Israel's National Water Carrier has an outsize place in the national consciousness.
The formidable system of pipes, tunnels, reservoirs and open canals, one of the country’s largest infrastructure projects, was built over half a century ago to transport water from Lake Kinneret in the north to the central and southern regions.
Now, as a result of the historically low water levels in the lake and the introduction of desalination as a major source of water, it is part of a backup system that is barely used.
Soon, water will be brought from the center of the country to Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. It will provide water to northern Israel and to Jordan, whose own drought situation is much graver than Israel’s.
Work has begun recently on a pipeline and pumping facilities that in around two years’ time will bring water to the Kinneret and to the Netofa reservoir, in the Lower Galilee. At its maximum planned output, the system will be able to send 100 to 120 cubic meters (about 3,530 to 4,240 cubic feet) into the lake annually, raising the water level by nearly one meter each year. The desalination plants that have been built along the Mediterranean shore, and those that are slated to be built, should supply the required quantity of water.
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The infusion of water flowing into the Kinneret will help stabilize the lake’s ecosystem. However, according to Israel Water Authority chief Giora Shama the project has a strategic aim: to ensure the supply of water from the lake to the Jordan.
“Lake Kinneret,” he says, “will fill up again when there is a rainy year, and then they will open the Degania Dam again,” enabling water to flow into the Jordan River. “However, Jordanians are thirsty now, and we have to abide by our commitment to provide them water from the lake.”
There is already an agreement between Israel and Jordan to build a desalination plant in Aqaba, on the Red Sea across from the Israeli city of Eilat. It will supply water to Jordan and to Israel’s Arava Desert. In return, Israel will increase the amount of water it provides to Jordan in the north, from Lake Kinneret. The brine discharge from the Aqaba plant, created during the desalination process, will be pumped into the Dead Sea. That, as the first stage in the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project, aimed at helping to reverse the decline in the Dead Sea’s water level. Current plans, however, will slow the decline in the water level at most from 1 meter to 70 centimeters annually. Its future expansion is in doubt because of its high cost.
This week the water level of Lake Kinneret was 1.64 meters below the lower red line, despite the fact that there has been only minimal pumping from the lake for two years, the result a number of consecutive years of low rainfall in the north. The increased demand for water due to population growth and the fear that the rainfall will only get sparser due to climate change add to the concerns of those who are responsible for this resource.
The state comptroller has severely criticized the preparations for facing these challenges. In a report issued in October, he slammed the Israel Water Authority and the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry for not doing enough to preserve the country’s natural water sources and allowing them to be overused between 2013 and 2017. It failed to build additional desalination plants in a timely manner, in particular a plant in the parched Western Galilee. Moreover, the Water Authority allowed desalination plants to suspend operations for long periods due to economic considerations dictated by the Finance Ministry. (Shaham was not the water chief during the period discussed in the report).
The Water Authority argues that in no field is it possible to prepare for the most extreme situation because of the huge investments that requires. “Desalination plants take up land and also cause the emission of greenhouse gases,” Shaham noted this week.
In a letter he sent to Water Authority employees after the publication of the State Comptroller’s Report, he wrote that it had created ridiculous headlines: “Why ridiculous? Because after a sequence of five years of drought, the fact that water supply in all of Israel operated flawlessly throughout the summer isn’t due to magic. The reliability of the supply in extreme situations like that cannot happen only with help from heaven. It’s a matter of large and costly infrastructures that were set up in time, preceded by planning.”
He agrees that there were a number of failures. One of them was allowing for stoppages of desalination plants even when it was already clear that there are years without rainfall. “I won’t let the desalination plants stop working on my watch.” The upshot of the desalination stoppages was too much reliance during those periods on the natural water sources, including the lake. Another problem was the failure to build a desalination plant in the Western Galilee, largely due to objections from residents who did not want it near their homes. This past year, a suitable alternative site was located.
Demand for compensation
Another problem is the supply of water for agriculture. This week the farmers’ organization held an emergency conference at the Knesset following cuts to their water quotas and demanded monetary compensation for the damages that will be caused them. “The real problem isn’t five years of drought but rather the cynicism that is destroying Zionism,” said Kibbutz Movement Chairman Nir Meir.
Meir Zur, the Moshav Movement chairman, added: “We demand compensation for the water cut so we can continue to work, before tens of thousands of dunams of land are abandoned.”
Shaham says that 70 reservoirs for treated waste water are being set up around the country for agricultural irrigation. More efficient wastewater use will also help save some of the most important streams in Israel from serious pollution. In Gush Dan they have found an efficient way to treat wastewater and use it for irrigation instead of sending it into the nearby stream.
“We are also making progress in dealing with the environmental disgrace of the Kidron,” says Shaham, referring to the most polluted stream between the Jordan and the Mediterranean due to the flow of waste from Jerusalem neighborhoods and Palestinian communities. The treated water will benefit both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.