Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Light Rainfall Signals Water Crisis Ahead

Hillel Fendel

The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Israel's largest reservoir, has begun to rise - but just barely. It has climbed this rainy season only 12 centimeters in height since reaching its lowest level two months ago, and now stands at just under 212.5 meters below sea level - only 49 centimeters (19.3 inches) above what was once the "red line" minimum level. This "red line," 213 meters below sea level, was once thought to be the limit below which Kinneret water becomes problematic for drinking. However, in 2001, the "red line" was lowered another 2.5 meters, to -215.5, based on the depth of the water-drawing pipes, which do not reach below this level.

The current level is the lowest it has been in years at this time of year. Last year, for instance, the Kinneret was nearly a half-meter higher at this time. Average rainfall so far this winter has only been 65% of the multi-year average - and only 60% in the area of Lake Kinneret and the central mountain region.

The Kinneret was originally used only for recreational purposes, but in recent decades has become Israel's largest source of fresh water. In 1991, it reached its maximum height, forcing the opening of the dams so that its beach city Tiberias would not be flooded. Ten years later, it reached its lowest level in many years - some 214.8 meters below sea level.

The Cabinet discussed the looming water crisis at its latest weekly meeting on Sunday, and Mekorot Water Authority Director Uri Shani warned that Israel faces a severe water crisis this summer unless rainfall increases significantly. He said that if the rest of the winter sees only average rainfall, this would lead to a water deficit in Israel of 300 million cubic meters - about 1.75 meters of Kinneret height, or the rough equivalent of what 2.6 million Israelis consume in a year (not including industrial and agricultural use).

Ben-Eliezer's Plan
Minister of National Infrastructures Binyamin Ben-Eliezer presented the Cabinet with a plan of action to address the water shortage. The plan calls for increased desalination, restrictions on public and private watering, another cut in fresh water quotas for agriculture in exchange for monetary compensation for the farmers, and an intensive public relations campaign to encourage the public to save water.

The cabinet discussed the option of increasing water production at desalination plants in Ashkelon and Palmachim, which currently produce a total of 140 million cubic meters of water each year. Last year, the government ordered the building of two new desalination plants, in Rishon LeTzion and Ashdod, in addition to one currently being built in Hadera. The government's goal is to produce 500 million cubic meters annually.
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