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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Israeli Water Crisis

Air Date: Week of

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In Israel, political unrest and violence too often dominate the headlines. But there’s a looming crisis in that nation we don’t hear much about. As Sarah Zabeida reports, Israel’s water supply is threatened by drought and government mismanagement.



KNOY: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy sitting in for Steve Curwood.

Anyone listening to today's news from the Middle East would likely list religion and land as the main causes behind current conflicts. But there are some who say that in a few years it will be water that the region's inhabitants will be fighting over. Water is vital to any potential solution in the Middle East. For example, the existing peace treaty between Jordan and Israel eight years ago was built on condition that Israel supply water to its neighbors from scarce, but, nonetheless, shared supplies. But after five years of drought, the water situation in Israel is deteriorating rapidly. Experts say drinking water could run out this decade if immediate rationing measures aren't taken. A state of emergency was declared recently, after a governmental inquiry found that a shortage of rain wasn't the only problem. Sarah Zebaida has our report.


ZEBAIDA: This is the freshwater lake where Christians believe Jesus walked on water, right here on the Sea of Galilee, known as the Kinneret by locals. It was also Israel's most important and faithful source of water until this year, supplying water for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.

But there is trouble here. Today, the Sea of Galilee is almost 700 feet below sea level. That's well below the so-called “emergency red line,” the point that signals serious damage to this country's giant natural reservoir. The once sweet, fresh water is slowly turning salty as the sea literally shrinks. Healthy plankton and fish that naturally clean the lake are slowly being replaced with harmful blue algae.

Here at Kibbutz En Gev on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the water's edge is rapidly receding into the distance. Sophia is a waitress at a famous fish restaurant on the kibbutz.


SOPHIA: When I was little, we used to go ever summer to the Kinneret and on this exact place where I'm standing the shore just ran away. It was just beside me, and now I have to walk like two minutes, three minutes, in order to get into the water.

ZEBAIDA: People have been fishing in this region for millennia. Menachem Lev carries on that tradition. Every morning for the past 22 years, he's been fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Now, for the first time, he can see the bottom of the pier that juts out into the water.


LEV: We didn't used to see the lake like this, and we feel very sad, like me. Once I see the harbor full and everything, but we carry on. We have to believe in God that he should bring us rain.

ZEBAIDA: Indeed, a common sight these days in the region is planeloads of orthodox rabbis flying over the sea reciting special prayers for rainfall. But it's not only the Sea of Galilee that's become depleted. For instance, the coastal aquifer under the city of Tel Aviv has been overdrawn and as a consequence, salt water is intruding from the Mediterranean Sea.

The Jewish National Fund, which receives the majority of its financial support from the Jewish community in America, has helped build hundreds of reservoirs under Israeli control. But the JNF's president, Ronald Lauder, feels that many Israelis are underestimating how grave the situation is.

LAUDER: When I travel throughout the United States when they do have a drought, I notice that in every bathroom there is a sign talking about saving water. There are fountains that are turned off. But at the same time, we have a much more acute water shortage in places in Israel. And to have people continue to wash their car and water the lawn, I believe, is nothing short of criminal.

ZEBAIDA: There are penalties on the books for wasting water. For example, the fine for watering lawns during the summer is close to $2,000, but enforcement is difficult. A new environmental police force was launched shortly before the latest violence broke out, but in the past two years, those green police have scarcely been seen. And despite the fact that Israel sits in the middle of an arid region, in many ways it has a western lifestyle, complete with western levels of water consumption. Gideon Witkin is the Director of Israel's Lands Authority, an agency that controls all state-owned land.

WITKIN: We see an increase of level of living and more house and gardens, more grass, more public gardening, beautification of the country and everything. This consumes a lot of water, and to cut down on that, it is really very, very, very difficult, because you are cutting down on quality of life.

ZEBAIDA: Conserving water is something the government tries to ingrain into Israeli consciousness from childhood. There are even public service announcements on radio and television urging Israelis not to waste a drop. In this one, a child scolds his mother for leaving the tap water on while brushing her teeth.


