No More Cries of “Israel is Drying Out!”

No More Cries of “Israel is Drying Out!”

© David Burton 2013

Desalination Plant

     At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Israel was on the brink of water catastrophe, reduced to running relentless ad campaigns urging Israelis to conserve water even as it raised prices and cut supplies to agriculture. Israeli radio and TV regularly featured commercials warning the country that “Israel is drying out.” But, by the end of 2012, remarkably, the crisis was over.

     Jordan’s King Hussein, the father of Abdullah, Jordan’s current ruler, years earlier warned that the next Middle East war would be fought over water. While Israel may have solved its water shortage problems, others in the Middle East Have failed to effectively address the problem and the potential threat of war over this essential resource remains.


     In Israel, summers are very humid along the Mediterranean coast but dry in the central highlands, the Rift Valley, and the Negev Desert. More than 70% of the average rainfall in Israel falls between November and March. There is little to no rainfall from June through September. Rainfall is unevenly distributed and is significantly lower in the southern part of the country. In the extreme south, annual rainfall averages less than 2-inches while in the north, average annual rainfall exceeds 35 inches. Rainfall is often concentrated in violent storms, causing erosion and flash floods. In the winter, precipitation often takes the form of snow at the higher elevations of the central highlands, including Jerusalem. Mount Hermon has seasonal snow which covers all three of its peaks for most of the winter and spring. On rare occasions, snow gets to the northern mountain peaks and, on extremely rare occasions, even to the coast.

     According to long term historical records, Israel has averaged 3 consecutive dry years every 50-years. The drought of 1998–2001 in northern Israel was the most extreme during the last 130 years. It affected the water flow of the Jordan River and brought the level of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to its lowest point on record. Wetlands around the Kinneret and in other regions of the country were practically dry for 6 consecutive years.

     From the end the 19th century, which marked the return of Jews to Palestine, a broad spectrum of solutions to the region’s water shortage problems has evolved to solve the country’s water shortage problem: conservation, improved methods of storage, diversion of water from one area to another, drip irrigation, recycling of wastewater, reduced allocations of water, increased pricing of water supplies, desalinization, etc.

     Addressing the water shortage problem was one of the first major initiatives undertaken by Israel following the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. “Israel has always suffered from water deficiency, a fact which has fuelled research and development in the field, and brought about a national practice of education regarding water conservation and advanced water management methods. Today, water management has been transferred to water corporations {from control under a centralized government agency} and the water economy is now {heavily} based on desalination. Water prices have increased, but so has the reliability of the water supply. Overseeing the move is the Water Authority.” (Ref. 1)

     The Governmental Authority of Water and Sewerage (the "Water Authority”) is responsible for overseeing the water corporations’ activities and is subordinate to the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources. It is an inter-agency body composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of Finance, National Infrastructures, Environmental Protection and Interior.[ 1]

Some History

     In ancient Israel, water was precious. The Bible tells of quarrels between Isaac and the Philistine shepherds over well rights some 3,000 years ago. The original Israelites obtained water from flowing rivers and streams, springs, wells, cisterns that collected rainwater, and reservoirs created by damming wadies (streams flowing only in the rainy season). 2,000 years ago, Herod the Great built aqueducts to transport water to Caesarea, then the 2nd largest city in the country after Jerusalem. Herod’s engineers devised a system that allowed water to flow without pumping from the springs near Mount Carmel. Seven aqueducts were constructed at that time.

     We now know much about the ancient water system of Old Jerusalem. Three waterworks, fed by the Gihon spring, were carved into the rock beneath the City of David in antiquity and they are the most complex and advanced of any known from Biblical cities. The systems were planned in different periods, served varied purposes and functioned in distinct ways. All three water systems were in operation simultaneously in the First Temple period. They also attest to the efforts of the kings of ancient Jerusalem to guarantee the water supply in time of siege.

     Other Biblical cities (Megiddo, Hatzor) had water systems combining similar elements, and these date back to the 9th century BC.

     Hezekiah's Tunnel in Old Jerusalem was cut during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (end of 8th century BC) and is described in detail in a six-line inscription, in paleo-Hebrew script, cut into the rock near the exit:

"… and this was the account of the breakthrough. While the laborers were still working with their picks, each toward the other, and while there were still three cubits to be broken through, the voice of each was heard calling to the other, because there was a zdh [crack?] in the rock to the south and to the north. And at the moment of the breakthrough, the laborers struck each toward the other, pick against pick. Then the water flowed from the spring to the pool for 1,200 cubits. And the height of the rock above the heads of the laborers was 100 cubits."[2 ]

     The project is mentioned in the Bible (II Kings 20:20): "... and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city…" and again in II Chronicles 32:30: "This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David."[2]

     For 2,000 years, while under Arab and Ottoman rule, Palestine saw no significant attempt at water management. However, once Jewish settlers began to arrive in the Holy Land, water management became a major priority, starting with land reclamation, swamp drainage and irrigation. Then in 1937, a decade before the establishment of the State of Israel, the water company Mekorot was created. In the first two decades of Israel's existence, the National Water Carrier was built. It was a complex water supply system, including the Shiloach Pipeline along the Burma Road to Jerusalem built during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, a first pipeline to the Negev in 1955, and the transfer of water from the Sea of Galilee in 1964.

