Israeli government to launch campaign to save water

JERUSALEM — Israel's government is about to launch a $2.5 million "Save It" campaign to encourage the public to conserve water.

The decision, called long overdue by experts, was taken at a Dec. 8 meeting between Finance Minister Avraham Shochat and National Infrastructure Minister Eli Suissa.

The dearth of rainfall last year and the lack of significant precipitation so far this winter have been described by Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir as the worst drought in Israel in the past century.

Even this, however, proved insufficient to move the powers that be until the Meteorological Service issued its updated forecast for less than average rainfall this winter.

The assessment comes as water levels in Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, and the country's two main underground reservoirs are at or below their minimum marks.

These factors coupled with Israel's commitments to supply water to its neighbors under international treaties have apparently spurred the government to finally act.

Water quotas to farmers were cut this year by 40 percent and there are suggestions that reductions next year may have to be even more severe in the event of less than average rainfall.

There are also recommendations to save water by stopping irrigation of public parks and possibly even private gardens.

The actual decisions, however, have to be taken by the government and implemented by the water commissioner, whose own calls to immediately enter the desalination era have until recently fallen on deaf ears.

The Treasury has flagrantly adhered to its own economic policies, apparently ignoring the fact that Israel exists on the border of the desert with a fluctuating climate that at best is semi-arid.

According to the Treasury, desalination or even the import of fresh water from abroad should only be countenanced if farmers are willing and able to pay full price for the water supplied.

Water experts say this position does not take into consideration climatic, political and demographic uncertainties, nor the estimate that within five years demand will outstrip availability.

The problems were hammered home in last week's talks between Shochat and Suissa, with Suissa submitting a seven-point plan to resolve the country's short-term and future water problems.

It includes immediate approval of plans to establish the first major seawater desalination plant and increasing water for irrigation from purified sewage.

Shochat told reporters after the meeting that approval of desalination plans was not the relevant issue.

"The main issue is of a national long-term program, over five to 20 years to ensure that we will have water in accordance with forecasts [for requirements]," Shochat said. "The desalination factor will probably be within that, but I don't want to say anything definitely."

The ministerial economics committee will meet for the third time in two weeks to discuss the issue and will make the necessary decisions, Shochat added.

"This will be the first time after many, many years, that the government is relating seriously to such an important issue," he said.

Suissa said the main element in the proposals submitted to the ministerial committee called for immediately issuing a tender for the establishment of a seawater desalination plant.

Under the ministry's plan, the proposed plant would be established privately and the government would have to commit itself to purchase the water produced at an agreed-upon price for a fixed number of years.

"We already have the tender documents ready and can issue it within a few months, and then I would hope that within three years we would be able to drink desalinated water," Suissa said.