Over and Drought: Why the End of Israel's Water Shortage Is a Secret

Remember all the years of being told to conserve 'every drop?' Well, times have changed: Today, Israel has so much affordable water, it can offer to export it. So why is this achievement being kept so secret?

In ancient times and even during the years of the British Mandate (1917-1948), the shortage of water in Palestine, as well as among its neighbors in the Middle East, had a decisive influence not only on the area’s economic development, but also on the political strife between Jews and Arabs. Technology has changed all this. Now, the ability to produce all the water that's needed, whether for human consumption or for agriculture, may soon change our way of life and perhaps even, if our neighbors agree, bring peace closer.

There is now a surplus of water in Israel, thanks largely to the opening of several new desalination plants - and the development of natural-gas fields that can power them cheaply. Since water is the source of life, the well-known Israeli imperative to “save every drop” should still be respected. But the price the Israeli population is charged for its water supply should be reduced by more than the 5 percent drop announced on January 1 of this year.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this revolution, you’re in good company. Simply put, for political and economic reasons, the government continues to play down these achievements.

To understand the situation, it helps to look back to a time before Israeli independence, in 1948. The violence that rocked Palestine in August 1929 shocked not only the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in the country was known at the time. It also stunned the government of Britain, the country that had been awarded the mandate over Palestine by the League of Nations. London decided to determine whether the condition of the Balfour Declaration, of November 1917 (which set out Britain’s intention to establish “a national home for the Jewish people”) about “nothing [being] done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” was being met.

As a first step, the British government decided to send a well-known agricultural expert, Sir John Hope Simpson, to the land to investigate. His conclusion: Palestine was so densely populated that there was “no room to swing a cat.” This finding, together with the report of a committee that examined the situation at the Western Wall, where the 1929 rioting had its origins, brought about Lord Passfield’s “White Paper” of 1930, which recommended limiting the number of Jews permitted to enter Palestine.

Hope Simpson’s historic error was to take it as a given that there was a serious shortage of water in Palestine and the immediate region. From this it followed that the only feasible agriculture must be based on rainwater irrigation and on relatively large plots of land for the fellah to feed his family. Hope Simpson found, however, that Jewish migrants were willing to pay high prices for land owned by the effendis, with the unavoidable result being that the fellahs had less land available for themselves. He apparently did not consider the possibility of developing additional water sources for irrigation purposes. Also disregarded was the fact that almost unlimited water-well drilling was possible (at that time) in the coastal plain for the irrigation of citrus orchards.

City dwellers, too, needed drinking water. Having grown up in Jerusalem in the early 1930s, I remember the shortage of water there in rain-poor years. The Ein Fara spring in the east and “Solomon’s Pools” south of Bethlehem did not provide the minimum amount of drinking water that was needed. Jerusalemites had to dig cisterns to store rainwater. It was not until the late 1930s, when water began to be pumped from the coastal plain, that relief arrived for the city’s chronic water shortage. Still, the problem persisted to some degree and became acute during the siege of 1948.

When it came to the water supply, the policy of His Majesty’s Government was not the Yishuv’s only political problem. The issue was also at the center of the struggle with the Arab states. The Arab League, as their representative, took the offensive against Israel’s exploitation of the waters of Lake Kinneret and its tributaries. The Israelis, it was argued, were infringing on the water rights of Jordan and Syria. In the 1950s, the war over water resulted in bloodshed between Israel and Syria. In September 1965, the Third Arab Summit meeting decided upon the diversion of the Jordan River’s tributaries by force. Although that decision was not implemented, the conflict over water was a key cause for the eruption of the Six-Day War less than two years later.

Since 1967, the conflict over water between Israel and the Arab states has dried up. In the peace treaty with Jordan, signed in 1994, Israel undertook to transfer 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan every year from the Kinneret tributaries. The amount was increased in 2013, when it emerged that Israel’s water supply exceeded expectations.

National asset

Since its establishment, Israel has considered water a national asset to be protected and expanded. It follows that the government alone can decide on water policy. In regard to the Hope Simpson report, the Zionist movement and the Yishuv rejected outright its conclusions regarding the potential for the asset's expansion. The simplest way to challenge its findings was to argue that the country’s water resources were far larger than claimed in the report - and, if possible, to prove it, too. With this in mind, local experts frequently arrived at exaggerated estimates. A case in point is Simcha Blass, an engineer who was involved for many years with Mekorot, the national water company and with Tahal, the water-planning authority. An incorrigible optimist, Blass believed that Israel’s water potential exceeded three billion cubic meters a year. In stark contrast, others, including the late Prof. Hillel Shuval, an expert on water management, thought that even if Israel drew on all its potential water sources, it would not be able to produce more than two billion cubic meters a year.

Overestimating the potential of water sources was a useful tool in the Yishuv’s dealings with the British, and perhaps also made potential immigrants less leery of settling in the country, both before 1948 and during the period of mass immigration and economic hardship in the state’s first years. Indirectly, though, this approach caused serious damage. It brought about over-pumping and the consequent salination of the wells of the coastal aquifer; led to unnecessary and expensive water projects, such as conveying water from Lake Kinneret and the Yarkon River to the Negev; and it encouraged the introduction of water-thirsty agricultural crops, such as sugar beets, cotton and peanuts.

The sugar beet crop was especially harmful, because in addition to the intensive irrigation they required, because once sugar beets stopped being cultivated, the country was left with two unused factories for sugar production, in Afula and Kiryat Gat.

The cotton industry fared better. Cotton was brought to the country at the initiative of Sam Hamburg, a resourceful farmer from California. Its advantage over sugar beets was that the former could be irrigated with brackish water. Disappointment, however, arrived from a different direction. Initially, the large cotton mills that were built in Israel’s remote southern towns provided employment for the residents, but in the long term they could not compete with cotton from the Far East.

