safed - Dror Artzi - December 14 2010
A Safed resident carries clean water. Photo by Dror Artzi
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Investments of NIS 52 billion will be needed in the coming decade to develop water production and supply systems to deal with the shortfall of natural water sources, which considerably exceeds previous estimates, according to a master plan for water now being finalized.

But the Water Authority itself is a major obstacle to the plan's implementation, as it suffers from an acute personnel shortage and lack of power, including the inability to make decisions on desalination facilities.

The master plan, drafted by a Water Authority task force with the help of environmental organizations, was submitted this week to the National Planning and Building Council.

A dramatic change has taken place in the amount of natural water available in the aquifers and Lake Kinneret, due to dwindling precipitation, the task force said. And a recent study found that the water supply is even smaller because of processes such as a rise in the salinity of the groundwater, which has rendered 10 percent of it unfit for use.

A further 15 percent decrease was caused by a deterioration in water quality, urbanization (which prevents rainwater from entering the groundwater ) and climate change.

All these increase the need for desalination, decontaminating groundwater and using treated sewage for irrigation instead of natural water, the task force said.

In the coming years, an estimated NIS 5.2 billion a year will be required to set up desalination and sewage treatment facilities and lay water pipelines. By 2050, an additional 1.5 billion cubic meters of water will be needed - of which about a third will be allocated to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

About 80 percent of this development will be financed by water prices; the state will foot the rest of the bill. But the rise in water prices will not need to be significant, as the number of consumers will rise, due to population increases.

As desalination plants along the coastal plain expand their activity, the Kinneret's water will be allocated mainly to the north and will no longer serve as one of the Negev's water sources, the plan stated.

In the short term, quotas on natural water to farmers will remain in effect. But once the water system stabilizes, the amount of water will not be limited and will be adjusted to the farmers' needs.

In addition, water will no longer be artificially channeled into streams by pipeline; preference will instead be given to natural water supply. An interministerial committee headed by the Environment Ministry will determine the water requirements for rehabilitating nature reserves.

Israel's water consumption per capita has declined sharply, from more than 110 cubic meters annually in the past to 90 cubic meters today, mainly due to water-saving campaigns and the rise in water prices, the task force said. But the public is likely to consume more water once desalination plants increase the supply, the team predicted.

Environmental organizations object to this conclusion, saying that water saving must be consistently encouraged. This could obviate the need for some desalination facilities, which, in addition to high costs, have negative environmental effects, such as energy consumption and occupying large areas of the coastal region.

But in any case, the master plan's implementation faces significant stumbling blocks. One of these is the absence of a government body in charge of policy on issues like population growth and dispersal. The Water Authority also lacks the clout to ensure that enough desalination plants are built, and it is severely short of professional personnel.