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In a Dry & Thirsty Land

August 5, 2008
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The state of Israel is currently in the midst of a drought that has seen 20% less rainfall than normal in cities across the country from August 2007 through May 2008. More troubling is the lack of rain in the North, the home of the Sea of Galilee, a critical freshwater source. One Israel Meteorological Service (IMS) station near the Galilee recorded rainfall that was just 58% of the normal through the end of May, reaching just 238 mm (9.3 in). The annual normal for the station is 408 mm (16 in). Back in late April, Dr. Amos Porat, director of the climatology branch of the IMS, told Bridges for Peace that the northern parts of the country, especially the northeastern area that houses the Galilee, is enduring a dry season that is “one of the worst.” As an extreme example of the rain shortage across the country, the deep southern, coastal city of Eilat recorded only 2 mm (0.08 in) of rain through the end of May, just 8% of the annual normal.

The lack of rain is having a severe impact on Israel’s usable water. According to Ha’aretz, the Sea of Galilee also known as Kinneret in Hebrew was expected to reach levels this year where pumping water from the lake would no longer be possible. Being from a kibbutz (communal settlement) near the Sea of Galilee allows Ilan Eshel, general manager of the Israeli Fruit Growers Association, to see firsthand the state of the historic body of water. “I see everyday the Kinneret, and it goes down and down and down. It’s very sad to see.” The Jerusalem Post reported that the month of May set new records since 1964 for Galilee water loss―a decline of 43 cm (17 in). In general, Ha’aretz reported that Water Authority Director Professor Uri Shani said water for consumption was at a 290 million cubic meter (379 million cubic yard) shortage as of late May.

As a result of the lack of rain, the Water Authority had threatened severe water cuts to water used for agriculture, the long- and short-term results of which could be disastrous for Israeli farmers. Eshel said that if the water cuts were to go as planned, he thought his farm would lose at least about 20% of his orchards, in addition to having to divert water from field crops to the trees. He guessed that in such a nightmare scenario, the average price of fruits in general could go up by at least 20 to 30% depending on the amount and type of fruits the farmers chose to lose. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization that has planted millions of trees in Israel and calls itself the “Jewish people's trustee of the land,” said on its Web site that in the Golan Heights, one kibbutz alone had to uproot 25 acres (100 dunams) of apples.

Shay Shoshany, the chairman of Kibbutz Degania Aleph in the Galilee, expected a large amount of damage to the agriculture at their kibbutz as well. Though he has lived there for more than 23 years, he said he thinks this year was one of the worst for water. “One of the most important things in the Middle East, especially in our region, is the issue of water. Water is life in our area,” Shoshany said.

And the crisis is far from over. According to the JNF Web site, due to five years in a row of drought, Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said by 2009, there will likely be a shortage of drinking water. The Jerusalem Post reported that Shani said next year’s rainfall needs to reach at least 120% of the normal to mitigate the detrimental effects. Considering this year’s rainy season, that doesn’t seem likely.

The Cause

What caused the current crisis? Global temperature change is blamed by some, although Dr. Porat said they “don’t really know what the reason is” for a region whose rainfall varies year to year. However, he said this year is made worse by several seasons of below average rainfall. “If it comes year after year, then the effect is more severe,” said Dr. Porat. Another issue is the lack of infrastructure. Eshel believes the government failed to provide northern farmers with the necessary water tools, such as enough recycled water. In addition, plans to build additional desalination plants that can turn sea water into drinking water have not moved as quickly as had been hoped.

Living in a desert climate makes Israel extremely vulnerable when rain does not fall. Deuteronomy 11:10–11 emphasizes the importance of rain for the Land of Israel: “For the land which you go to possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it by foot, as a vegetable garden; but the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven” (NKJV). In Egypt, everything grew by irrigation from the Nile River. Though Israel does use irrigation, God is saying that Israel’s main source would be rain that comes directly from Him.