The mass immigration that accompanied Israel’s establishment demonstrated that the existing sources of water were insufficient. The groundwater could not supply more than a billion cubic meters a year, even if the wells were over-exploited. Rainwater, recycled industrial water, brackish water sources and sewage water – which had just begun to be purified – would add no more than 350 million cubic meters a year. All told, this would not be enough for the needs of a constantly growing population and for farming, which at the time was a major aspect of the economy.

The decision to build the National Water Carrier, for the purpose of moving water from the Kinneret southward across 130 kilometers was made in 1948. Implementation of the project, which involved diverting water from three rivers as well - the Jordan, Yarmuk and Litani - from north to south, took until 1964.

The idea to move water southward to the Negev was first broached in 1939 by an international soil conservation expert, Walter Clay Lowdermilk. His book, “Palestine, Land of Promise” stirred the leaders of the Zionist movement. But today, 50 years after the National Water Carrier was completed, it is clear that the costly project added less than 500 million cubic meters of water a year – less than a third of Israel’s water usage at the time. Immense collateral damage was also caused: a drastic fall in the level of Lake Kinneret, the conflict with Syria and Jordan over water and, perhaps gravest of all, the enormous damage to the Dead Sea due to the vast decrease in the amount of water entering it from the Jordan River.

Radically altered situation

Almost secretly, Israel’s decision makers, including the Knesset’s Finance Committee, which was heavily influenced by the farm lobby, decided to build seawater desalination plants in Israel. There were strong arguments made in public discussions against desalination: the enormous costs involved; the problem of choosing which method to use; and accompanying environmental problems. With the technologies available in the late 20th century, desalinating a cubic meter of water cost more than $1. No farming industry could bear that expense, so urban consumers would be saddled with the cost.

Desalination in Israel began in 1973, when Mekorot built facilities that operated by reverse osmosis; these supplied the Dead Sea, Eilat and communities not served by the National Water Carrier. It was only 35 years later, in 2008, that the government decided to establish five large desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, with the aim of providing 505 million cubic meters of water a year by 2013 (a forecast met in full) and 750 million cubic meters a year by 2020. However, since 2008, two technological revolutions – both of which also have far-reaching political implications - have radically altered the water situation in Israel.

The first revolution is the immense decrease in the cost of desalination - from $1 per cubic meter to 40 cents, and even less than that in desalination plants built in Hadera, Palmahim, Ashkelon and at Sorek. The savings will grow further thanks to the use of Israeli natural gas instead of electricity to power the plants. The second revolution is the success of the plants used to purify sewage water that were built adjacent to Israel’s cities and towns. Thanks to efficient usage, this water now irrigates most of the country’s field crops.

What’s odd, though, is that the same people who brought you the abundance - the government, Mekorot and the companies that invested billions in creating the desalination and purification facilities - are not blowing their own horn. The public learns about this success only incidentally, as in the news that Granite Hacarmel Investments, part of the Azrieli Group, made a handsome profit of 100 million shekels ($28.5 million) by selling the Palmahim facility shortly after it was built. It was also reported that the pumping of water the Kinneret via the National Water Carrier has been reduced.

There are at least three explanations for this uncharacteristic silence, in the face of success and the concomitant abundance of water Israel now enjoys. One is that even though the cost of desalination has fallen considerably, the government promised the investors a high price for the water. The government can reduce the amount of water it buys from the desalination facilities, but it cannot pay less than what it promised.

A second explanation is the authorities’ fear that if the Israeli public finds out about the true situation, it will demand a reduction of water costs far in excess of the five percent declared earlier this month. (Unpaid water bills in Israel in 2013 totaled more than 200 million shekels.)

Concern that Israelis will waste water if they know how plentiful it really is, is the third reason for keeping the facts mum. But does this justify the authorities’ policy of hiding the whole truth from the public?

There is also, perhaps, another reason - a political one - for the authorities’ lack of candor about the water revolution in Israel. This is the hope that Israel will succeed in exploiting the water issue as a means for improving its relations with both Jordan and the Palestinians. A dire shortage of water exists in the Palestinian Authority, the Gaza Strip and in the Hashemite Kingdom - in the latter of which the problem has been exacerbated by the influx of refugees from Syria. Israel’s neighbors welcome its readiness to supply water immediately from the partly idle desalination plants and to establish similar facilities in the Arab countries.

Indeed, Israel is already sending large amounts of water to Gaza and Jordan. Under Article 6 of the peace treaty with Jordan, the two countries are obliged to cooperate in developing water sources. Thus, Israel supplies Jordan with 50 million cubic meters of water a year from the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, while Jordan pumps water in the region opposite the Israeli Arava for the irrigation of crops there. Recently, and again almost in secret, Israel decided to increase the supply of Jordan River water to Jordan by 20 million cubic meters a year.

There were also other efforts to help out in the water realm. For example, a Mekorot delegation suggested that Jordan, with its help, build a desalination plant 50 kilometers north of Aqaba, to be fed by water from the Red Sea. Amman eventually decided to forgo practical cooperation with Israel on this project and to avail itself of other experts and World Bank funding. All that’s left to Israel from this project, some of whose water will flow into the Dead Sea, was the participation of Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom in the signing ceremony last month in Washington.

Despite the veil of silence and the political situation, which is still making it difficult for Israel to become a regional water power, there is no longer any doubt that, like the natural gas that is now available from the Mediterranean, the expected bounty of water will also effect a change in Israel’s economic and political situation. That change is likely to have a beneficial effect on everyone in Israel.