     More recently, successive years of drought from 1998–2002 dramatically lowered water levels in all of the main reservoirs in Israel. 1998–1999 was the worst drought year in Israel for the past 100 years.


     Historically, Israel’s need to conserve its precious water supplies necessitated its development of techniques to minimize the use of water for agricultural purposes. Drip-irrigation is perhaps the best-known technique. As a result of developing this important technology, Natafim, an Israeli manufacturer of drip-irrigation products has captured half of the global market share in this agricultural irrigation key tool.[3]

     From 1948 until 1967, the Jewish population of Jerusalem was cut off from the rest of Israel. Water supplies were meager and variable. As a result, Jews in Jerusalem learned early-on to conserve their limited supply of water. That early training remained ingrained. Recently, an IDF officer, observing a new conscript taking a shower told him, “I immediately knew you were from Jerusalem. You turned off the shower while you were lathering up with soap.”

     The Water Authority’s “Israel is drying up” campaign was so successful that it resulted in household and municipal water consumption rates decreasing by 18.5% on average. [1]


     In 2009, it was decided that that price of water should reflect its true cost instead of being subsidized by the government. Despite grumblings about the high cost of water, the result has been a continuation of the high degree of conservation and, along with a move towards assigning water management to designated corporations instead of the government, municipal investment in water and sewage infrastructure has increased. As soon as the responsibility was transferred to the water corporations, the level of investment increased by 300% on average. Concurrently, the reliability in supply of water improved. [1] The infrastructure in Israel is now such that a reliable, albeit expensive, supply of water is available throughout the country.


     As Palestine and then Israel developed and agriculture assumed a major role in its developing economy, the disparity between available water resources and agricultural needs grew. In response, Israeli agriculture moved away from water-intensive crops and pioneered enormously improved efficiency, along with trailblazing drip irrigation techniques. Israel also increased the use of brackish water in agriculture.[4] In addition, the country instituted a major program of waste water reclamation with the recycled water being used by the agricultural sector. Today, Israel reclaims more than 85% of its waste water.

     Consequently, “Israel, through astute and close attention to both ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ aspects of efficient water management, has achieved the highest ratio in the world of crop yield per water unit.” (Ref. 5)


     By 2010, more than 80% of household wastewater in Israel was recycled - 100% of the sewage from the Tel Aviv metropolitan area was treated and reused as irrigation water for fields and public works.

     There are 120 wastewater treatment plants in Israel. The three largest plants are: the Dan Region Plant which uses activated sludge and nutrient removal for reuse in the Western Negev; the Haifa Plant which provides treated wastewater to the Jezreel valley, and the Jerusalem Sorek Plant which is located in the basin of the Sorek River.

     Many of the smaller wastewater treatment plants are waste stabilization ponds, a low-cost and low-energy treatment that eliminates pathogens while conserving nutrients.

     Today, Israel Recycles more than 85% of its wastewater. This is the highest rate in the world - Spain comes in a distant second at 13%, while the U.S. recycles less than 10% of its wastewater.


     In 1997, the first reverse osmosis desalination plant in Israel opened in Eilat. In 2002, under the impact of drought, the Government approved the construction of large seawater desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast.

     The “Israel Desalination Enterprises {IDE} Technologies’ Sorek Desalination Plant {at Palmachim on Israel’s southern coast} will provide up to . . . 7 million gallons of potable water to Israelis every hour. When it’s at full capacity, it will be the largest desalination plant of its kind in the world.
      - - -
     “IDE opened the first major desalination plant in the country in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in 2005, following success with a similar plant in nearby Cyprus. With Sorek, the company will own three of Israel’s five plants, and 400 plants in 40 countries worldwide. The company’s U.S. subsidiary is designing a new desalination plant in San Diego, the $922 million Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will be the largest desalination plant in America.
     “In Israel, desalination {in 2013} provides 300 million cubic meters of water per year - about 40 percent of the country’s total water needs. That number will jump to 450 million when Sorek opens, and will hit nearly 600 million as plants expand in 2014, providing up to 80 percent of Israel’s potable water.” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 6)

     In addition to the large desalination plants on Israel’s Mediterranean shores, there are around 30 small, mostly brackish water desalination plants. Most of these installations are in the Arava and the Negev regions. The largest of them is located in Eilat and desalinates brackish water and Red Sea water.

     While Israel may not be the world’s largest “desalinator”, no other country has made the shift so rapidly. Half of the country’s water needs will now met by “artificial sources”.[4]

     The government's goal is to reach a desalination capacity of more than 1/3 of Israel’s total fresh water needs by 2020. All desalination projects are to be executed by the private sector and all major plants use reverse osmosis, utilizing self-generated power.

