Report Finds Shortsighted Politicians Are a Major Cause of Israel’s Water Crisis

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 21, 2010, issue of April 30, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For years, environmental activists have told Israelis to blame the country’s water shortage on politicians, not just on low rainfall. Now, a committee of experts commissioned by politicians themselves has reached the same conclusion.

Water Worries: Above, a water filtration and transportation apparatus. Below, Israel’s National Water Carrier, bringing water from the Sea of Galilee.
israel government press office
Water Worries: Above, a water filtration and transportation apparatus. Below, Israel’s National Water Carrier, bringing water from the Sea of Galilee.

The State Committee for the Investigation of the Water Shortage recently completed 18 months of deliberations, and concluded that the country’s natural water reservoirs are 53 billion cubic feet below the level they should be to ensure a stable water supply. This deficit is the equivalent of the potable water used in Israel in a year.

The committee’s report, issued at the end of March, concluded that the attitudes and policy of successive governments and water professionals have been shortsighted.

“We need to have strategic decision-making and long-range planning, but instead, in a rainy year people say ‘great’ and in a drought year people panic,” committee chairman Dan Bein, a retired judge, told the Forward.

The government quickly endorsed the report. National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau called a press conference the day after its release, in which he declared: “There is no doubt that the water system is facing an unprecedented crisis as a result of long years of neglect and the fact that there is no guiding hand and no policy that directed decisions of the water sector and those who run it.”

Then, on April 11, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on the offensive against delays in the development of a water infrastructure. He complained that plans to build a desalination plant are moving too slowly. The facility was supposed to have been operational by the end of 2010, but building has yet to begin. “It is inconceivable that the desalination plant, which is due to be advanced by Mekorot” — Israel’s national water company — “has been stuck for years due to bureaucracy,” he told the Cabinet. He ordered Landau’s ministry and the Finance Ministry to submit a proposal to restart development on the plant within 30 days.

Within a few days of the report’s release, Mekorot, presented Landau with a five-year plan to improve Israel’s water situation. It includes plans to construct a new national water carrier to deliver desalinated water, to build pipelines to direct more effluent for use in agriculture, and to reverse the process of seawater entering aquifers [underground water-bearing rocks] that are running low on water. The Cabinet is expected to approve the plan, which has a price tag of $1.35 billion, in May

In Israel, residents seem constantly concerned about water. The water level in the Sea of Galilee is popular dinnertime conversations, and the desire to conserve water is one of the few issues that unites parties across the political spectrum.

The committee was convened by the Knesset in July 2008, just after news broke that Israel’s major sources of drinking water, including the Sea of Galilee and the mountain aquifer had hit their ”red lines,” meaning that it was no longer recommended to draw water from these sources. They have since risen above the lines.

When Uri Shani, director of the Israel Water Authority, announced the drop in water levels, he stressed natural factors: low rainfall and climate change.

But according to the report, the ”current crisis follows a series of drought years, but as its basis two key man-made factors combined to create it.” The report cites over-pumping from natural supplies, and sluggishness in finding ways to promote water conservation and open widespread desalination plants.

Committee member Yoav Kislev, professor of agricultural economics at Hebrew University, told the Forward that Israel has failed to budget its water, instead building up a water “debt” and hoping for rain. “From time to time, rain would come and close the gap, but this is like going to the casino and relying on winnings to pay off your overdraft at the bank,” he said.

One of the report’s main contentions is that desalination facilities in place today are too little, too late. Most have become fully operational in only the past five years, and they provide only one-fifth of the country’s potable water. The equation this presents is simple: Due to population growth, demand for water increases by 1.5% to 2% a year, and Israel cannot bank on any increased rainfall. Therefore, it must increase desalination and pump from only natural water sources, and with extreme caution.

The report also challenges Israelis’ long-held assumption that water should be subsidized by the state. Officially, Israel is in the process of moving toward a situation in which people pay the full cost of the water they use through a staged 40% increase in water rates. But committee members fear that politicians may pull the plug on this yearlong process that began in January. Their concern stems from the fact that late last year, the so-called drought tax was shelved in what Bein described as a “populist” move.

On the issue of desalination, the report does raise some concerns, stressing its environmental consequences, such as high power usage and the need to set aside land on the seaside for plants. But for the most part, the panel took the view that desalination is the main way that Israel will close the gap between what can be pumped safely from natural sources and Israel’s needs. With increased desalination and other measures recommended by the report, “the water shortage will be overcome,” Kislev told the Forward.

Environmental groups were largely positive about the report, but were disappointed that it did not set a clear upper limit on desalination. Na’ama Elad, the attorney for the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, told the Forward that she considered attitudes toward desalination in government to be “very wild” and thinks that the report should have advised against increasing desalination by more than 100% in the next 20 years. According to current National Infrastructures Ministry plans, a 100% increase will happen in just five years.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.