With California and other parts of the western United States in the grip of a devastating drought, The New York Times has published an article highlighting Israel's successful efforts in battling drought and stabilizing its water supply.
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For most of Israel's existence, the country has suffered from chronic water shortages, due to its part-Mediterranean, part-desert climate and decades of over-exploitation of its natural water resource.
The natural fresh water at Israel’s disposal in an average year does not cover its total use of roughly 525 billion gallons. Of that, some 317 billion gallons need to be potable, a figure that is projected to rise to 515 billion gallons by 2030.
Crunch time was a severe, seven-year drought that began in 2005 and peaked in the winter of 2008-2009. The country’s main natural water sources — the Sea of Galilee in the north and the mountain and coastal aquifers — were severely depleted, threatening a potentially irreversible deterioration of the water quality.
The crisis called for – and received – a major national effort, focused on the desalination of Mediterranean seawater and the recycling of waste water. That dual effort has provided the country with enough water for all its needs, even during severe droughts. Today, more than 50 percent of the water for Israeli households, agriculture and industry is artificially produced.
Four major desalination plants have gone into operation over the past decade, with a fifth due later this year. Together, they will produce a total of more than 130 billion gallons of potable water a year, with a goal of 200 billion gallons by 2020.
The effort has resulted in Israel becoming the world leader in recycling and reusing wastewater for agriculture. Fully 86 percent of its domestic wastewater is treated and recycled for agricultural use — about 55 percent of the total water used for agriculture. The U.S recycles just 1 percent, according to Water Authority data.
Other measures taken by Israel included making huge cuts in the annual water quotas for farmers, ending decades of extravagant overuse of heavily subsidized water for agriculture, and the introduction of a two-tiered tariff system. Regular household water use is now subsidized by a slightly higher rate paid by those who consume more than the basic allotment.
In addition, Water Authority representatives went house to house offering to fit free devices on shower heads and taps that inject air into the water stream, saving about a third of the water used while still giving the impression of a strong flow.
Officials say that wiser use of water has led to a reduction in household consumption of up to 18 percent in recent years.
"Now there is no problem of water,” said Shaul Ben-Dov, an agronomist. “The price is higher, but we can live a normal life in a country that is half-desert.”
Not everyone is happy with the way the water shortage was dealt with. Israeli environmentalists say desalination has partly come at the expense of alternatives, like treating polluted natural water reserves, particularly those polluted by military industries in the coastal plain.
“We definitely felt that Israel did need to move toward desalination,” said Sarit Caspi-Oron, a water expert at the nongovernment Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “But it is a question of how much, and of priorities. Our first priority was conservation and treating and reclaiming our water sources."
The intake method of Israel's desalination plants has also come in for criticism, with some environmentalists warning that the open-ocean intake method, as opposed to subsurface intakes, has a potentially destructive effect on sea life, sucking in billions of fish eggs and larvae.
Boaz Mayzel, a marine biologist at the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, responded that the effects were not yet known and would have to be checked over time.