THE ISRAEL REPORTNovember/December 2000
Water: The Forgotten Crisis
Ha'aretz: Lake Kinneret's water level has sunk well below the old red line, and the southern and central aquifers are left high and dry. Farmers are demanding more water from the coastal aquifer - where the situation is just as critical
[IMRA note: The Minister of Agriculture is Ehud Barak who acts also, among other roles, as Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Minister of Education. The water story has been essentially ignored by the broadcast media.]A palpable sense of relief could be felt at the Water Commission following the Finance Ministry's recent agreement to the commissioner's request to move ahead with a program to import water from Turkey, while simultaneously enhancing Israel's desalination capabilities. But quick handling of the current situation does little to alleviate the deep anxieties of hydrological experts vis-a-vis the long-range problem of insufficient water resources.The Water Commission and the Mekorot water company are profoundly concerned about natural water sources, which continue to drop, threatening water quality. And when these experts analyze precipitation levels in recent years, they have even less reason to be optimistic: In 11 of the past 19 years, rainfall was below the annual average for the primary winter months, December through February.
In recent weeks, the water level of the Kinneret has continued to drop, dipping to just over 70 centimeters below the old red line of 213 meters below sea level. In the southern and central Yarkon-Taninim aquifer (the western mountain aquifer), the water level continues to approach the red line. Only in the northern part of the aquifer, where pumping has been suspended, has the decline in water level been halted. A "hydrological depression" continues to form in the coastal aquifer, meaning that increased withdrawal of water is causing especially low-level concentrations.
According to Sara Haklai, director of the department of water resources at Mekorot, the company has been juggling these three main water sources - pumping water out of them while making an effort not to over-exploit them so as to prevent the infiltration of salty water. Concerns about saline infiltration increased recently after two water drilling samples indicated that a sharp decline of the mountain aquifer level can lead to a rapid inflow of saline water, which infiltrates the fresh ground water table.
The Water Commission hopes in the short term to continue its lobbying efforts for importing water, building a first desalination plant on the Ashkelon coast, and immediately decreasing the quota of water for agricultural use, so as to prevent over-exploitation of the primary natural water sources - the coastal and Yarkon-Taninim aquifers, and the Kinneret.
However, the agricultural lobby recently began pressuring the Water Commission to increase the water supplied to the farming sector by the coastal aquifer, so as to prevent cutbacks that they argue would be destructive to the sector. The request is largely founded upon a report by hydrologist Yoav Harpaz that was commissioned by Meir Ben-Meir, the former water commissioner.
Danger of salinityHarpaz analyzed the effects of "over-withdrawal" (taking out more water than can be replenished by rain) on the aquifer. He was interested in finding out what would happen to the aquifer if the amount of water withdrawn was increased to 100 million cubic meters a year, or to 200 million cubic meters, over a period of five years. Harpaz was specifically asked to project the resultant levels of the aquifer, and the extent of the shift in the subterranean "line" between the sea water and fresh ground water. This line moves in the direction of the land mass whenever the ground table declines, resulting in infiltration of sea water and salinization of fresh water reserves. Harpaz also examined the increased salinity of the aquifer from additional sources, such as saline water sources found at deeper levels.
In Harpaz's estimate, annual withdrawal of 200 million cubic meters would cause extensive damage and is therefore not recommended. On the other hand, he believes that pumping of 100 million cubic meters is possible: It would lower the water level of the aquifer up to three meters, cause a landward shift of the sea water/fresh water line of up to one kilometer, and result in the partial salinization of the aquifer. However, if the over-withdrawal is ended after a five-year period and water is then artificially infused into the aquifer - raising levels and pushing out the salts - he believes the program would be worthwhile.
Former water commissioner Ben-Meir offered additional reasons for increased withdrawals from the aquifer in an article that appears in the most recent issue of Water and Irrigation, a Hebrew-language periodical. He argued that raising water prices for farmers and reducing quotas would effectively wipe out agriculture, resulting in the abandonment of farmland. This would, in turn, lead to real-estate chaos in central Israel resulting from unhindered construction in the deserted agricultural plots.
Ben-Meir asserted that this damage would be much worse than any temporary harm caused to the water table. He proposes that until the country is able to develop an extensive desalination capability, it should continue its policy of living on the aquatic edge, and argues that it would be reasonable to sacrifice some of the country's water sources - temporarily - for the greater good of saving agriculture. He furthermore proposes that the farmers not be deterred by a "media intifada" against them due to their resolute stand against water cutbacks, and that they demand their full rights on the issue.