A Flood of Solutions

Historically, the region has had long periods where rain did not meet demand. In one of the most famous of those dry seasons, during the days of Elijah, rain did not fall for three and a half years. James 5:17–18 says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (NKJV). In light of this, the most important thing that can be done in the current crisis is to pray for rain, like Elijah did.

In addition, things also look to be improving on a governmental level. A new desalination plant has been put up for the building and operation prequalification process by the Ministry of National Infrastructures, which is supposed to add at least 100 million cubic meters (130.8 million cubic yards) of water a year to the system. This is in addition to plans already underway by the Israeli water company Mekorot to build another desalination plant that can also produce 100 million cubic meters of water a year, while still another plant of the same size has signed financing agreements. Israel had been desalinating around 130 million cubic meters (170 million cubic yards) of water annually, as of May, a number set to increase substantially with all the new plans. The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli cabinet agreed in early June to increase the supply of desalinated water to 750 million cubic meters (981 million cubic yards) by 2020.

Those numbers may also get a boost by an ambitious project looking to save the Dead Sea. A canal stretching from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, to be built partly to replenish the declining water level in the Dead Sea, is expected to also include desalination facilities that can produce water for Jordan, the Palestinians, and Israel. Yitzhak Tshuva told a presidential conference in mid-May that the plan will desalinate a billion cubic meters of water, according to a report in The Jerusalem Post. The plans may not be a reality anytime soon, however, as the controversial and expensive canal has been discussed for years without gaining all the necessary approval and funding.

In addition to major steps taken by the government and business, small steps are also underway. The Jerusalem Post said the Israeli government approved funds for a water conservation public relations campaign, and the Water Authority has chosen to set up wells en route to the Sea of Galilee to catch additional runoff water.

On a private level, JNF is also active. Their primary water efforts are to build water reservoirs and, according to Ishay Shechter, strategic manager for the JNF, the water they provide makes up 10% of the Israeli system. There are three different types of reservoirs, most of which, in the last 10 years, are capable of recycling drainage water. This water is cleaned enough for agriculture. According to the JNF Web site, for public health reasons, the water is used only for orchards since the water does not directly touch the branches.

Shechter said cities in Israel produce a lot of drainage water, a helpful fact. “[Agriculture is therefore] not dependent on the weather,” said Shechter. “Even in the summer when we don’t have rain in Israel, we have a very good source for the agriculture.” Shechter said their system is “very successful” because it not only creates more water, but also cleans the water and the environment as well. In addition to the drainage-cleaning reservoirs, JNF also has reservoirs that catch more of the water from rain and rivers and ones that make the system more effective.

Shechter said the JNF currently is not involved in desalination, but that they are thinking for the future about new projects. “Our policy is to take a place where the government does not take a place,” said Shechter. Considering the ever increasing Israeli population, additional water solutions are in growing demand. Whether or not the current efforts and plans will be enough remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: With the rainy season expected to restart in October, Israelis will be hoping―and praying―that bountiful rains will be able to wash away the current crisis.

Ashkelon Countering the Water Crisis

Israel’s seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant in Ashkelon is doing its part to combat the water crisis. It began operating in 2005, pumping seawater from the Mediterranean and converting it to freshwater. In March, 2006, it was voted “Desalination Plant of the Year” in the Global Water Awards. A little after a year of operation, it reached a major milestone as it produced its first 100 million cubic meters [130.8 million cubic yards] of freshwater.

The facility at Ashkelon is able to produce 320,000 cubic meters [418.5 cubic yards] of water per day, which is about 13% of Israel’s consumer needs, or 5 to 6% of the country’s total water needs. This process is a very cost effective means of desalination, enabling the plant to produce freshwater at one of the lowest prices in the world.


The reverse osmosis process, in which pressure is applied to saltwater to force it through a special membrane, is by far the most promising approach to desalinating water. Only pure water passes, leaving concentrated seawater behind. This process is used at the Ashkelon facility and costs about half of what other processes do.


Photo Credit: Photos by Will King

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