Dry, Dry Again: After Several Wet Years, the Big Drought Is Back Again in Israel

A few years ago, experts at Israel’s Water Authority believed desalination would meet the country’s water needs until 2025, but they now admit the water sector is in critical condition

Rain in Jerusalem, December 6, 2017
\ AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

“Now we are at the Western Wall. There are thousands of Israelis here. On this issue, there is unity: everybody wants rain, everybody wants lots of rain. We are working on this, in all sorts of ways. We are bringing in another 100 million cubic meters, we are reducing the price of water, and we are praying, too – that is definitely part of the issue. I thank everyone who has come, and I believe that a great deal of rain will fall next week.”

These words were uttered by Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel on the last Thursday of December, as he stood at the Wall with thousands of other Israelis praying for rain. Since then, their prayers have been answered, by an impressive amount of rainfall.

One can understand the desire of Ariel and his counterparts to pray for rain. The rainy season of 2015-16 ended with a mere 81 percent of the average rainfall nationwide. The 2016-17 winter season was even worse, with 71 percent of the multiple-year average. And the 2017-18 season is forecasted to be the same. In Israel Water Authority terms, the current season is officially defined, at least to date, as a drought year. But if one looks to the country’s north, we are speaking of a fifth year in a row of drought.

So far this year, farmers in the Kinneret basin and northwards (Upper Galilee and Golan Heights) have been allotted 200 million cubic meters – about 11% less than in 2017 – and they have been fully exploited. According to the Water Authority, the national water system will be allocating to farmers only 292 million cubic meters in 2018, as opposed to approximately 450 million cubic meters in 2017 (water consumption in 2017 is estimated to have been 280 million cubic meters).

And if the year is even drier than feared, water allocations are liable to be reduced to a mere 210 million cubic meters. Similarly, water made available for public landscaping in local councils across the country will be reduced by 13% this year. Given the dire situation, in the weeks to come the Water Authority is expected to reintroduce its “Israel is Drying Up” public-service campaign.

A thorough examination of water consumption trends in Israel over the past few years helps to explain what has happened.

In 2009, each resident of Israel consumed more than 90 cubic meters on average. On the historic scale, this is not a huge amount: In 1990, for example, the average was 115 cubic meters. And yet, population growth, and the fact that for the first time since the 1960s average annual rainfall in the years 2000 to 2010 was below 500 millimeters, spurred the Water Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture to appreciate that water consumption needed to be reduced.

Successful campaign

In recognition of this, the government launched launched in 2008 the “Israel is Drying Up” campaign, which proved to be quite successful. By 2011, water consumption had dropped to 85 cubic meters per capita. Meanwhile, Israel made a great deal of progress in the field of desalination: In 2010, the desalination plant in Hadera came on line; in November of that year, the expanded plant in Palmahim was inaugurated; and in late 2013, the plant at Soreq began supplying fresh water.

Israelis thought that their water problems were a thing of the past. In late 2013, Water Authority officials declared that there was adequate water for all of the country’s needs until the end of 2025, and perhaps beyond.

If these declarations were not enough, Israel had abundant rainfall in 2014-15, a winter that climaxed with the heaviest snowstorm in memory and shut down Jerusalem. The big wet of that year triggered what some describe as a sense of euphoria among officials, who deemed that Israel’s water problems had been resolved for good.

The planned purcahase of 100 million cubic meters from Israeli desalination plants was cancelled, even though according to agreements signed with the government the fixed costs of this output had already been paid. The Israeli consumer internalized the message, as well, and in 2016 per capita consumption rose to 90 cubic meters per year.

The situation is starkly different this year: The Water Authority has been forced to increase purchase of desalinated water by approximately 75 million cubic meters until the end of 2018.

Domestic water consumption of Israeli citizens is a significant factor in the new crisis. Since 2000, household consumption has surged ahead of agricultural freshwater consumption (water that has undergone purification and is designated for agricultural use) in Israel. Today, about 400 million cubic meters of freshwater is now allocated to home use while less than 500 million is allotted to the agricultural sector.

Under a law enacted in 2010, water and sewage rates must reflect the actual cost of production and delivery. However, this has deterred consumerrs from trying to save on water, because the law has caused prices to decline over the past four years by about 40%. Dmeand has risen. In the most recent revision of water costs, made earlier this month, water rates for home use were left unchanged, at 8.92 shekels ($2.60) per cubic meter. When Ariel spoke at the Western Wall aboutreducing the price of water in order to cope with the water crisis he had the solution all wrong

“We’re in the throes of an extreme situation the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of the British Mandate, and today water usage is much greater. No one could have foreseen this. We knew that there is climate change, but no [governmental] system could have been planned for an extreme-case scenario of five or six straight years of drought in northern Israel,” says Gilad Fernandes, the deputy director for economy at the Water Authority.

