Mismanagement Brought Israel’s Water Economy to Edge of Crisis, State Watchdog Report Says

Comptroller slams Water Authority and Energy Ministry management of Israel's water as ‘walking on the edge’ ■ Damage estimated at 1.1 billion shekels ■ Water Authority says report addresses problems it has already found, most of which have long been addressed

Lake Kinneret, October 2018
Gil Eliyahu

The State Comptroller’s Office slammed the Water Authority and the Water Ministry Monday for what it called its poor management of Israel’s water supply, at a cost of 1.1 billion shekels ($300 million) and counting.

“The Water Authority walked on the edge time after time, loosening the reins immediately after one rainy year while ignoring the long-term effects in the region of climate change,” the state watchdog’s report on Israel’s water economy said. “The absence of sustainable planning and mismanagement by the authority have caused another water crisis."

The report covers mainly the term of former Water Authority Director Alex Kushnir, who was replaced in mid-2017 by Giora Shaham, and former Energy Minister Silvan Shalom. He was replaced by Yuval Steinetz in 2015.

According to the report, the Water Authority brought the country’s water economy to “crisis point” at a time of numerous challenges, from limited natural water sources and a series of severe droughts to rising demand.

The Comptroller’s Office accused the energy minister and the Water Authority of not moving to submit a master plan for the water economy for cabinet approval, as mandated by a 2010 cabinet resolution. It said the authority failed to set long-term planning and development targets.

Although per-capita water consumption resumed rising in 2015, the Water Authority took no steps until this year to encourage water conservation. On the contrary, it hastened to increase water quotas for farmers without confirming that the country had sufficient reserves.

Going against the recommendations of the comptroller and the Hydrological Service, with the exception of Lake Kinneret, the authority did not set “red lines” for the country’s water reserves, which could endanger their existence.

The authority also failed to drill any new wells or to rehabilitate existing ones in order to preserve requisite production levels.

Ignoring its own forecasts

This is the sort of water technology most often associated with Israel: At the IDE and Veolia Sea Water Reverse Osmosis Desalination Plant in Ashkelon.
Eitan Simanor / Alamy Stock Photo

The Water Authority in 2014 reduced the annual desalination target of 750 million cubic meters, which the government had set in 2013, to 600 million cubic meters through 2020. This was done without receiving approval from the government, nor was it brought before the authority’s council. These changes led to a failure to establish desalination plants on time as needed.

The authority advanced no plans for such plants despite its forecast from 2017 that a new plant desalinating 100 million cubic meters has to be added every three years.

The authority’s decision to decrease the output of water desalination in 2013 and in 2015 led to a forecast of a shortage of 210 million cubic meters in 2018 — costing damage to the economy worth an estimated 1.1 billion shekels ($300.4 million). A shortfall of 82 million cubic meters is projected for 2020, costing an estimated 370 million shekels in damages.

In comparison, had a superfluous desalination plant been built, its annual operational costs would have been a fixed 150 million shekels.

Authority documents indicate that a need for desalinating another 250 million cubic meters by 2023 was identified. Although it take seven years until a new plant can go online, the authority had not decided to build a new one by the beginning of this year, the end date of the comptroller’s report.

The report also revealed that the Ashdod desalination plant did not operate according to planned capacity. The authority didn’t find alternatives, nor has it found supply alternatives for the Western Galilee desalination plant.

The Water Authority commented: “The Comptroller’s Report addresses problems the authority has already found, most of which have long been addressed and are in advanced stages of work. A rare stretch of five consecutive drought years that struck Israel cannot have a pre-planned response because such a response requires enormous investments that directly affect consumer water prices.”

The authority also stated it takes systematic, long-term view of Israel’s water reserves.

“Planning and managing water in Israel is one of the most successful in the world, and constitutes an example of how to manage and adapt Israel’s water to climate change and for long-term planning,” it added.

“A plan that responds to the rare situation that the region has faced was approved by the energy minister and the Water Authority council. It was brought to the government as a government decision and is in the process of being implemented. Still, the Water Authority is studying the comments of the comptroller and is taking action to fix what is needed.”

The Energy Ministry commented: “The general authorities for water management were given by law to the Water Authority and to the Water Council. Still, in light of the fact that this is the fifth consecutive year of drought that Israel has experienced, the ministry has led a strategic plan that was approved by the government.”

The ministry's statement said the goal of the plan is to provide “a fair response to the crisis through, among other things, a multiyear plan for developing the country’s water, principles of a master plan for the country’s water and a policy for managing Israel’s water during times of emergency.”