Israel Is Approaching a Severe Water Crisis

Despite recent rains, Israel is headed for long-term shortage, Water Authority warns

Israel's Lake Kinneret.
Gil Eliahu

Amid growing signs of a long-term water crisis, the Israel Water Authority and the government water company Mekorot have devised a plan to ensure enough water for homes and farms at a cost of 7.5 billion shekel ($2.2 billion) through 2050.

Even if 2018 proves sufficiently rainy to avoid the declaration of a fifth straight drought year, Israel will remain in crisis mode. Water levels will not return to what they were a decade ago when Lake Kinneret, Israel’s biggest water source, and underground aquifers were full, officials warned Sunday.

“The Kinneret will never go back to what it was, and in 20 years it won’t be there at all, it’ll be a swamp” said a figure close to the planning process who asked not to be named.

Concern that an unexpectedly wet year may take some of the urgency out of the planned water drive caused the Water Authority to reverse itself over the weekend. On Friday, it expressed cautious optimism that a rainy February could save the year from being designated a drought year.

But on Saturday night, the authority took back the statement and said it was still acting on the assumption that 2018 would be a drought year. The authority reportedly backtracked under pressure from the Energy Ministry, which feared that without the designation plans for additional desalination plants could be shelved.

“It doesn’t make a different whether this year is declared a drought year or not, the government must prepare a strategic plan determining how much water we need over the next five years and how we can obtain it,” one source told TheMarker.

The water crisis is already so severe that one industry figure warned that a plan to build a new neighborhood in Herzliya for 1,000 people whose apartments would be part of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Mahir Lemishtaken (Buyer’s Price) program could be postponed due to the water shortage.

Officials are also concerned about the Western Galilee, which is waiting for a new desalination plant. “We could reach a situation in the next year in which in some areas no water will come from the faucet, mainly in the Western Galilee,” said one source at Mekorot.

The problem in the Galilee has been exacerbated by the fact that the region relies on natural water sources and the shortage that has developed isn’t expected to change significantly for the foreseeable future due to climate change. Pumping water from underground aquifers is no longer a viable option.

The emergency program, put together over the last month and a half, addresses the medium- to long-term problems facing Israel with four measures: new drilling to take water from aquifers, new desalination plants, pumping water into Lake Kinneret and reducing water consumption. The program aims to add up to 1.3 million cubic meters of water.

In addition to the 7.5 billion shekels from the government, the private sector is also expected to contribute, in part by building three new desalination plants: one in the Western Galilee, one in Sorek, south of Tel Aviv and one in the Hefer Valley, north of Tel Aviv.

The cost of connecting each desalination plant to the national system is estimated at 350 million shekels. An alternative to building one of the facilities could be expand existing desalination plants.

Another part of the plan calls for upgrading existing wells and drilling 500 new ones into aquifers, 300 of them by 2030. The total cost of that part of the plan is around 4 billion shekels. The cost of upgrading the existing pipeline system and other facilities to accommodate the additional water is put at 1.7 billion shekels just for the 2020 to 2025 period.

The plan calls for spending 1 billion shekels in the first two years alone. Three-quarters of the sum is to go tot which will be used on water pipes, improving the usage of reclaimed sewage for crop irrigation and for drilling. Israel uses 85% of its reclaimed water but by bringing the figures up to nearly 100% Israel can add 70 million cubic meters to its overall water supply.

In 2018-19 some 150 million shekels will go toward buying desalinized water from plants that haven’t been operating at full capacity. Another 700 million shekels is designated to be spent between now and 2025 to bring water to Lake Kinneret and the north from Israel’s south.

Long-term projects, which will be completed mainly in 2023-25, will cost 6.5 billion shekels.