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The heavy rains that fell last week in the north of the country didn't do much to lighten the mood of the officials responsible for Israel's water system. Their assessment for the upcoming year is that the country's water crisis will continue unabated, and there is no real prospect that the essential process of restoring water sources will begin this year.

In 2003, Israel has entered its fifth straight year of a water crisis, which began during the extremely dry winter of 1999. The consecutive years in which relatively little rain has fallen and continued until the current winter, has caused an almost total erosion of the "red lines" - the minimal levels below which the country's water sources are endangered.

If in 1999 experts were expressing concern that by the end of the summer the level of Lake Kinneret would fall to the red line that existed at the time - 213 meters below sea level - since then, the Kinneret has been far below that level not only in the summer, but also in other seasons. Similarly, the red lines of the mountain aquifer have been crossed several times during the previous summers. Lake Kinneret's level is now about five centimeters higher than it was last year; however, the main reason for this is that the Mekorot Water Company greatly reduced pumping from the lake last year. This year, Mekorot will have to pump about 160 million cubic meters of water from the Kinneret to supply the country's demand.

The two main problems caused by the thinning out of the country's water sources are ecological changes in Lake Kinneret, such as penetration of toxic algae - which is liable to harm the water's quality - and salination of groundwater, resulting from penetration of sea water and saline water due to the fall in the level of sweetwater.

Worrisome signs that are already discernible are the appearance of a certain type of toxic algae in Lake Kinneret and clear indications of growing salinity in the groundwater of the mountain aquifer, which, as the strategic water reserve, had been pumped increasingly in recent years. The quality of the water in the Kinneret has not yet worsened, but none of the experts can promise that there will be no negative results if low levels of the lake continue.

The Water Commission's immediate responses to the crisis were to increase exploitation of saline water by means of small desalination facilities, and to increase pumping at drilling sites that had not been fully exploited in the past few years. The commission also made efforts to economize by reducing water allocations to farmers and by attempting to cut water use by households through the raising of prices and a publicity campaign.

For three years, household consumption did not increase; however, it increased by no less than six percent last year, and this year Mekorot also anticipates a rise. The management of the country's water resources are required to offer a reliable supply to consumers, while ensuring no decline in quality. The Water Commission hoped to accomplish this through greater economizing and desalination. That would make it possible to cut back on pumping, and therefore, to begin raising water levels again. Rainy winters could help the recovery process. However, with a lack of large quantities of rainfall and continued growth in consumption, only desalination facilities could add a meaningful amount of water to the system. But such facilities will probably not begin to operate until the middle of next year.

Israeli water officials now face a thankless task. They will have to continue supplying water in a situation of continued risk and little public response to calls for economizing. It would be a serious mistake to dismiss the concerned voices of water experts by pointing out reassuringly that desalination facilities will soon be operating.

The management of Israel's water resources requires, as a first step, the rehabilitation of water levels. To that end, additional economizing measures are required, including a further increase in water consumption rates and additional investments in the renewal of polluted wells, desalination, and the use of purified wastewater for irrigation. Without this package of measures, the crisis will continue for years and may lead to difficulties in the supply of water should there be another series of dry years - a phenomenon that is not rare in this part of the world.