Fifth of Israel's Drinking Water Facilities Have Been Shut Down in Past Due to Contamination

A report from the Water Authority states that other sites are in danger of closure due to spreading pollution.

A water drilling site in the Golan Heights, 2011.
Haim Taragan

A fifth of the drinking water drilling facilities in Israel have been shut down in less than two decades due to contamination, a report by the Water Authority reveals. Figures show that during this time, other facilities were also in danger of closure.

In the vast majority of cases, the main cause of contamination were factories connected to the security industry. These have since closed.

Between 1998 and 2015, nearly 40 percent of the drilling sites were closed because of pollution from industrial factories. Most of them were in the area of the coastal aquifer, one of Israel’s two principal aquifers. By the end of the 1990s, many drilling facilities also closed because of pollution from fertilizer used in agriculture or due to sea water infiltrating fresh water aquifers.

The data was presented last week by Sara Elhanani, the head of the authority’s water quality division, at a conference on managing environmental ground and water pollution at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The Israeli Institute of Energy and Environment organized the event in cooperation with the Water Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Manufacturers Association of Israel.

The extent of industrial pollution in Israel has become clearer in recent years, after a number of security factories ceased operations and the areas vacated after their closure were inspected. The Water Authority also increased its monitoring of factories.

According to Elhanani, consecutive years of drought at the beginning of the last decade led to low water tables in the center of the coastal region, resulting in a higher concentration of pollution which hurt the water quality in the area. The closure of the affected drilling sites prevents the extraction of 100 million cubic meters of water annually, an amount equivalent to the production ability of a large desalination plant.

Natural water sources — aquifers and the Kinneret — provide half of the water used in Israel. A decade ago, they supplied 90 percent of the country's needs.

The change was the result of heightened usage of treated gray water for irrigation and the desalination of sea water, both of which eased the Israel's water shortage. However, according to Elhanani’s data, the coastal aquifer faces a growing threat of pollution.

Some 40 sites of industrial pollution containing toxins such as poisonous explosive materials and carcinogens have been identified. “There were industrial contaminations that harmed drilling for a long time, and we didn’t know about it,” said Elhanani. “Therefore, we decided to establish a system that would be able to give advanced warning about the danger of contamination.”

The Water Authority created a system of nearly 1,300 drilling sites through the danger of contamination from fuel facilities, waste sites and industrial areas can be identified in advance.

In some of the large sites, the contamination continues to spread. The largest is the military industrial complex in Ramat Hasharon, which is still in operation. The past and present contaminations are now found in the ground and in the water, and continue to spread. According to Elhanani, aquifer drills in northern Herzliya are in danger of closing because pollution is drawing near.

In recent years, the shortage of housing in the country created a significant incentive for the government to deal with contamination problems after it emerged that the Water Authority refused to approve residential building plans in polluted areas until the contamination was addressed. Environmental Protection Ministry officials note that contamination of aquifers also affects the ground planned for construction because it causes the release of poisonous gases from the water table to the earth above.

The state recently began advancing programs to manage aquifer and ground contamination in order to remove the obstacles to implementing housing construction plans. Among other steps, it will soon being to treat seriously contaminated aquifers near the border of Tel Aviv and Givatayim, where the pollution was caused by military industries that operated in the area. The rehabilitation project will allow the construction of 1,000 housing units in the area.