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The pumping of water from Lake Kinneret, which serves as Israel's primary water reservoir, was halted on Monday as water levels reached just 40 cm above the critical "black line," below which all pumping is forbidden. Pumping was stopped as Israel suffers the driest winter season since measurements began in the 1920s.

Since the beginning of the rainy season (October), precipitation throughout the country has reached only 50-70% of its average. January, the rainiest month in the season, has seen just 22 mm of rain - 10% of the multi-annual average for the month - in central and northern areas. Without a dramatic change in the meteorological picture, January 2009 is expected to be the driest in recorded history.

The Water Authority said this week that there is already an unprecedented shortage in Israel's water reserves. The Dan, Banias and Snir rivers are at historic low levels, even though the rainy season is well advanced. These rivers should be pouring some 80 cubic meters of water into the Kinneret lake in January, but as of January 18, there has been almost no flow of water this month. Water sources feeding the Kinneret are also at their lowest level since measurements began. If February is not unusually rainy, the Water Authority says, the Banias and Snir rivers will nearly dry up.

Suspension of pumping from the Kinneret has resulted in increased pumping from Israel's aquifers, which are also in deficit after four years of drought - and on the brink of the fifth consecutive dry year.

And the question arises: What has been done to date to address the increasing water shortage? The Water Authority slashed allocations to farmers by 50% in 2008, placed a moratorium on planting new gardens and canceled all discounts on consumption for garden irrigation. Simultaneously, the Water Authority launched a public advertising campaign to encourage people to save water, which it says has resulted in the saving of 100 million cubic meters of water. Nevertheless, the campaign is heard broadcasted only from time to time.

The authority plans to cut another 100 million cubic meters from its allocation to agriculture, which is already suffering the consequences of the devastating earlier cuts, place a sweeping moratorium on irrigation of public lawns - and possibly private ones as well - and increase efficiency of water consumption in the industrial sector. At present the authority is not planning to restrict household water use.

As plans for additional desalination plants at Sorek and Ashdod move forward at a snail's pace, Water Authority chief Uri Shani has announced that the authority will call on international sources for information on available technology for importing water.

Nevertheless, the tender for the desalination plant in Ashdod, the fifth in Israel, has raised plenty of interest from both local and international corporations. Foreign companies that will be participating tomorrow in a bidders' conference include Wacorp Hyundai India, Nhon Corporation from Vietnam, Mid-Century Beijing from China and the representative of a company based in Oman in the Persian Gulf. Israeli companies that have promised to send delegates include IDE Technologies, Housing and Constructing, Granite Hacarmel, GE and Siemens Israel.

The current tender is for planning and constructing a 65-dunam (16-acre) sea water desalination plant in the northern industrial zone of Ashdod. The plant will be capable of desalinating up to about 100 million cubic meters of sea water a year, or at least 100,000 per day.

The conference will present the draft tender which, for the first time, will not be for a direct franchise between the contractor and state. Instead, the plant is to be operated by Mekorot-Yizum for 25 years under a "Build, Operate,Transfer" (B.O.T.) agreement with the state. The agreement became possible after the Comptroller's department waived the need for a tender for the state-owned water company subsidiary Mekorot Yizum.

The cost of the project, which is expected to begin operating in 2012, is estimated at $450 million.

In a strong show of support for the project, Minister of National Infrastructure Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Water Authority head Uri Shani, Mekorot chairman Eli Ronen, Mekorot Yizum chairman Ido Rozolio and CEO Giora Guttman will participate in the conference.