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Aided by the Sea, Israel Overcomes an Old Foe: Drought

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Source: IDE Technologies

At the peak of the drought, Shabi Zvieli, an Israeli gardener, feared for his livelihood.

Jerusalem -- A hefty tax was placed on excessive household water consumption, penalizing families with lawns, swimming pools or leaky pipes. So many of Mr. Zvieli’s clients went over to synthetic grass and swapped their seasonal blooms for hardy, indigenous plants more suited to a semiarid climate. “I worried about where gardening was going,” said Mr. Zvieli, 56, who has tended people’s yards for about 25 years.

Across the country, Israelis were told to cut their shower time by two minutes. Washing cars with hoses was outlawed and those few wealthy enough to absorb the cost of maintaining a lawn were permitted to water it only at night.

“We were in a situation where we were very, very close to someone opening a tap somewhere in the country and no water would come out,” said Uri Schor, the spokesman and public education director of the government’s Water Authority.

But that was about six years ago. Today, there is plenty of water in Israel. A lighter version of an old “Israel is drying up” campaign has been dusted off to advertise baby diapers. “The fear has gone,” said Mr. Zvieli, whose customers have gone back to planting flowers.

As California and other western areas of the United States grapple with an extreme drought, a revolution has taken place here. A major national effort to desalinate Mediterranean seawater and to recycle wastewater has provided the country with enough water for all its needs, even during severe droughts. More than 50 percent of the water for Israeli households, agriculture and industry is now artificially produced.

During the drought years, farmers at Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, took water-economizing measures like uprooting old apple orchards a few years before their time. With the new plenty, water allocations for Israeli farmers that had been slashed have been raised again, though the price has also gone up.

“Now there is no problem of water,” said Shaul Ben-Dov, an agronomist at Ramat Rachel. “The price is higher, but we can live a normal life in a country that is half desert.”

With its part-Mediterranean, part-desert climate, Israel had suffered from chronic shortages and exploitation of its natural water resources for decades.

The natural fresh water at Israel’s disposal in an average year does not cover its total use of roughly 525 billion gallons. The demand for potable water is projected to rise to 515 billion gallons by 2030, from 317 billion gallons this year.

The turnaround came with a seven-year drought, one of the most severe to hit modern Israel, that began in 2005 and peaked in the winter of 2008 to 2009. The country’s main natural water sources — the Sea of Galilee in the north and the mountain and coastal aquifers — were severely depleted, threatening a potentially irreversible deterioration of the water quality.

Measures to increase the supply and reduce the demand were accelerated, overseen by the Water Authority, a powerful interministerial agency established in 2007.

Desalination emerged as one focus of the government’s efforts, with four major plants going into operation over the past decade. A fifth one should be ready to operate within months. Together, they will produce a total of more than 130 billion gallons of potable water a year, with a goal of 200 billion gallons by 2020.

Israel has, in the meantime, become the world leader in recycling and reusing wastewater for agriculture. It treats 86 percent of its domestic wastewater and recycles it for agricultural use — about 55 percent of the total water used for agriculture. Spain is second to Israel, recycling 17 percent of its effluent, while the United States recycles just 1 percent, according to Water Authority data.

Before the establishment of the Water Authority, various ministries were responsible for different aspects of the water issue, each with its own interests and lobbies.

“There was a lot of hydro-politics,” said Eli Feinerman of the faculty of agriculture, food and environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who served for years as a public representative on the authority’s council. “The right hand did not know what the left was doing.”

The Israeli government began by making huge cuts in the annual water quotas for farmers, ending decades of extravagant overuse of heavily subsidized water for agriculture.

The tax for surplus household use was dropped at the end of 2009 and a two-tiered tariff system was introduced. Regular household water use is now subsidized by a slightly higher rate paid by those who consume more than the basic allotment.

Water Authority representatives went house to house offering to fit free devices on shower heads and taps that inject air into the water stream, saving about a third of the water used while still giving the impression of a strong flow.

Officials say that wiser use of water has led to a reduction in household consumption of up to 18 percent in recent years.

And instead of the municipal authorities being responsible for the maintenance of city pipe networks, local corporations have been formed. The money collected for water is reinvested in the infrastructure.

Mekorot, the national water company, built the national water carrier 50 years ago, a system for transporting water from the Sea of Galilee in the north through the heavily populated center to the arid south. Now it is building new infrastructure to carry water west to east, from the Mediterranean coast inland.

In the parched Middle East, water also has strategic implications. Struggles between Israel and its Arab neighbors over water rights in the Jordan River basin contributed to tensions leading to the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel, which shares the mountain aquifer with the West Bank, says it provides the Palestinians with more water than it is obliged to under the existing peace accords. The Palestinians say it is not enough and too expensive. A new era of water generosity could help foster relations with the Palestinians and with Jordan.

Desalination, long shunned by many as a costly energy-guzzler with a heavy carbon footprint, is becoming cheaper, cleaner and more energy efficient as technologies advance. Sidney Loeb, the American scientist who invented the popular reverse osmosis method, came to live in Israel in 1967 and taught the water professionals here.

The Sorek desalination plant rises out of the sandy ground about nine miles south of Tel Aviv. Said to be the largest plant of its kind in the world, it produces 40 billion gallons of potable water a year, enough for about a sixth of Israel’s roughly eight million citizens.

Miriam Faigon, the director of the solutions department at IDE Technologies, the Israeli company that built three of the plants along the Mediterranean, said that the company had cut energy levels and costs with new technologies and a variety of practical methods.

Under a complex arrangement, the plants will be transferred to state ownership after 25 years. For now, the state buys Sorek’s desalinated water for a relatively cheap 58 cents a cubic meter — more than free rainwater, Ms. Faigon acknowledged, “but that’s only if you have it.”

Israeli environmentalists say the rush to desalination has partly come at the expense of alternatives like treating natural water reserves that have become polluted by industry, particularly the military industries in the coastal plain.

“We definitely felt that Israel did need to move toward desalination,” said Sarit Caspi-Oron, a water expert at the nongovernment Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “But it is a question of how much, and of priorities. Our first priority was conservation and treating and reclaiming our water sources.”

Some environmentalists also say that the open-ocean intake method used by Israel’s desalination plants, in line with local regulations, as opposed to subsurface intakes, has a potentially destructive effect on sea life, sucking in billions of fish eggs and larvae.

But Boaz Mayzel, a marine biologist at the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, said that the effects were not yet known and would have to be checked over time.

Some Israelis are cynical about the water revolution. Tsur Shezaf, an Israeli journalist and the owner of a farm that produces wine and olives in the southern Negev, argues that desalination is essentially a privatization of Israel’s water supply that benefits a few tycoons, while recycling for agriculture allows the state to sell the same water twice.

Mr. Shezaf plants his vines in a way that maximizes the use of natural floodwaters in the area, as in ancient times, and irrigates the rest of the year with a mix of desalinated water and fresh water. He prefers to avoid the cheaper recycled water, he says, because, “You don’t know exactly what you are getting.”

But experts say that the wastewater from Israel’s densely populated Tel Aviv area is treated to such a high level that no harm would come to anyone who accidentally drank it.

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