ZEBAIDA: Despite bombs and borders dominating the news, the water crisis managed to make the headlines recently. The government has just declared a two-year water emergency. That announcement came as part of a parliamentary inquiry into the water crisis. In the recently released report, officials reserved their harshest criticism not for the drought, but for endless bureaucracy that has delayed the construction of wastewater purification and desalination plants. But it seems that the Israeli public has some criticism of their own. They blame the water crisis on agriculture. Israel's legendary Jaffa oranges and Galia melons have been sold across Europe and America for more than 40 years. But these farmers buy their water at prices heavily subsidized by the government. So is too much of the nation's water supply being shipped out of the country in the form of fruit for too little gain? Philip Warburg is the director of Israel's Union of Environmental Defense.

WARBURG: The farm sector receives in excess of 50 percent of the water supply for he nation, and yet provides roughly, I think, two percent of the nation's GNP. So you're talking about allocation of a scarce resource to a not very productive sector, in a very inefficient manner.

ZEBAIDA: Under the crisis declaration, Israel will drastically increase the price of water for farmers, and expedite the plans for wastewater purification and desalination plants.

The Arab/Israeli conflict pervades every aspect of life in the Middle East, and water is no exception. The Israeli government controls the amount of water sent to the Palestinians living in the West Bank in Gaza, but those populations complain that their supplies are woefully inadequate. Indeed, the average Israeli uses four times as much water as the average Palestinian in the West Bank in Gaza.

Efrat Gamliel from Friends of the Earth Middle East heads a project called Good Water Neighbors which aims to foster cooperation between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities on water issues. She thinks Israel has yet to confront the issue of water equity.

GAMLIEL: For one year they studied the water crisis in Israel, and they issued a very detailed, long report. They only dealt with the water in Israel, like we're isolated on an island or something. They never mentioned that we have mutual water resources and that the Palestinians are part of them, and we must look at the picture like that. I think it's a big mistake to look at Israel as a separate unit. It's not.

ZEBAIDA: The battle for depleted water resources becomes even more fierce when the water quality itself is compromised. The many rivers that flow throughout Israel and the West Bank cannot be used as a water resource because of dangerously high levels of chemical waste and bacteria, such as E. coli. Many of these rivers originate in the Palestinian-controlled cities in the West Bank, where there is little infrastructure to treat wastewater. The strained and limited cooperation between the Palestinian authority and Israeli environment officials, coupled with the growing amounts of Palestinian industrial waste, muddies the waters even further.

Philip Warburg says that both Israel and the Palestinian authority have neglected water protection for too long, and neither side can afford to wait for peace before dealing with the crisis.

WARBURG: There is a tendency in the Middle East where security issues loom very large to regard environmental protection as a luxury that should be dealt with once the other problems are solved. And I think that the water issue is a very good issue to demonstrate that environmental protection can't wait.

ZEBAIDA: The search for solutions to the water crisis have led to an unorthodox proposal: to mine for water in the desert.

LAUDER: One of the areas that I believe there is great potential for is the Negev, which is the major desert in the center of Israel. There is the distinct possibility, almost a certainty, that there is fossilized water underneath the Negev.

ZEBAIDA: The Israeli public may be wary of using fossilized water, but Ron Lauder is undeterred. The Jewish National Fund has already spent millions of dollars to develop the special mining equipment to extract the estimated billions of cubic meters of water from nearly a mile underground.

LAUDER: Interestingly enough, water does not age. Although you have to clean up the water a little bit, it is really water, and this is part of the future.

ZEBAIDA: Critics say the project's huge costs cannot be justified since this is a non-renewable, once-only water source. But if this project proves successful, the Jewish National Fund plans to donate the technology to Syria and Jordan so they, too, can mine for their own fossilized water.


ZEBAIDA: The waste water and desalination plants are expected to be up and running by the end of next year. If successful, the Negev plan is also at least two years from reality. Meanwhile, vacationers here on the Sea of Galilee are getting used to dragging their beach chairs a few more feet each year to get to the water's edge. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Zebaida at En Gev Beach on the Sea of Galilee.


[MUSIC: Thomas Dolby, “The Flat Earth” THE FLAT EARTH (Capitol, 1994)]



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