The Water Commission does not contradict Harpaz's quantitative assessment of the effect of increased withdrawal of water, but notes that he was not asked, nor was he authorized, to determine what should or should not be considered acceptable policy on utilization of the coastal aquifer.
Water commissioner Shimon Tal recently said that over the past two years, the mountain aquifer has descended to its red line and water can no longer be taken from that source. Lake Kinneret has sunk to a level that is far below its red line: "Now the commission is being asked to empty its last storehouse," he said. "I am not prepared to sanction that sort of approach. Our job is to preserve the water sources of Israel, not liquidate them."
The commissioner's hydrological consultant, Ze'ev Golani, argues that Harpaz's tests were based on the quantities of water that were withdrawn from the coastal aquifer in 1998, and adds that there was a severe drought the following year, and a much larger-than-average quantity of water was thus withdrawn to meet the demand. The situation of over-withdrawal is still continuing.
"According to our forecast, without taking into consideration the recommendations in the Harpaz report, the Water Commission will be over-withdrawing 420 million cubic meters within three years simply in order to supply the required amount of water," says Golani. "This will continue to be the case even after enforcing the 50 percent reduction in farmers' water quotas. Implementation of the Harpaz report would mean an additional 500 million cubic meters of withdrawal - over and above what we are already doing. This is something we are not prepared to do."
Golani notes that excessive withdrawal of water by the commission is being carried out without any guarantees of replenishing the aquifer within five years, since there are as yet no other types of water resources (read: desalination) that can be exploited to replenish the aquifer.
"We proposed cutting 56 percent of the fresh-water quotas to farmers, but it was eventually decided to reduce the quotas by 50 percent," he adds. "The difference between what we originally proposed and what was accepted will, in the end, come at the expense of the coastal aquifer from which the water is withdrawn.
"We had hoped that we could realize an additional savings through the new water-conservation ad campaign, but the reduction in water consumption by the civilian population has been nullified by the natural increase in water consumption. And whatever we aren't able to save through the water-conservation campaign will have to come from the ground water."
The Water Commission now proposes to do what it can to preserve the coastal aquifer and not to give in to the agricultural sector's demands to pump even more water. The commission has also begun to persuade the government to agree to build a series of desalination plants.
About two months ago, it issued a document called "Long-Term Tasks of the Israeli Water Economy," which analyzed water needs until 2020. The amount of fresh water that will be needed by Israel and the Palestinians will be approximately two billion cubic meters a year. Assuming average rainfall during the next 20 years, Israel will end up with an annual shortfall of approximately 445 million cubic meters.
The die is castThis would require the water economy in Israel to meet added demand by increasing the extent of sewage treatment and recycling this water for agricultural use, as well as replenishing the ground-water reservoirs and the Kinneret, where low water levels over an extended period will negatively affect water quality. Replenishment of these sources will help to wash out some of the salts, which with the rise of water levels, will naturally flow back toward the sea.
Some experts believe that the die has already been cast on the coastal aquifer, since the salts that have accumulated in the ground due to pollution from runoff and industrial waste will continue to seep into it in coming years. But Golani says that this pessimistic assessment is not shared by the Water Commission: "We have not given up on saving the aquifer, and as we see it, by treating the sources of salinization, we can save this reservoir. If we don't do so, the water in it will be unsuitable for irrigation or drinking within a generation or two."
The Water Commission wishes to increase the level of the Kinneret by two meters over its current level, the level of the central mountain aquifer by four meters, and the coastal aquifer by two meters. This is no easy feat, since it is clear that the country often has below-average precipitation.
The Water Commission has concluded that Israel must move rapidly ahead with its plans to increase water production by means of desalination. In order to contend with the projected demand, commission officials believe that a new desalination plant capable of producing 50 million cubic meters must be built every two and a half years, so that within two decades, the country will be able to desalinize close to 400 million cubic meters each year. In drought years, the rate of construction can be speeded up. An ambitious proposal to be sure, and its implementation is very much in doubt.
It was only after much pressure was applied by those responsible for the water economy that the treasury agreed to build an initial desalination plant on the Ashkelon coast, and it is hard to foresee it committing additional budgets to build more facilities. If the treasury's desalination policy does not change, the Water Commission will have no choice but to continue cutting back on water supplies to the agricultural sector, while simultaneously over-exploiting the already seriously dwindling water resources until they are completely - and finally - depleted.
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