The Invisible Crisis: Making Israel's Water Woes Transparent

The dry spring of the Naaman Stream, Ein Afeq Nature Reserve. Photo Dr. Orit Skutelski.

It is widely known that the “Start-Up Nation” solved its severe water shortage a decade ago by constructing massive seawater desalination plants and encouraging the public to curb personal water use. While neighboring countries in the dry Middle East region continue to struggle, Israel thrives with five high-tech desalination plants across the country, as well as an innovative wastewater treatment system that reuses about 85% of the sewage from domestic water consumption for agriculture irrigation.

From the outside, it seems as though Israel's water crisis is a thing of the past. However, as with many environmental issues, the reality is a bit more complex.

The National Water Sector in Israel faces ongoing challenges, as it is still managed in a state of imbalance between the supply and demand of natural water resources. Though the construction of seawater desalination plants has strengthened national water security, the water crisis in Israel is still an urgent issue at the national and geopolitical levels.

The national water reservoirs, Lake Kinneret and the Mountain Aquifer are in severe recession; the streams in Israel are still dry and contaminated; and the demand for natural water resources for drinking and agriculture is still greater than the rate of natural regeneration, which leads to unsustainable use of these resources. In addition, climate change intensifies the crisis by increasing the burden on natural water sources.

Tzipori Stream. Photo Dr. Orit Skutelsky

Water Levels Alarmingly Low

Scientific data published about the current salinity level of the Kinneret's water indicated that it has reached its highest level in 50 years, due to the water level dropping 13 centimeters below the lower red line.  This marks the lowest level at which water can be safely pumped from the lake.

The low water level is also detrimental to the reproductive capabilities of the fish population that inhabits the lake and supports the health of its ecosystem.  Declining numbers of St. Peter's fish, one of the most ecologically-significant species in the lake, led the Water Authority to fund a project to restock the lake with young St. Peter’s fish every year.

Currently, most of the water used for agriculture in the Golan Heights, Galilee and Jordan Valley regions is pumped directly from local springs, rivers and local ground water.  Because most of the water is pumped directly from the springs, there is little water left to flow in the streams, thus causing further damage to the already dwindling streams and wetlands.

Israel's Water Policy

Established in 1959, the Israeli National Water Law defines natural water resources as a public asset that cannot be privatized.  As such, the Water Law called for an obligatory Statutory Public Council on Water and Sewage tasked with addressing these crucial public water issues. Unfortunately, this Statutory Public Council ceased to exist several years ago, and the crucial public discourse of Israel's natural water resources has been neglected for quite some time.  

To fill the void, a joint initiative of The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Tel Aviv University recently established a National Public Water Forum.  Held in December 2016 and led by Prof. Avital Gasith of Tel-Aviv University, an expert on the restoration of streams and wetlands, and Dr. Orit Skutelsky, Coordinator of Water and Streams at SPNI, the first meeting of the public forum focused on the water crisis in the Kinneret Basin. Following this initial meeting, a steering committee was established, including 40 members, all of whom are experts and stakeholders from the water sector.

The forum focuses on policy issues involving management of Israel’s water sector, and promotes transparency, public involvement, and balanced long-term planning of natural water resources, as well as rehabilitation and management of streams and wetlands.

In its first meeting, the forum examined fundamental questions regarding Israel's ability to put an end to the water crisis in the Kinneret Basin, weighing the impact of climate change and geopolitical shifts in the region on the one hand and the Israeli government’s reluctance to address the issue of water rehabilitation on the other.

In March 2017, the forum’s second meeting was attended by close to one hundred water experts.  They discussed Israel's Water Master Plan, initially approved by the Water Authority in 2011 and currently being revised prior to submission for approval by the government.

Following that meeting the steering committee sent a letter to Dr. Yuval Steinitz, the Minister of National Infrastructure Energy and Water Resources, urging him to conduct a public discourse on the master plan that would explain the proposed revisions.  The letter explained that such a public discussion was crucial, as Israel's water policy has a profound impact on all aspects of Israeli life, including agriculture, nature, tourism and recreation, industry, land development and population settlement.  In addition, because all of Israel's water resources cross borders, the water policy also effects our relationships with neighboring countries and the Palestinian Authority.

 
Tzipori Stream. Photo Dr. Orit SkutelskySPNI Takes a Stand

With the springs and streams in the Kinneret basin deteriorating rapidly, SPNI called for the discontinuance all governmental and local plans to expand agriculture initiatives in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee until alternative water supplies become viable.  One such solution supported by SPNI is the construction of an additional seawater desalination plant in the Western Galilee, which would reduce the dependency of the northern population of Israel on water from the Kinneret, and the establishment of a pipeline for transporting desalinated seawater from the western coast to the upper Kinneret Basin.

In addition, SPNI strongly recommended relocating all of the water pumps downstream in order to replenish the streams upon which the region’s wildlife ecosystem andtourism industry depend so heavily. 


 


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