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Israelis' lifestyles may have to be drastically altered if there is a drought this year, the Ministry of National Infrastructures warned during a special discussion on the water crisis during yesterday's cabinet meeting.

Among the possible actions the water authority may be forced to take are a drastic cut in water for public parks and gardens, and a significant increase in water rates to lower consumption. Extreme measures, such as water quotas for households, are also under consideration.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during the meeting that bureaucratic mistakes were responsible for the lack of needed desalinization plants in recent years, which could have provided an answer to the present water crisis. The cabinet made a number of decisions, including the establishment of a ministerial committee to remove barriers to building a large desalinization plant in Ashdod.

National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Water Authority head Professor Uri Shani presented the cabinet with a survey of the water crisis. They noted that this is the most severe water crisis ever faced in Israel.

Until now, they said, the government has responded with emergency measures to increase the water supply in coming years, but these are steps that endanger Israel's natural water reservoirs.

Over the past two decades, natural water supplies have dropped from 1.35 billion cubic meters a year on average to only 1.175 billion, which have added up to a significant amount.

Reduced demand

The Water Authority has already taken steps to deal with the situation and reduce demand.

To supply more water, the authority increased pumping capacity in a number of locations in the Galilee, including groundwater that would not have reached Lake Kinneret for a few years. Using the water now may alleviate the present situation.

They have also limited the watering of public and private gardens and parks, and have embarked on a public awareness and information campaign. Water quotas for farmers have been cut and prices have been raised, including the elimination of reduced rates for gardens.

The Authority says these savings have already reached 30 million cubic meters so far this year, equal to the production of a medium-sized desalinization plant.

Experts, though, claim this is too little too late, and had the authority taken continued measures over the present decade, the water situation would have been much less serious, even during drought years.

The Water Authority says the steps taken limit them to a savings of 100 million cubic meters a year, hence the possible need for more radical steps, such as quotas, in case of drought.