Could Israelrun out of water

JERUSALEM — Nowhere is the phrase "waste not, want not" more applicable than when used to describe this country's water situation. But you might not know it. Much of the little rainfall Israel has literally goes down the drain.

There are, however, solutions — and those willing to help finance them. The 99-year-old Jewish National Fund, better known for planting trees, is now shifting its focus to providing the means of watering them.

"Israel could run out of water by 2012," says Ronald Lauder, U.S. president of the JNF. "And that's assuming there's no [additional] major drought. If there is a major drought, that date gets closer to 2007 or 2005."

Lauder was in Israel recently to launch what he calls a "five-pronged attack": building 100 new reservoirs, recycling water, drawing brackish underground water reserves, desalinating and conserving water.

"It doesn't matter when exactly we [are set to] run out of water, if it is in five, seven, or 10 years. What is crucial is the remedy: to produce more water," says Amikam Nachmani, a water expert from Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center for Strategic Studies. "We must do everything in our power to see to it that people do not die of thirst. The way things are going today, I can't rule out such a possibility," he says.

Building reservoirs does not solve the problem, Lauder admits, but it buys time — and it buys it relatively cheaply. The total cost of the 10-year reservoir plan is about $250 million, of which the JNF plans to contribute half and expects the government to find the rest.

Reservoirs that collect runoff rain or store treated sewage water can be an effective — and relatively low-cost — means of preventing a worsening water shortage, agrees Shaul Arlosoroff, chairman of the Water Engineers Association and the Public Committee for the Management of Water Resources in Israel.

Arlosoroff says floodwater "harvesting" in reservoirs, treating and recycling sewage, extracting the mildly salty underground water reserves, and an aggressive urban conservation policy could almost immediately increase the water balance by about 14,000 to 17,500 million cubic feet a year.

This represents savings of 20 to 25 percent of the 70 billion cubic feet of water Israel currently consumes, much of it freshwater drawn from underground aquifers and the (fast shrinking) Kinneret.

Just over half of the current freshwater consumption is by the agricultural sector and the rest by the urban-domestic and industrial sector. (Incidentally, the Water Commissioner's Office estimates that some 40 percent of water consumption in homes is literally flushed down the toilet.)

According to National Infrastructure Ministry statistics, every person uses 100 to 244 quarts of water a day, with the average rate hovering at about 143 quarts.

Arlosoroff believes desalination, which is expensive, could be postponed for a few more years. To supply an equivalent 20 to 25 percent increase in water through desalination would mean building 10 plants at a cost of more than $2 billion, he says. And because of the high cost of the desalinated water, it won't solve the problem of agriculture, which needs a relatively inexpensive alternative to freshwater for irrigation.

That's why most water experts favor using the water resources that are readily available.

For example, some 7 billion to 8.75 billion cubic feet of partly treated wastewater currently flow into the sea every year. On its way, the tainted sewage seeps into underground water reserves, and contaminates streams and beaches. But sewage need not be a dirty word: It can be used in agriculture to replace freshwater.

"All this is wasted water," says Arlosoroff. "Building reservoirs and links from the treated sewage outlet to the point of utilization could save this water for irrigation purposes."

At the private level, homes should be "retrofitted" with water-saving devices such as flow regulators in faucets and showerheads, two-volume flush toilets, and automated drip irrigation in gardens. Domestic consumption could be reduced by 20 percent through such measures.

Tons of water are wasted every year because of rusty or broken pipes that are not regularly replaced, Professor Raphael Semiat, head of the Rabin Desalination Laboratory at the Technion's Water Institute, told the Jerusalem Post. This is because local authorities don't funnel all the water and sewage taxes they collect back into the system.

"The main problem is that the municipalities in Israel stand to lose a lot of money in the event of privatization of local water and sewage systems," Semiat said.

Arlosoroff agrees. "Local municipalities today can get as much water as they want to draw relatively cheaply and then profit by selling it to consumers at a higher price. Given such a system, it is harder to create an urban water conservation program in Israel than it is in New York or California."

Israel is not the States, U.S. JNF executives say. "It seems that as long as Israelis turn on their faucet, and water comes out, they are not affected by the gravity of the situation and they do not realize the extent of the crisis the country is faced with. It simply does not hit home," says Russell Robinson, JNF executive vice president. "By the time that happens, it will be too late."

Robinson suggests that stiffer fines be imposed on polluters and legislation should be enacted to force industries and communities to build purification plants. Today, it is much easier to pollute –and pay a small fine — than to build a purification plant, he says.

Another source of water basically unutilized at the moment is the brackish subterranean water, much of it in the Negev. These reserves could be extracted at a rate of about 3.5 billion cubic feet a year and used for certain types of agriculture such as tomato growing, say JNF officials. This resource is estimated to be sufficient for the next 50 to 100 years, although it is not a renewable source.

"Simply put, Israel does not have nearly enough water for its needs," explains Moshe Cohen, director of the JNF's development enterprises division. "The rainy season in Israel lasts for only three months, from December through February, and we need to store water both for the short term — from the winter until the hot dry summer months when Israel's farmers desperately need the water — and for the long term, to store water from rainy years for use in drought years."

In an effort to stem the growing water shortage, the government has cut freshwater supplies to farmers by 40 percent this year, saving 8.75 billion cubic feet.

But experts agree that the long-term solution is not a further cut in the farmers' freshwater supplies but to replace their use of fresh water with recycled water.

Nachmani also says that by exporting avocado, cotton, citrus, and mango to Western European countries, Israel is in effect exporting water to places that have it in abundance. "We are throwing out tons of fresh water that we desperately need," he says.

The solutions are largely in the hands of the government. "I would say money is not the problem," says JNF chairman Yehiel Leket. "The only problem is making the political decision to do it."