Enough for home use

“When it comes to household consumption, there’s always enough water,” he adds.

Together with water consumed for urban uses, such as landscaping, household water consumption totals some 700 million cubic meters a year.

At a time when the cost of water to the consumer is dropping, the farmers are feeling the current situation in their pocketbooks – a drop in water quotasmeans they chave to grow less. On the day before the prayer event at the Western Wall, Giora Shacham, chairman of the Israel Water Authority, told farmers at an Israeli agriculture conference, “If you were planning to grow a new strain of tomato – don’t do it, because there is no water. Stop planting, stop sowing new seedlings. There’s no water.”

Until 2017-18, it was the farmers of northern Israel that suffered the most when water was short. For them, the lengthy drought arrived at the same time as Amendment 27 of the Water Law, which raised the price they pay for freshwater. The amendment was designed to equalize the prices of water paid by farmers in different parts of the country, thereby neutralizing the advantage that farmers in the north had benefitted from, since their fields are located near cheap sources of water, like springs, streams and wells.

“The Hula Valley is the region that was hurt the most by the drought and by Amendment 27. The region is devoid of all comparative advantages, aside from the soil and the fact that until a year ago there was cheap water here,” says Elkana Ben Yashar of Moshav Ramat Magshimim, manager of the Jewish National Fund’s research and development station in northern Israel.

The prices of farmed products will simply increase?

“When you talk about crops for the food industry, like potatoes, tomatoes, peas, corn and beans, food makers are willing to pay a certain price, but if the price rises any higher than that it won’t be worth it for the food industry to purchase the harvests. If the Israeli farmer can’t meet the price, food makers will simply not buy his tomatoes or corn.”

What’s the situation at Ramat Magshimim?

“We have everything at Ramat Magshimim – subtropical deciduous trees, vineyards, field crops, vegetables and flowers. We can for the most part cope with the situation because of the diversity, which give us great flexibility. Smaller farms have a tougher time achieving this sort of diversity.”

Another issue is reservoirs. Even now, some of the water deemed good enough for farming but not drinking treated by Shafdan (the huge water treatment facility that serves the Tel Aviv metropolitan area) is dumped into the Mediterranean. And in the Hula Valley, winter rains sometimes result in flash-flooding into the streambeds. If these overflows could be channeled into reservoirs it would go a long way tward solving the water shortage during the dry season.

If until now drought was the problem solely of farmers up north, forecasters says that the current drought will also extend to farmers down south.

Ran Ferdman, manager of farming operations at Kibbutz Ruhama in the Negev, explains that there are two types of field crops – non-irrigated and irrigated. The latter require intensive irrigation by conducting water through furrows. Conversely, non-irrigated crops require less water, which they can get mainly from rain.

“We’re going to grow fewer vegetables. The drop in rainfall this winter and the increased damage to farms will lead to smaller harvests and fewer farm products,” says Ferdman. “The water quota to each settlement is history-based, and can’t easily be changed. Here at Ruhama, it’s enough to irrigate a quarter of our land. Less rain means less non-irrigated crops, and the water quota limits the amount that we can grow.

A ‘harsh drought’

“As of today, what’s happening here is looking like a harsh drought. We seeded all of our non-irrigated crops on 15,000 dunams. The seeds germinated from the few rains that fell at the start of the winter, and now they’re on the verge of dying – they’re at risk of withering. We have no way to irrigate fields on that scope.”

In light of the drought, Ferdman says the kibbutz is being forced to carefully scrutinize the crops it can grow,. At the same time, it’s having to compete with tough competition in exports.

Are vegetable prices going to rise?

“This is going to affect the whole economy,” says Ferdman. “There are going to be cutbacks in the quanitites of vegetables being grown. The less rainfall there is this winter, the greater the damage to agriculture, and this will reduce harvests and agriculture-affected goods. Most critical is the condition of the dairy sector. If there is no food in the form of grains for the dairy sector, the target price will rise.” (The object cost is the government-supervised price paid by dairies to the dairy farmers for the raw milk, and is affected in part by the dairy farmers’ input costs.)

Asaf Levy, the senior deputy responsible for means of production at the Ministry of Agriculture, reports that at present, all of the cows in Israel are being fed both imported grain and silage, the wet feed that is produced in Israel. This is the hay that remains after the wheat has been harvested.

“If there is a drought and there are no large wheat crops harvested, there is genuine concern of whether sufficient feed can be supplied to the dairy operations; this currently represents 60% of the object cost. Therefore, there are concerns regarding an increase in the cost of feed, which is liable to bring about price increases of milk products, and most certainly those under price protection.”