Successive years of drought have radically reduced the flow of water in Israel's rivers. This has led authorities to divert water into the streams so that they don't dry up, a government official said yesterday.

Hillel Glazman of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said the Betzet and Ein Afek rivers in the Western Galilee were being artificially kept alive with pumped water to prevent damage to their fragile ecosystems. "I have no other choice but to water the river," Glazman told an audience during a conference on the state of Israel's water resources held at Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Yossi Inbar, the director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, rebuked the government for requiring the INPA to pay for the use of water to replenish the desiccated streams.

"First, the government stole water from nature, now it demands that the INPA pay for what it stole," Inbar said.

Dr. Doron Merkel of the Water Authority said he took offense at Merkel's accusation, saying the water was not "stolen" but used to answer critical demand.

During the conference the Hydrological Authority presented data showing that water flow in Israel's rivers this year has been the lowest in over 40 years. Last winter major tributaries of the Jordan River, including the Banias and Dan rivers, recorded their lowest seasonal flow ever, although late rain during February slightly improved their situation.

INPA officials hope that pumping water into the upper portions of rivers and then reusing it further downstream for agricultural purposes will help prevent some damage to the environment. Such a plan has already been successfully implemented in the desert oasis of Ein Gedi, and will soon be introduced to the Dan nature reserve in the north.

'Undraining' the swamps

Another plan under consideration by the INPA is to recreate some of the coastal area's historical swampland that has been drained. The authority is planning to revive a swamp near Ma'agan Michael, south of Haifa, for example, with the help of residents, who will dig a trough and then flooding it with water. Further north, the INPA plans to pump water down the Iyon River, whose flow has been greatly reduced due to increased pumping upstream in Lebanon.

For years the Water Authority has pledged to allocate more water toward the country's reserves, once enough desalination plants have been built. Yesterday, however, its officials said a marked improvement would not be felt for at least five years.

One victim's of the water shortage in the region has been the Dead Sea, whose level has dropped so dramatically, it is now in danger of disappearing. As the groundwater level has dropped, sinkholes have become a common phenomenon in the area, causing damage to structures along the shoreline and endangering the lives of locals and tourists.

"The water level is so low now, that even if we were to open up the Deganya dam, which prevents the flow of water from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea, no water would flow downstream because the lake's water level does not reach the dam," said Tami Shor, the Water Service's operations manager.