The green groups' dilemma: How to save the environment without harming agriculture
At the Ein Bokek Nature Reserve in the Dead Sea area, water that has become saline due to pollution will soon be piped out of the reserve though a new pipeline, desalinated and then returned. The Ayun Stream near the northern border, dry most of the year because its water is siphoned off by farmers in Lebanon, will also get more water, by pipeline from the nearby Dan Stream.
These two examples show an attempt to improve the flow of water to nature. But they also reveal the sorry state of many of Israel's springs and streams. Only a remnant of the water that once flowed through them still does; most has been diverted for household or agricultural use, and parts are polluted.
About a year ago, the Knesset passed the Water Law, which recognizes the right of nature as a water consumer, along with households, farmers and industry. However, the amount and quality of water allocated to nature still depends on the amount the Water Authority allocates to various sectors of the economy. While farmers now pay the real cost of producing the water, this will not significantly reduce the amount they use.
According to Nissim Keshet, of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), it is not enough merely to allocate water to nature, because farmers living close to pumping sites demand more water, especially in a drought year when there are cuts, he says.
Currently, the INPA cuts the amount of water to nature during a drought, and increases the amount of purified sewage to it, but this is not enough to rehabilitate ecological systems. The INPA wants new agreements that would allocate water by permit. That would mean that even in a drought, cuts will be relative to both agriculture and nature, and one will not suffer at the expense of the other.
One clause in the Water Law that helps nature is to charge almost nothing for water to agriculture pumped from downstream rather than at the source, so flora and fauna will have a chance to enjoy the water before it goes for other uses.
Some experts say that change must go deeper, with high-quality water supplied to nature even at the expense of agriculture. Zach Tagar of the Middle East branch of Friends of the Earth, has written that the current cost of water is low considering Israel is a water-poor country, and does not reflect damage to nature when it is withheld.
Environmental science expert Professor Hillel Shuval of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that in a way, Israel exports water when it exports irrigated agricultural products. Shuval notes that farming, which is three percent of the Gross Domestic Product and three percent of the labor force, still uses 40 percent of the high-quality water. If the public were asked, he says, it is hard to believe they would support channeling water to Europe rather than to nature in Israel, he adds.
Water planner Giora Shaham warns that while hothouse plants for export would weather the such a policy, less profitable open cultivated fields will suffer. Orange groves on the coastal plain, field crops in the Jezreel Valley and fish ponds, are part of the landscape, he says, whose disappearance will constitute damage to the environment.
Shaham advocates desalination facilities serving the big cities to meet most household needs, channeling the rest of the water to agriculture and nature, and setting a price for farmers in each region.
Keshet points out that agriculture uses purified sewage, and is essential for this reason. "We want agriculture to use purified sewage and to channel fresh water to nature," he explains.
Shuval and Tagar say they recognize the importance of agriculture to the landscape, the soil, and the economy of outlying regions. They support subsidies to farmers but argue that they should be for cultivation, not for water, thus encouraging water efficiency.
"We prefer reaching understandings rather than a fight with the farmers and the Water Authority," Keshet says. The Water Authority says nature needs its own desalination facility, which would mean a supply of 50 million cubic meters, like a major facility. We want to ensure this, but things are moving too slowly for us," he says.