Don't Make the Desert Bloom
The Economist (UK) 5jun2008
JERUSALEM — Milk and honey is all very well. But what about the water?
This is the fourth consecutive year of drought in Israel. Last winter it rained only about 65% of the long-term average. The water level in the Sea of Galilee, the source of nearly 30% of Israel's fresh water, is close to the danger line and hardly rose during the winter even though the pipeline that takes water from it was closed for part of the year. This week the government reacted with an emergency plan.
It includes spending 120m shekels ($37m) extra on improving water conservation and 915m shekels on better water recycling for agriculture. And it calls for building more desalination plants, to increase their output from 138m cubic metres a year now (with another 100m due to come on line next year) to 750m by 2020. But the priorities, say not a few critics, are the wrong way round. “It's missing the most important element, which is to charge all sectors a market price for water,” says Hillel Shuval, head of environmental health at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem.
Israel shares its water sources with the Palestinians (the main aquifer that feeds many of its wells lies under the West Bank), as well as Jordan and Syria. Fast-growing populations are putting a strain on those sources. So is global warming: although average rainfall has not been dropping in the region, rain showers have become shorter and more intense, so more water runs into the sea instead of recharging the aquifers. The Jordan River is a trickle of its former self, and the Dead Sea, which it replenishes, is falling by around one metre a year.
Water management has improved, but not by enough. “Making the desert bloom”, a cornerstone of the early Zionist ideal, turns out not to have been such a smart idea. Agriculture consumes some 60% of the country's total of 2 billion cubic metres of water a year, but contributes less than 2% of GDP, thanks partly to water-guzzling export crops such as bananas and citrus fruits, as well as dates (these are fine in their natural habitat of oases, but in Israel large plantations of date palms stretch across otherwise arid desert).
True, the once huge water subsidies to farmers have dropped, as has their water use. Yoav Kislev at the Hebrew University calculates that water productivity in agriculture has increased threefold since the 1950s. A year and a half ago those farmers who got their water from the state water company (the majority) reached a deal to pay market price. That, according to Mr Kislev, would be around three shekels per cubic metre. But the deal has yet to be fully implemented, and it will still allow for hidden subsidies which, he estimates, will cut the average price to around half that.
Israel could also, he says, do better in recycling its domestic water for agriculture. A lot of the treated water flows into the sea, and what is reused is still dirty enough to contaminate ground water; this has forced the closure of some wells. More alarmingly, because rubbish dumping in Israel is better controlled than it used to be, contractors now dump more waste illegally in the poorly supervised West Bank, which adds to the contamination of the aquifer.
Domestic use in Israel could easily be cut too. The government's 120m shekel conservation package, Mr Shuval says, is “too little, too late”. He points to Australia, which after years of crippling drought began a subsidised national campaign to install water-saving devices in every home, reducing domestic water use by 20%.
Even the chief scientist of the environment ministry, Yeshayahu Bar-Or, said last month, before the emergency plan was announced, that desalination was not enough. He predicts a dire long-term future: rising seas contaminate the coastal aquifer with salt water, global warming reduces rainfall by 35% by 2100, rising heat leads to the pollution of the Sea of Galilee.
The fondness for desalination, argues Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmentalist group, stems from a confluence of interests. Politicians like big, headline-grabbing projects; Israel's government wants to promote the Israeli water-treatment industry abroad; and the plants, under long-term build-operate-transfer schemes, provide their builders with a guaranteed income. But desalination burns up energy, adds to the global warming that exacerbates the water problem and reduces the incentive to save water, even though conservation is usually cheaper. Mr Bromberg accepts that some desalination is necessary. But he says it should be a technology of last resort, not first instance.