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Israel thirsty for water solutions

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JERUSALEM, June 26 (JTA) — Every summer, Israeli water officials alert the public to the same dry reality — that the nation is suffering water shortages.

But this year, the officials are more worried than ever. If current usage continues, they warn, the country will run out of water. The level of Israel’s main water reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, is well below the danger line.

The water issue has important political implications. Those who oppose giving away land in exchange for peace with the Palestinians argue that Israel should never give up the vital water sources located in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Last week, Israel’s senior water officials went to Turkey, which is blessed with a seemingly unlimited supply of water, to see whether it would sell Israel some 50 million cubic meters of water.

Turkish officials expressed a willingness to sell, and bargaining has already begun.

The Turkish side is asking for as much as 86.3 cents per cubic meter, according to Israel’s Mekorot water company.

Some experts maintain that it would be cheaper for Israel to desalinate sea water.

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak convened a group of ministers for an emergency session on the water crisis.

“The water system suffers from catastrophic shortages,” said Dalia Itzik, the environment minister.

“And if the premier deals with it,” she added, “this is a sign that we have reached the verge of an abyss.”

Barak and his ministers agreed to seek bids in the coming weeks to build a desalination plant. The plant will be built on the Mediterranean within 20 months at a cost of $130 million to produce an annual water supply of 50 million cubic meters.

They also agreed to continue contacts with Turkey to import water as an emergency measure.

Many Israelis have mixed feelings about importing from Turkey. They like to feel self-sufficient — especially when it comes to a vital asset like water.

“Not so,” said Allon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey. “Water imports from Turkey would be marginal. Israel would not depend on it.”

Water officials make a similar point, saying that imports from Turkey would be just one of several strategies, including desalination, recycling sewage water and finding ways to make large-scale savings of current supplies.

Last year, the region suffered its worse drought in 120 years.

Natural resources supply an annual yield of 1.6 billion cubic meters of water, but the average usage is 2 billion cubic meters annually — and the shortfall increases every year.

According to the World Bank, the deficit between the current water supply and the actual water needs of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians will be more than 1 billion cubic meters annually by 2015.

Environment Minister Itzik warned recently that 40 percent of the water in Israel is undrinkable because it contains large amounts of dangerous pollutants.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat often threatens Israelis who do not agree with him “to go drink water from the sea.”

The truth is that in the long run, both Arabs and Jews will have to do this — literally — because in the long run desalinated sea water will provide the parched region with the only dependable supply of water.

Critics say this option is far too costly, but this is disputed.

According to the estimates of former Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir, the cost of desalinating water should not exceed 70 cents per cubic meter. This is lower than the price currently being quoted by Turkish officials.

The Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation in Washington suggests an even lower cost — 55 cents per cubic meter, 10 percent of the cost 20 years ago.

This week, the center published full-page ads in Israeli newspapers, calling for cooperation among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to solve the problem.

As part of their water-shortage alert, Israel’s water authorities told Israelis to stop watering their gardens and washing their cars.

They recalled how during a previous water shortage crisis, former Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan recommended that couples take showers together to save water.

While couples are left to work that one out for themselves, the search is on for less drastic measures.

Professor Arye Issar of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, suggested, for example, to forget about Turkey and the desalination of seawater. He claims he has discovered a treasure — 1 billion cubic meters of salt water in a southern Negev aquifer that could be desalinated and shipped to the north at a much lower cost.

Others propose curtailing the wasteful use of water for agricultural purposes.

Nehemia Strassler, the economic editor of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, argued this week that rather than importing 50 million cubic meters of water from Turkey, officials should stop allocating the same amount of water for fishponds in the coastal plain.

One possible way to save water would be to have farmers change the crops they raise. For example, Israel produces water-thirsty plants like cotton, which is later exported to Europe.

Some point to the subsidies farmers get for their water. Farmers pay an average of 20 cents per cubic meter. By contrast, an urban customer or an industrial plant pays almost 35 cents per cubic meter.

Cheap water leads to wasted water, say critics.

Several months ago, the government decided to cut water subsidies to the farmers by 20 percent—but so far, nothing has been done.

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