Israel facing worst drought In history.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
n the sands of the Negev Desert here,
small groves of eucalyptus, olive and
pomegranate trees grow in shallow
depressions dug out to catch floodwater, a
method used by the Nabateans thousands
of years ago.
The ancient technique is one way
Israelis are trying to harness every drop of
water, an effort that has become critical as
the country reels from its fourth straight
year of drought.
Experts say Israel is in the worst water
crisis it has ever seen.
"We don't have any water to waste,' says
Elisha Mizrahi, the director of the Jewish
National Fund's Southern Region, which ini-
tiated the project. Mizrahi looks out onto the
groves, the only hint of green for miles.
As Israel's population swells, increas-
ing water demands have exacerbated the
effects of below-average rainfall rates and
less consistent rainfall, which some scien-
tists suggest are a consequence of global
The country's three main reservoirs,
including Lake Kinneret, have passed their
"red;' or emergency, lines. If the water
levels continue to drop, Israel may have to
limit water use from the Kinneret in the
The government has cut back on water
allocations for farmers and industry, and
the Israeli public is being urged to reduce
usage in an aggressive TV campaign fea-
turing a woman whose face cracks up like
a parched piece of earth as an ominous
voice-over intones, "We don't have any
water to waste!'
Israel has made great strides in using
recycled sewage water for irrigating farm-
land. About 75 percent of sewage water
is treated and then used for agriculture,
easily making Israel the world's leading
nation in the field.
The runner-up country, Spain, recycles
only 12 percent of its wastewater.
"We are creating a source for irriga-
tion that otherwise would not be used;'
Avi Gafni, a JNF hydrologist and research
coordinator, says while standing in front of
one of the 200 reservoirs the JNF has built
August 28 • 2008
in Israel to store treated sewage water.
"Every drop of water can make the land
here potentially into agricultural land!"
The reservoirs comprise about 16 per-
cent of the total volume of Israel's water
reserves. About 30 percent of Israeli water
used every year is recycled wastewater or
But the water savings aren't enough in
this parched land.
Compounding the crisis is the country's
reliance on ground water, which provides
about two-thirds of Israel's drinking water.
"With the depletion of the water table
from the ground, there are opportunities
for saltier water to seep in and contami-
nate the fresh water;' said Avner Adin, the
founder of the Israel Water Association
and a professor at Hebrew University's
Department of Soil and Water Sciences.
"These are very difficult processes to
reverse," Adin says, warning that the water
shortage may become "a catastrophic situ-
ation if not handled properly"
Some water experts say the current crisis
could have been averted had Israel fol-
lowed through on its plans after the last
water crisis, several years ago, to build a
series of new desalinization plants.
The Israeli government approved their
construction as far back as 2002, but the
rate of building slowed when Israel experi-
enced several years of above-average rain-
fall and investors, including the govern-
ment, delayed construction of the plants.
Israel has two desalinization plants,
and a third one is about a year away from
completion. But the country's desaliniza-
tion capacity is just one-third of what
it was supposed to be according to the
Last month, the Knesset established a
state commission of inquiry to determine
why the government's desalinization rec-
ommendations were not implemented.
"This is not a water crisis; it's a political
crisis;' says Arnon Soifer, a geography pro-
fessor at Haifa University.
Uri Schor, a spokesman for Israel's
Water Authority, the government agency
responsible for water issues, says expand-
ing desalinization capacity "is a process!'
The desalinization plant in Ashkelon
is the largest of its kind in the world, he
A grove of eucalyptus trees growing in the Negev, planted in a depression made in
the sand in order to collect floodwater.
notes, and by 2020 Israel will have built
enough plants to desalinate 750 million
cubic meters of sea water per year.
"This will stabilize the water situation in
the medium- and long-term," Schor said.
In Israel, about 1.1 billion cubic meters
of water per year go to agriculture
— including recycled sewage water. About
766 million goes to domestic use and
some 120 million goes to industrial use.
Along with the desalinization plants,
Schor says Israel's strategy to tackle the
water problem is to continue its pioneer-
ing work in recycling sewage water for
In the short term, however, the plan is to
reduce usage by cutting agricultural and
industrial allocations, raising household
consumer water prices and running public
awareness campaigns. The higher water
prices also will help pay for the desaliniza-
tion plants and the extensive new pipeline
networks they will require.
Booky Oren, the president and CEO of
Miya-the Arison Water Initiative, a $100
million company that invests in water
technology, says Israel — the country
that first brought the world drip irrigation
techniques — must harness its talents in
"The difference about today is that there
are the technological tools to cope with
this crisis;' says Oren, a former director of
Israel's national water company, Mekorot,
who touts Israel as the Silicon Valley of
water technology. "When people take
responsibility and don't wait for rainfall
alone, we can assist nature and help find
Among Israel's water-related innovations
are electromagnetic sensors that check for
water contamination and hi-tech water puri-
fying filters used everywhere, from industrial
plants to fish farms worldwide. One Israeli
company,Watersheer, has developed a small
filter for personal drinking water use that is
being marketed to hikers, armies and devel-
Waterfronts-The Israel Water Alliance
is working to encourage investors, private
companies, and Israeli universities and
research centers to develop new water
technologies so that Israel can be a leader
in the field.
As the sun begins to set, Arie Schreiber,
a farmer from Kibbutz Nerim in the
western Negev, near Israel's border with
the Gaza Strip, visits the orchards his kib-
butz tends. Part of a larger plot of orange,
lemon, tangerine and date trees farmed
together with other local kibbutzim, the
1,000 acres or so of groves are fed by
The situation could not be any more
different than when he first arrived at the
kibbutz in 1949. The surrounding land
then was virtually impossible to farm.
"It's become a good business;' Schreiber
says, gesturing to the rows of trees planted
in the sand. "A little bit of water and a lot
of technology." ❑