Why the Sea of Galilee's Level Is a Problem - for Jordan

If the Israeli water authorities' plans work out, Jordan will be using roughly twice as much Lake Kinneret water as Israel will.

People visit the Kinneret during a sandstorm, September 8, 2015.
Gil Eliahu

“Turn off the faucet! You’re using up the Kinneret,” some frugal sort will bawl at some water-wasting person in plenty of Israeli homes, to this day.

Yet if you’re in the year 2016 and you’re anywhere in southern Israel, around 200 kilometers from the freshwater lake otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee, that water almost certainly didn’t hail from there.

Nonetheless, Israelis remain obsessed with the water level of the Kinneret, which is the only lake they know. Every weather forecast, at least when it’s rained in winter, ends with the latest report on the ups and downs of the Kinneret’s surface.

Lake Kinneret, April 11, 2015.
Gil Eliyahu

So, to put your Kinneret-obsessed mind at ease, last Sunday morning the level of the lake was 212.52 meters below sea level.

But Sunday was hot and by the end of the day, the Kinneret had lost about a centimeter, bringing it nearer that red line of -213 meters, and to the black line, which it reached back in 2001, of -214.87 meters. (Red line = stop pumping. Black line = STOP PUMPING NOW.)

Below those levels, according to Israeli calculations, the water quality will turn foul, and irreversible ecological damage is entirely possible (because brackish/saline aquifer water will seep up into the emptying lake, changing the composition of the water). Once that happens, even if it rains for 40 days and 40 nights, the Kinneret water will no longer be potable, some scientists warn.

Others pooh-pooh that apocalyptic scenario, not on the grounds that the Kinneret can’t be irreversibly befouled, but on the grounds that Israel has other solutions. Today, 50-plus years after the National Water Carrier was built to bring water from the Kinneret to Israel’s south, the lake provides less than 10% of Israel’s total water consumption. Households increasingly use desalinated or reclaimed water.

Before the establishment of huge desalination plants on the Israel’s coast, some 300 million cubic meters of water were pumped each year from the Kinneret, but by the year 2015 that figure had decreased to 50 million cubic meters. The authorities hope to halve that figure in 2016 to 25 million cubic meters of water a year – for Israeli use.

But even if Israelis can stop worrying about the red line (and the black one ), our neighbors to the east can’t. “Apparently, more water will be pumped from the Kinneret in rainy years, even if the National Water Carrier doesn’t supply a quarter of all fresh water as in the past. It certainly won’t revert to being the main source of water consumed in the south and west,” says Danny Kurtzman, a hydrologist at the Volcani Center for agriculture research.

Naturally the Kinneret continues to supply water for nearby use, for instance in the city of Tiberias and other towns on its very shore. “But nationally speaking, the Kinneret isn’t a big deal anymore. With the years, it will be supplying more and more water to Jordan. Today the kingdom gets about 50 million cubic meters of water a year – the Kinneret is nearer Irbid than central Israel.”

That 50 million cubic meters of water is based on an agreement from February 2015, which Jordan is committed to buying from Israel. Implementation of the agreement has begun, water may yet flow in both directions. Farmers in the blistering hot, arid Arava Valley are perennially in need of water, and Israel doesn’t have suitable land anywhere on its small shoreline on the Red Sea. Jordan does. If it winds up building a desalination plant, there’s an agreement in place for it to sell back 50 million cubic meters of water a year to Israel.

Note however that price differences will almost certainly apply – desalinated water is expensive and will cost more than the water Jordan is getting from the Kinneret.

In other words, from this year, roughly speaking, if the Israeli water authorities’ plans work out, Jordan will be using roughly twice as much Kinneret water as Israel will.

By the bye, the natural “fresh water” in the Kinneret isn’t particularly clean. It contains 250 to 400 milligrams of chloride per liter; desalinated water has 10-50 milligrams per liter. Most of the water in underground aquifers is cleaner, Kurtzman says. In any case, before it reaches households, the lake water is cleaned up.

Not fit to drink

Local water officials like to say that Israel is the only country in the world that dissociated itself from the water cycle of nature. That’s an exaggeration, but it did revolutionize its water economy by massive desalination of seawater, and treating sewage to make water for agriculture, if not necessarily drinking. Other than in some areas, Israel hasn’t imposed water quotas on farmers.

Why don’t we stop pumping entirely from the Kinneret, allowing the lake to refill like it had been 100 years ago? If we do that, surely we could get rid of the Deganya Dam and rescue the entire ecology downstream, by allowing water to flow more freely from the Kinneret to the dying southern Jordan River, hence to the vanishing Dead Sea, both at least partly artifacts of the Zionist aspiration to make the desert bloom.

