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Parched Israel digs for water solutions

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JERUSALEM, Aug. 24 (JTA) — It has been a long, hot summer in Israel, and the country’s scarce water supplies are being squeezed past their limits.

After three years of drought, Israeli water authorities have watched this summer in trepidation as the country’s three main water sources — the Sea of Galilee, the coastal aquifer and mountain aquifer — have been rapidly sucked below danger levels.

With no alternative solutions in place, there was little they could do except to launch a big public campaign, showing Israelis how every extra toilet flush drains the Sea of Galilee, which has now dropped 13 centimeters below the red line of 213 meters below sea level.

Yet they know that the impact of publicity on water consumption habits is only a partial remedy, and solid solutions are needed to provide a long-term answer to an ongoing problem. So last month, the government pushed through a long-awaited comprehensive plan for a series of solutions, ranging from desalinization to importing water from nearby countries such as Turkey to recycling more sewage for agriculture and industry.

But it will still take time for these projects to come to life, and even if the plan is pushed through quickly, the first desalinization plant will probably not come on line for more than two years. In the interim, rain is of the essence.

“If in the coming winter we will have an average rainfall or a dry year, we will be forced to cut the quotas of water for agriculture,” said Shimon Tal, Israel’s water commissioner.

“A rainy winter will allow us to get through the next year or two,” he added. “However, over the next two years we are dependent on the mercy of heaven.”

Those heavens have been far from merciful over the past decade. Even though rainfall was average in Israel last winter, the last three years have been very dry overall.

Over the past decade, there has only been one extremely rainy winter, in 1992. At the same time, 1 million immigrants came to Israel from former Soviet Union countries, adding additional strain on meager resources.

As part of a peace deal with Jordan, Israel agreed to transfer 55 million cubic meters of water a year to its Eastern neighbor, and water is on the agenda of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as well. Meanwhile, as Israel’s standard of living has steadily climbed, water use has been steadily rising.

But although the signs of an imminent crisis were clear, the government only decided to implement solutions last month.

Part of the problem is that the agricultural industry is the biggest consumer of water in the country, and the agricultural lobby is one of the most powerful pressure groups in Israel.

Water for agricultural use is heavily subsidized — costing 55 percent less than water for consumers — and farmers have successfully thwarted any attempt to raise the prices. They warn that more expensive water would make their products more expensive on world markets, and could be the kiss of death to an industry that is struggling to begin with.

“For years, the biggest mistake is that the water system in Israel has been run by the agricultural lobby, which has its own interests,” said Yossi Inbar, deputy director general of Israel’s ministry of environment.

Inbar also blames the Finance Ministry for blocking approval of water programs over the years. The treasury, he said, did not worry about an imminent crisis since it calculates water projections and needs based on a multiyear rainfall average. This, he explains, is irrelevant because Israel’s water sources have limited capacity, and one dry year knocks off the positive impact of a particularly wet year.

The Finance Ministry has argued that before building desalinization plants, which will end up raising the cost of water to all consumers, subsidies for farmers should be reduced.

“When you have a vital and scarce resource, and not only don’t you sell it at a realistic price but subsidize it heavily to the biggest consumer, you intensify the shortage greatly,” said Zohar Yinon, director of the water and sewage unit at the finance ministry’s budget division. “The real reason that our water sources have been overpumped is because water is not sold at a price that reflects its true value.”

Critics say the Finance Ministry was unrealistic in insisting on breaking the agricultural lobby. “It is a politically unlikely scenario,” said one businessman involved in the water issue. “The Finance Ministry’s argument is only correct if you ignore the social implications of abandoning hundreds of thousands of acres of land.”

With the rapidly deteriorating situation, the future of Israeli agriculture may no longer rest in the hands of water subsidies, but rather with the rain clouds that Israelis hope will come their way this autumn.

“If we have another dry year,” says Inbar of the Environment Ministry, “Israeli agriculture may not survive.”

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