12/01/2010 06:39

End goal must be sustainable, cleverly managed water economy, in which authorities both act now and plan for future to meet a reality where rainfall may very well never equal what it once did.

The lack of rain these past few weeks has been obvious, with this past month being the driest November since records began to be kept in 1927. Forecasters fear half of December will slip away before any serious rain appears on the horizon.

The water level of Lake Kinneret has, as a consequence, dropped dangerously low. Already far past the bottom red line, the water level is nearing the black line. Crossing the black line drastically increases the potential that the lake will be permanently damaged as a water resource.

Those are the visible signs of crisis. There are invisible signs as well. Overpumping has led to a 1.5 to 2 billion cubic meter deficit. What that means is that even if it started raining copiously tomorrow, there still wouldn’t be enough water from natural sources to return the country to the levels enjoyed in previous decades. The coastal aquifer is on the verge of becoming contaminated, as the fresh water level drops and the salt water starts to mix.

Israel, is, of course, not the only country in the region which has to deal with the water scarcity. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all suffer far more severe shortages; water is often not available every day there. It is a testament to Israeli ingenuity and drive that no such shortage has occurred here.

This Sunday, the Water Authority is due to present the cabinet with an emergency water plan to cover the next two years, until all of the desalination plants begin operating. By 2013, the plants are expected to produce 600 million cubic meters of water annually. That should give Israel a buffer if the dry spell continues, though no one has ruled out the need for more desalination plants in future.

Both Water Authority head Prof. Uri Shani and Mekorot CEO Ido Rosolio have told The Jerusalem Post that no new radical solutions will be presented as part of the emergency plan. In truth, any radical solution, such as importing water from Turkey or Croatia, would likely take too long to implement to have any effect on the next two years.

However, there are still untapped solutions which the government could pursue.

THE URBAN sector has become the largest, and most wasteful, consumer of water. Industry has never used massive quantities, and agriculture has been largely diverted to using treated sewage water over the last decade.

Specifically, the public must be better educated not to waste even the slightest drop of water. Unpopular measures such as drought levies can be held in reserve, as Israelis are quite open to such educational campaigns.

The long-time effort to stop the picking of wildflowers has been a tremendous success and did not rely on punitive measures. The public has already reduced its water consumption by 18% over the last two years, but more is needed.

Water conservation in the home is not an expensive process – the Water Authority is distributing two million water-saving devices for faucets, and shower heads that use less water are rapidly penetrating the market at reasonable prices. Reducing household consumption by just 10% would save 65 to 70 million cubic meters a year – about half of a large desalination plant’s output.

Secondly, preventive maintenance is vital on municipal sewage and water pipes. Some studies have suggested that as much as 30 million cubic meters of water a year is lost through leaky pipes. That’s the amount a small desalination plant produces.

Israel is a recognized world leader in water technologies – from leak detection to water use monitoring to in-pipe sealing techniques. Israeli companies do brisk business overseas; it’s time to implement this home-grown ingenuity at home.

In the longer term, the first priority is to complete the master plan for the water economy, which has run into budgeting issues. Without such a plan, priorities cannot be properly assigned and the haphazard implementation which has plagued the water economy is forced to continue. The next priority must be the timely completion of the desalination plants.

The end goal must be a sustainable, cleverly managed water economy, in which the authorities both act now and plan for the future to meet a reality where rainfall may very well never equal what it once did. With correct management, emergency plans like the one to be presented on Sunday would become superfluous, since stopgap measures would no longer be needed.