02.05.2018 | End in sight for Israel’s water crisis

Driving along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret in Hebrew), you don’t get a sense that this historic lake, the setting for so many Biblical stories, is under severe threat. It’s an idyllic, ageless panorama. Blue waters shimmer in the spring sunshine. A light westerly breeze ruffles the reed banks. And the Golan Heights in the distance provide a brooding backdrop.

I had been aware that Israel, like much of the Middle East, was suffering an acute water shortage but was not aware of the scale of the problem. “The Kinneret is shrinking,” sighed my host at a local moshav, bemoaning the worst drought in the country’s history. Five years of limited rainfall has reduced freshwater reserves to a 100-year low.  The depletion has led to rising salinity in the Kinneret and harmed its water quality.

Not so long ago, the lake was the country’s principal source of drinking water. From there, a national water carrier – a system of a pipelines, tunnels, canals and reservoirs – snaked its way south supplying the big urban centres.  Despite the current scarcity, Israel continues to pipe lake water to Jordan as part of a bilateral agreement, my host, arching an eyebrow, pointed out: “We’ve been doing it for years, but no one speaks of this...”

While the Israeli–Palestinian conflict tends to dominate international and domestic news coverage, efforts to address a crisis of arguably comparable severity is increasingly making headlines. Over the past decade or so, Israel – out of sheer necessity – has been developing leading-edge desalinisation plants. Five have been built along its coastline, providing 80 per cent of the country’s drinking water.  Recycled wastewater supplies 95 per cent of the needs of agriculture and irrigation.

With no sign of regional drought easing, two more desalinisation facilities are being planned for northern Israel, doubling potable water-producing capacity by 2030. Part of the increased output is expected to be used for the first time for agriculture, depleted water courses, restoring the Kinneret to health and helping meet supply commitments to Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. Another Moshav resident I spoke to noted ironically that the only opposition is likely to come from some Green activists concerned the plants and pipelines will blight the landscape.  

Meanwhile in the south of the country, an equally ambitious project is underway to save the Dead Sea, where desiccation has reached alarming rates.  Under a joint venture with Jordan, brine from a desalinisation plant on the Red Sea will be pumped 100 miles north to replenish the world’s saltiest body of water, whose encrusted shoreline is shared by Israel and Jordan.

Just as Israel’s massive new-found offshore gas reserves might one day help to build bridges in the Middle East, the country’s refinery-like desalinisation complexes, with their distinctive reservoir tanks and pumps, could someday ease geopolitical tensions by alleviating regional water shortages – which have already contributed to conflict.

Some have suggested the roots of the war in Syria stem from the Assad regime’s neglect of the overcrowded shantytowns on the outskirts of the country’s main cities, which were swollen by hundreds of thousands of former farmers searching for work after abandoning their livelihoods because their wells – dug ever deeper as water tables fell – ran dry.

For now, the Israelis’ focus is on finessing and marketing its treatment processes, principally reverse osmosis technology, which forces sea water through a membrane to filter out the salt. The process was pioneered by Israeli scientist Stanley Loeb in the 1960s – and it is now employed in many other water-stressed parts of the world. IDE Technologies, the leading edge Israeli water treatment company, has built 400 plants in 40 countries, daily producing some 3 million cubic metres of potable water.

Tour the verdant Galilee region, Israel’s green lung, and it is easy to lose sight of just how delicately balanced the regional ecosystem is. National concerns over rainfall have been such that in December several thousand people attended a special service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for rain. Israel’s chief rabbis also urged synagogue congregations across the country to do the same. With two new desalinisation plants on their way, Israelis may not need to rely too much on divine intervention.