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The head of the Water Authority said yesterday Israel is facing a water crisis the likes of which it has not seen since the 1980s, with the worst still to come.

"January is turning out to be the driest month ever measured for this period," Professor Uri Shani said at a Knesset Interior and Environment Committee meeting.

"The gap between supply and demand as well as the situation of aquifers are more serious than we have ever known. The peak of the crisis is still ahead of us," he said.

Since the beginning of the year, he said, only 55 percent of the average annual precipitation has fallen for this time of year.

At the meeting, Shani announced a number of emergency steps the Water Authority intends to take to deal with the crisis. First, prohibitions will be put in place on watering grassy areas both privately and publicly in 2009, in order to prevent irreversible damage to aquifers.

In addition, 100 million fewer cubic meters of water will be allotted to agricultural operations this year, following last year's already record low in water allotment to farmers.

Shani said the authority was also examining placing desalination ships opposite Israel's shores.

MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), chairman of the committee, said the government needs to take the lead in implementing emergency water usage rules.

"We expect the government to set a determined, aggressive policy including enforcement and penalization, including criminal penalties," he said.