately 10% of Israel's water needs. These include the world's largest reverse osmosis plant in Ashkelon. Further plants are under construction to provide significantly more desalinated water.
  • Drip irrigation has been in use for a number of years in much of Israel's agricultural sector and most gardens in Israel's towns and cities. This is a uniquely Israeli invention to allow the most efficient use of water for gardening and agricultural purposes.
  • Approximately 70% of Israel's waste water is recycled. It is intended to raise this to 100% in the near future. After going through a cleansing process, recycled water is used for agricultural irrigation.
  • Water restrictions and recommendations are in place across Israel. Although not sufficiently closely policed and probably requiring some even stronger measures, it shows evidence of an attempt by the authorities to reduce the water consumption.
But even these measures will not provide us with the water required in the summer of 2009. So what do we do? Despite the fact that the rainfall of the winter of 2001/2 filled the Kinneret from empty in one season, such a miracle will not happen in 2009 especially when considering that most of the winter is behind us. In typically Israeli fashion, a last-minute solution seems to have been found to tide us over the worst of our problems over the next few years. Prof. Uri Shani, Head of Israel's Water Authority announced that temporary desalination plants will be readied before the summer of 2009. These plants, whilst providing less water than the permanent plants and at a much higher cost, will provide Israel with urgently-needed water for the next 3 to 5 years until the permanent plants are ready. This, together with drilling more wells and further treatment of contaminated water, will suffice Israel's water needs according to Prof. Shani.

It is only in Israel where a last-minute solution is found for a national problem with severe potential consequences which works, and the government gets away with it.


Anonymous said...

Palestinians are barred from at least 70 professions, have no access to state education or healthcare, and can't move freely or buy land. one would think the obvious that this is in Israel, but no.....welcome to Lebanon, a nightmare for Palestinians.

Anthony Reich said...

Richard, thanks for your comment. It seems as though you may have misplaced this comment against this blog when it appears to be directed at one of the others - perhaps "Credit Crunch Israeli Style"? Although I knew that Palestinians do not have things easy in Lebanon, I had no idea that this was the case.