It turns out that the gauzy vision of filling the lake and getting rid of that dam, and relying on desalination for our water, isn’t entirely realistic, for a number of reasons.

It is true that the desalination plants enabled Israel to stop routinely using more water than it could ecologically afford (over-exploitation is one reason the Kinneret level dropped so precipitously over decades), says Dr. Meni Ben-Hur of the Volcani Institute.

But it is also true that less and less water has been reaching the lake. More and more water is siphoned from the rivers feeding the Kinneret in south Lebanon, and that in turn is partly because of climate change-induced drought.

Moreover, the population living around the lake, including Jordanians and Syrians, aren’t like they were 100 years ago either. Not only have populations grown, but modern people use water-intensive machinery like dishwashers and washing machines, and they have swimming pools.

Climate change hits hard

The Israeli water authorities estimate that national water consumption will double by 2050 and that doesn’t include a doubled water allocation to farming, (and the assumption is that farming water use will increase 50% by that year), says Ben-Hur. The water authorities are also assuming that farmers will make increasingly efficient use of water, which means that they will grow more food per cubic meter of water.

Moreover, climate change scientists believe the entire area of North Africa and the Levant will undergo accelerated desertification, a process that has clearly begun. (The last winter, for example, was marked by extreme drought in northern Israel.) So, desalination or not, Israel remains arid and its water use is and will remain constrained.

“Since the year 2002, we have had 12 years of drought,” says Ben-Hur. Israel began its massive desalination drive in 2005, but the fact is that before the facilities came online, the levels of the Kinneret and of the aquifers too (underground water reserves) dropped badly, and need rehabilitation. Which means we need to let them fill with rainwater.

Israel’s two main aquifers alone need to get about 100 million cubic meters of water a year to refill, water experts estimate.

So it would be lovely to stop pumping from the Kinneret, but it’s not going to happen. For one thing, desalination is a lot more expensive per liter of water. The energy needed to desalinate seawater is roughly equivalent to what is needed to lift it 1,000 meters – and the Kinneret water is just sitting there, on the ground. Moreover, the lake is reliable as a lake while the desalination plants are industrial factories that suffer breakdowns. And stuff happens. Last winter, a particularly violent storm over the Mediterranean Sea clouded up the seawater with sand, causing the Ashkelon desalination plant to stop running for two days. Guess where Israel got its water from during those two days – the aquifers and the Kinneret.

Water and the Palestinian problem

Desalination helps provide water security during drought. The lake helps provide water security when the desalination plants have a problem. None of the above helps resolve the water conflict with the Palestinians.

In the West Bank, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they continue to argue who owns the rights to the central aquifer in Israel (called the “mountain aquifer” or the “common mountain aquifer” or the “west mountain aquifer”). The Palestinians claim that rainwater landing in the territories drains into that aquifer. They also complain that Jewish settlements in the West Bank get bigger water allotments. A B’Tselem report from 2014 claims that Israelis use 183 liters of water per capita per day compared with 73 for the Palestinians.

“Even though Israel’s national water company Mekorot currently sells Palestinians 53 [million cubic meters] of water a year – twice the amount stipulated in the Oslo Accords – it is a far cry from meeting demand,” B’tselem wrote. Israel’s rainy season is winter and in summer, says the report, Palestinian towns can run dry and people have to wait on line to get water from tanker trucks. Israel claims to supply the Palestinian water needs but isn’t developing their water economy – which is hurting Israel just as much because it isn’t treating their sewage.

The 1995 Oslo agreements provided that Israel would get 80% of the mountain aquifer water and the Palestinians 20%; that was in keeping with their relative population sizes. The Palestinians claim to have agreed to that discriminatory arrangement because they figured it was a temporary measure for five years. But 21 years later, no permanent arrangement has been put into place.

In Gaza, the situation isn’t worrying; it’s an outright emergency. The main source of water is the coastal aquifer and more than 90% of that is contaminated. Experts are warning that children are already getting sick. The contamination is the result of protracted neglect – overpumping combined with failure to treat sewage.

Gazans don’t get enough electricity either, having to settle for about eight hours a day – but that in turns means that even if somebody was willing to pay the very heavy cost of one, a desalination plant isn’t possible, though the beach is right there. Desalination takes up tons of electricity. The only thing between the strip and utter catastrophe is that Israel has been transferring 5 to 10 million cubic meters of water each year to Gaza, under old agreements reached with the Palestinians. That’s a drop in the sea, though, compared with the actual need.

The year 2020 has been marked as the year of irreversibility by experts: from then, the Gazan water economy cannot be fixed. The aquifer will have become too saline to even be desalinated; never mind the diseases that could erupt, easily spreading in the region – think about 1.8 million residents of Gaza walking to Israel for a cup of water to drink.