Desalination has eased the water shortage, but continued drought, over-pumping and the needs of a growing population are playing havoc with the country’s ecology.
By Nir Hasson, Noa Shpigel, Ido Efrati and Zafrir Rinat Sep 06, 2016

Most of the public believes that desalination has helped Israel overcome its chronic water crisis, but water experts say this isn’t quite true and warn against complacency.

The monthly report for August published by the Hydrological Service of the Israel Water Authority shows a sharper-than-usual drop this summer in the level of Lake Kinneret, the Dead Sea, the northern streams and all the underground aquifers. What’s more, domestic and international forecasts predict that at least the first half of the winter is going to be dry. If these forecasts are realized, the Kinneret this year will drop to its near-lowest level in 10 years.
Women bathing in the Dead Sea, and coating themselves with the putatively therapeutic Dead Sea mud. Michal Fattal

Although Israel’s desalination plants indeed meet an increasing quantity of the country’s water consumption, at the local level the current crisis may cause serious damage to agriculture and nature.

According to the Water Authority report, last month the level of Lake Kinneret dropped 26 centimeters, to 32 centimeters below the lower red line — the line at which damage to the ecological balance begins and the water quality declines. This is the lowest September 1 level in six years, even though pumping from the lake to the national water carrier has been markedly reduced.

The level of the Dead Sea, meanwhile, dropped 13 centimeters in August. Since the beginning of the hydrological year (which begins in October), the Dead Sea level has dropped 103 centimeters, 22 percent more than the drop in the corresponding period of the previous hydrological year. Over the past 25 years, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped nearly 25 meters. Today almost no water flows into it from the Jordan River, whose waters are diverted to provide drinking water to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Sharp drops have also been measured in the country’s mountain and coastal aquifers, although they remain over their red lines. However, the Western Galilee aquifer, an important water source for that region, has dropped below its red line.
Israel’s desalination plant in Hadera. Eyal Toueg

Israel’s last serious water crisis was in 2008, when the government launched a major water-saving campaign and expedited the construction of desalination plants to join the one already operating in Ashkelon. Desalination facilities in Palmahim, Hadera, Nahal Sorek and Ashdod came rapidly online; over the past year, these installations have produced 500 million cubic meters of water, 40 percent of the country’s fresh water. Next year that’s expected to rise to 600 million cubic meters.

‘Problem solved’

“Israel has solved its water problem,” declares Uri Shor, the Water Authority spokesman. “Today more than half of all supplied water is water produced by man [this includes purified wastewater – N.H.]. This assures stability and a reliable supply.”

Experts agree that the water supply problem has been alleviated by desalination, but paint a more complex picture in which desalinization plays only a partial role.
The water level in the Sea of Galilee is sinking fast. Gil Eliahu

“To build a desalination plant takes three years,” says Prof. Daniel Kurtzman of the Volcani Center, “but to build the infrastructure to carry the water great distances takes many years. They started to build the fifth water line to Jerusalem in 2003, and it will be many more years before it’s finished.” Thus, areas that are distant from the desalination plants must continue to rely on natural water sources and will suffer during a drought despite Israel’s desalination capabilities.

“Drought is primarily an ecological plague; during a dry year we see how the Golan streams and the Hula lake dry up and there’s nothing we can do; that’s a disaster,” says Arnon Sofer, an emeritus professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Haifa.

“Then there’s the broader impact on the esthetics of the landscape, the flora and fauna, and even on the livelihood people make from kayak tourism,” says Sofer.

“There are areas in Israel that are not affected by desalination — the Golan Heights, for example, where there’s a serious water problem,” says Kurtzman.

“You wouldn’t think that the Golan Heights would need water solutions of the type we envision today; but those are solutions are appropriate for the Arava Desert, not for the Golan.”

Indeed, Golan farmers, who rely primarily on surface reservoirs, are the primary victims of the current situation. During dry years these reservoirs are poorly filled and quickly emptied.

Now there are plans to drill deep wells in the Golan that concern environmental organizations.
A bather in Lake Kinneret, September 2016. In the background is an island created as a result of the low water level. Tomer Appelbaum

“They are starting to talk about drilling into the basalt layer to provide water for drinking and agriculture, something that has never been done,” says Yehoshua Shkedy, the chief scientist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. “The problem is that such drilling will dry up the springs and tributaries, which are the life blood of the Golan Heights.”

Shkedy adds, however, “Another year of this and I have no idea what we’ll do. We’re talking about the possible drying up of the Banias, that it will be impossible to kayak down the Jordan River.”

Meanwhile, if you’ve been wondering why in recent years more rain seems to be falling in the south than in the north, you are not alone. Experts are having a hard time explaining why the region’s rainy zone seems to have stopped at Netanya.

Global changes

A study by Amir Givati, the head of surface water management at the Israel Water Authority, points to a global climatic change that will affect the region going forward. The study argues that the classic barometric depressions of the Israeli winter, which move from north to south, have weakened and have been replaced by rains that come more from the south.

The optimistic scientists, however, say that a few dry years are not enough to establish a rule.

“I’m relatively optimistic,” says Kurtzman. “In 2001 we reached the black line in the Kinneret, which is as bad as it gets, and then 2002-03 was a very rainy year, and the mood changed. From my experience, it’s possible that we have here large cycles of 30 to 40 years. Between 1965 and 1995 we had a rainy period, and since 1995 we’re having a less-rainy period. It can change.”