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The National Water Carrier, the crowning glory of Israel's water policy and a source of national pride, could lose its historic role in a few years. Instead of bringing water from Lake Kinneret to the Negev, it will have mostly to make do delivering water to the north and the Haifa Bay area.

According to the Mekorot national water company's new five-year plan for the water economy (designed as a way out of the current crisis), the supply of water to most of Israel's residents will be via a number of new carriers bringing desalinated water from the coastal area. However, whether these plans will be implemented is still a question in view of ensuring the NIS 6 billion required in the next five years.

Mekorot's plan depends on progress in setting up giant desalination plants in the Palmahim and Ashdod areas. These plus existing facilities will supply with 600 million cubic meters of water per year and will be the main source of drinking water for most of the country's residents.

The plan aims at ensuring the supply of water from these facilities to all parts of the country. The idea is to build numerous huge carriers (underground pipes with a large diameter) and facilities for storing the desalinated water. Between a desalination plant in Hadera that is already in operation and the Dan Region, a "western carrier" will be set up that will pump the water to the south. From the planned desalination plant on the Ashdod coast, a new carrier will be built to bring water east until it connects with the new pipeline to Jerusalem.

"We are, in effect, building a new national system for carrying water that will be even more expensive than the old National Water Carrier," says Ido Rosolio, CEO of Mekorot. "We have to set up reservoirs to absorb all the desalinated water," adds his deputy, Haim Stadler. "During a rainy winter, we have to consider there could be a situation of letting excess water flow into the streams."

The five-year plan also includes rehabilitating numerous drillings that have become polluted so that they can again be supplied with water, and there needs to be significant expansion of the water supply network on the periphery. For the first time, the important component of rehabilitating streams is being included as part of the project to rehabilitate the Yarkon River at a cost of NIS 160 million. With regard to the periphery, the Mekorot officials admit there is difficulty in supplying water to the Arava region, and this fact restricts the ability to absorb a bigger population in the area.

Another central source of water on which Mekorot relies today, and will do so in the future, is treated wastewater, meanwhile being used for agricultural irrigation. But Mekorot envisions a far-reaching change as it says there is now a lack of efficiency in the way treated wastewater is distributed because isolated treatment plants are scattered about. As part of its plan, Mekorot is proposing that treated wastewater carriers be built all over the country and gradually be joined to the national treated wastewater carrier. Thus, it will be possible to bring the treated water from Western Galilee to the Beit She'an Valley, and from the Zichron Yaakov area and the Carmel range to the south.

Rosolio says it will cost NIS 1.2 billion annually for the next five years to implement the plan. Half of this sum will be earmarked for the most important aim - connecting the desalination plants to the supply system.

Missed income

However, Mekorot is already suffering from a significant shortage of development budget after its bid for radically raising water tariffs failed. Those tariffs were supposed to be the funding tool for various plants. The inquiry commission looking into the water economy stated this week that if it is not possible to fund the development projects by raising water tariffs, the state budget would have to do so. So, for lack of money, Mekorot is being forced to freeze some plans it had hoped to put into effect in the near future.

"Meanwhile we aren't able to push forward the establishment of two desalination plants for saline underground water in the Negev and an addition of saline water for agriculture in the Arava," says Motti Shari, who is in charge of the company's development plans. "In addition, we have difficulty in adding new drilling sites in Galilee to improve the supply of water there."

Rosolio says the company hoped to advance plans costing only NIS 800 million per year, "but even that sum is not available to us." If the deficit continues, it will not be possible to carry out plans such as a new water line to Jerusalem, rehabilitating the Yarkon and expanding the supply to the periphery, he says. If the budgetary balance does not improve next year, it will be difficult even to connect the desalination plants and set up the new system of carriers. "That will be terribly sad," says Rosolio, "because the desalination facilities will be set up in time, but if there is nowhere to send the water, it will simply flow to the sea."