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Israel’s Water Crisis

February 1, 2011

by: Charleeda Sprinkle, Assistant Editor

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Israel’s National Water Carrier

In March 2010, a state committee report investigating the water shortage (18 months in the making) concluded that the “country’s natural water reservoirs are 53 billion cubic feet [the equivalent of the potable water used in Israel for a year] below the level they should be to ensure a stable water supply,” according to a Forward Association posting. A Jerusalem Post article stated that this winter, the Sea of Galilee “will likely receive the least water since records started being kept in 1927.” In November 2010, it was already a meter (3.3 feet) below the “red line” (the point where no more pumping is recommended).

Usually—even in past dry seasons—Israel has had some rainfall by September or October, but in 2010, we hardly had a drop, even as we entered December. Instead of carrying umbrellas and bundling up in coats, pedestrians were walking around in shorts and short-sleeved tops. Many days, bright blue skies had not a cloud in sight—nice for tourists and family outings but not good for the land.

Drought’s Damaging Effects

The summer of 2010, being the hottest summer on record, made the land even drier than before. Starting in September, Israel began experiencing its side effects:

  • Forest Fires • Photo by Isranet Forest Fires—In October, Chanoch Tzoref—a forest fire prevention supervisor for the Jewish National Fund (JNF)—summed up the summer of 2010 by saying, “We are approaching 10,000 acres [800,000 trees] burned. That’s three times the average in the last 100 years.” Arsonists took full advantage of the dry land and were responsible for 60% of the year’s fires. Tragically, 2010 ended with Israel’s worst fire disaster the first week of December (see page 29). Considering that only 3.7% of Israel is forested, this is doubly tragic.
     
  •   Over-ripened fruit Produce—As early as September, the Vegetable Growers Association was warning of serious shortages. At the worst, the vegetable harvest dropped by 70% and the fruit yield by 25%. The intense summer heat either caused fruits to ripen early (at a time when there is a shortage of foreign workers to do the gleaning) or caused the blossoms to fall off and not produce fruit at all.
     
  • Languishing cows
    Depleted Sea of Galilee

    Dairy products—By November, the grocery shelves carried only margarine but no butter. There had, in fact, never been such a shortage in Israel before. Not being a country girl or farmer’s daughter, I found the reason given most interesting—cows have a hard time conceiving in hot weather and produce less milk (with less fat), and this when consumers were drinking more cold milk because of the heat. Some dairy farmers actually misted down their cows and used fans! The problem was accentuated by the fact that the demand for butter had increased by 5% in 2010, and little was imported because of 140% custom duties. (The Israel Dairy Board said the high price of butter in world markets also depressed imports.)
     

  • Poultry—Hundreds of thousands of chickens died because of the heat. One Ynet article reported that “poultry are particularly sensitive to heat and have a difficult time cooling themselves.” The ones most affected were the large adult birds in which farmers had already made significant investments. This cost insurance companies, which insure farmers against acts of nature, millions of shekels in claims.

Who’s to Blame?

Forward Association reported that the 2010 state committee report came to the same conclusion that environmental activists have had for years—government bureaucracy.  Policies have been made but not enforced. Plans to build more desalination plants have been stuck for years and are moving painfully slow. Natural resources have been over-pumped. No long-term planning has been taken seriously because they would be shelved or forgotten once rain came. Cases of contamination have not been prosecuted, so dumping of sewage water has increased.

Water, for the most part, has actually been subsidized by the state instead of making the public pay full price. A JPost article reported that in most Middle East countries—such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—“water sometimes comes out of the pipes only once a week,” while Israelis always have it on demand, so Israel is now reevaluating this policy.

However, the chief rabbis of Israel have declared “the land is dry due to our many sins.” Rabbi Menachem Froman, an Orthodox rabbi from Tekoa (near Bethlehem), in a Media Line interview, pointed to the lack of peace in the region: “According to our traditions, the Jewish and the Islam, rain is due to the deeds of man, and if we make any step of peace between us, perhaps that will open the treasures of the skies and rain will fall.”

Solutions

Importing water has been considered “economically unfeasible,” but Israel presently has three desalination plants up and running; two more are planned. Other plans include a new national water carrier to deliver desalinated water, more pipelines for agricultural use, reversing the process of seawater from entering aquifers, and increasing water-consciousness (though usage has dropped by 18% voluntarily).

Then, there’s prayer. Twice in November, the chief rabbis of Israel issued a call to pray and fast for rain. Even secular farmers joined in at the Western Wall. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders came together, and Jewish communities worldwide participated as well. Throughout this winter, let’s remind God as the psalmist did: “You, O God, sent a plentiful rain, whereby You confirmed Your inheritance, when it was weary…” (Ps. 68:9).

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