Water shortage is not a new concept in Israel. When I first came to live here over 30 years ago, we had the "Save water, shower with a friend" water-saving campaign. In 2010-2011, we have had the "Israel is drying up" campaign. But is the situation really that bad and if so, what is being done about it?
Is the Sea of Galilee disappearing?
If you've been to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) during the past few years, you will have seen much wider beaches than there were in the past.
At the end of 2011, there was a real fear that the water shortage would cause levels to drop so low that the water pressure wouldn't be strong enough to suppress the salt water streams that run under the lake. The water would then become too saline to use as drinking water.
There are three important measurements of the water level in the Sea of Galilee: the upper red line (-208.80 metres below sea level) which is the maximum capacity, above which there would be a danger of flooding; the lower red line (-213.00 metres below sea level); and the black line (-214.87 metres below sea level) which represents the lowest level ever recorded, in November 2001.
But after seven years of drought, the winter of 2011-2012 was unusually cold and rainy and the lake rose almost 2 meters. In the Spring of 2012, the water level stood at -211.5 metres below sea level, putting it somewhere between the lower and upper red lines. Although the lake is still short of water, it's a great start and has broken the pattern of drought that we've experienced for the past seven years.
So, is this the end of the water shortage?
No-one can tell. It all depends on what next winter brings. Even the meteorologists hadn't predicted all that rain and snow!
The winter of 2011-2012 started late with the hottest, driest December for 19 years. But the "real" winter started with the new year with heavy rains, especially in the north of the country, and snow on high ground.
In the second week of January, over one metre of snow fell on the Hermon Mountain and on 15th January, the Hermon Park officially opened the ski slope. This was great news for skiiers and snowboarders who had hardly had a full week of snow for a number of years. In fact, snow continued to fall until March and the ski slope stayed open for the Passover /Easter holidays for the first time in 20 years.
So, 2012 meantime is looking good, and on one hand, there's still the water from all the melted snow to come. But on the other hand, in the hot, dry summer season, the lake loses about 1.5 metres to vaporization.
How is Israel dealing with the water shortage?
The Sea of Galilee accounts for about 30% of the country's drinking water. But Israel's water supply comes from a variety of other sources - natural springs, groundwater from coastal and mountain aquifers, reservoirs (mostly in the south) and desalination plants.
The public are encouraged to use less water by government-sponsored advertising campaigns and by taxing water. Municipalities have reduced the amount of water they use for watering public gardens by using water-saving plants and adding stones to decorate flower beds. Tourism isn't really affected by the water shortage at all, as clean drinking water is available in all the tourist areas. Industry and agriculture account for the largest amount of water consumpton, and these are the areas that are worst hit.
More than half of the water used for irrigation is recycled (grey) water. Scientists are working all the time on improving the efficiency of growing crops to produce more for less water. In fact, Israel has become so good at conserving and recycling water that it markets it's technologies to other parts of the world where there is a water shortage. It is already way ahead of any other country in the world with it's water recycling programme.
There are two main sewage treatments centres for recycling water - one in the north at Karmiel and the other in Ashdod in the south. After the water has been filtered, it is treated to remove bacteria and diseases. It can then be used for agriculture or returned to natural water sources.
Man-made wetlands have been constructed in many areas as a more cost-efficient and aesthetic way of dealing with water recycling. This is a way of treating waste water naturally, causing less harm to the environment while using less energy.
According to the Israel Water Authority, Mekorot, desalination is the way to go to solve Israel's long term water shortage problem. There are already two desalination plants in operation in Ashkelon and Palmachim. A new one was recently opened in Hadera which to date is the largest SWRO (sea water reverse osmosis) plant in the world and there are two more on the way. Reverse osmosis is a method of filtering the salt from seawater without it having to be heated. This saves energy, and makes it more cost-efficient.
But not everyone is happy about this project. Green organisations are against the building of these desalination plants because of the damage to nature and the coastline. They claim that the Mediterranean will become more saline because the residue from the salt is pumped back into the sea. They criticise the Israel Water Authority for doing too little, too late, and believe they should concentrate on water conservation education like encouraging private house-owners to use grey-water systems, and the like.
The Hadera facility (named H2ID) has its price. It takes up 74 acres (just over 18 acres) of coastal land and the financial agreement with the Israeli government means it will be paying $0.57/cubic metre for its water until 2032. But, with a growing population and the threat of global warming, this may be the best available solution. The plant supplies 127 million cubic metres of water a year and is the first step in a plan to build a new national water carrier.
Check out this important link:
100+ suggestions for conserving water.
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