Gaza, the West Bank and Israel’s Neighbors

     The question is often posed: If their Arab and Muslim brothers around the region feel so strongly about the Palestinian people, why haven't billions of petro-dollars found their way into large-scale development projects, like ones to eliminate chronic shortages of water in the West Bank and Gaza and to improve sanitation in the Gaza Strip? The answer remains that these Arab and Muslim brothers want to maintain the misery and poverty of the residents of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Palestinians living in refugee camps, in order to continue the demonization of the State of Israel as the source of the unhappy condition of these people.

     Israel clearly has the experience and expertise to assist in solving the water shortage and pollution problems in these locations. But, with one exception, Israeli help is rejected. “Israel is no stranger to resourcefulness in this area, with government-sponsored innovations helping Israel to reduce its wastefulness and bring down the amount of water required per capita. In reality, Israel consumes only a fraction more water than Gaza does, on a per capita basis. The subject of water was agreed upon under the terms of the Oslo Accords (part II) and Israel has not only fulfilled its obligations under the terms of that agreement, but actually supplies more water to Gaza and the West Bank than it is obliged to do.” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 7)

Gaza: In Gaza, it’s often claimed that “The problems are all the result of the illegal occupation by Israel!” It is an argument that makes as little sense in theory as it does in practice. Israel hasn’t controlled Gaza since 2005 – Hamas has! Misinformation propagated by the de-legitimizers of the Jewish state lead to erroneous beliefs being implanted in the minds of journalists, activists, the uniformed and the Israel/Zionist/Jew-haters of the world.

     In 2009, the World Bank claimed that the water and sewage situation in Gaza could result in the Gaza Strip becoming “uninhabitable”. Israel-haters immediately blamed Israel. “But the World Bank didn’t blame Israel and a similar report by the United Nations stated that while Operation Cast Lead intensified the problems already faced, Gaza’s problems were ‘due to underinvestment in environmental systems, lack of progress on priority environmental projects and the collapse of governance mechanisms.’
      - - -
     “Since Hamas took control of the Gaza strip and turned the area into a launching pad for its terrorist attacks against Israel, ordinary Gazans have suffered as Hamas continues to provoke Israeli responses through rocket-fire into civilian areas of Israel. - - -
     “In Gaza, Hamas’s effective dictatorship over the strip means it is the authority responsible for infrastructure. Yet the aid it receives from international donors goes primarily into funding its terrorist activities. Supplies into Gaza are often, rightfully throttled to stop machine parts and materials that can be forged into weaponry getting in. This is not an ‘occupation policy’. It is a necessary defensive move taken by an embattled state in the throes of a prolonged conflict. (Ref. 7)

     In 2013, it was announced that the World Bank would donate $6.4 million to Gaza in order to assist in infrastructure building in Gaza. The grant will be supplemented by $11.1 million from the Islamic Development Bank. The funding is for the construction of water storage and distribution systems. Israel has been eager to move forward with a project of this sort since early 2012, when its Energy and Water Minister stated, “Our expertise is available to all of our friends, including some of those who don't accept us there, which is the Palestinians. We would like to see their projects going on. They however say they want to take care of their own needs, which is fine with us.”[7]

     “Gaza’s water supply originates mostly from the shallow, sandy coastal aquifer that stretches along the coastline. There is some runoff from the West Bank’s aquifer but agriculture and waste runoff have polluted the water. Ninety-five percent of the ground water is undrinkable. The water has unusually high levels of salinity and nitrates, which are believed to be carcinogenic. Twenty-six percent of disease, especially kidney-related, in Gaza is water-related.
      - - -
     “Over-pumping from more than 4,000 wells . . . has seriously depleted the underground fresh water supplies, allowing sea water to seep into the ever-decreasing water table." (Ref. 8) Gaza has water and sewage problems. But the problems are of their own creation and a lack of will to fix them.

     The failure of the Hamas controlled government in Gaza to treat the sewage there has created a severe environmental problem. In 2008, the World Health Organization reported dangerous levels of fecal bacteria along a third of Gaza’s coast.

The West Bank: When Israel first gained control of the West Bank in 1967, just 4 of the 708 Palestinian towns and villages could access running water. Now, 641 of those areas – and more than 96% of the Palestinian population there – have access to running water.

     But, since being granted autonomy, the Palestinians in the West Bank have mismanaged their water supply, with losses in their water network amounting to up to 40% of total water resources. Quite simply, the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) has failed to upgrade its water system.

     The PWA also has failed to construct enough water treatment facilities; as a result, 63% of its wastewater flows untreated into streams and the West Bank countryside. The wastewater could be treated and reused for agricultural purposes to free up fresh water supplies for human consumption, as is done in Israel.

     Despite international donations for this purpose, the PWA is not moving forward on its water treatment projects. Instead, it allows the continuation of a system in which the untreated effluent pollutes the environment and contaminates the wells and aquifers of the West Bank. Quantitatively, the PWA fails to treat 94% of the wastewater produced by Palestinian towns and village; by comparison, Israel recycles more than 85% of its wastewater, primarily for agricultural uses.

     “Deterioration of the water network has contributed to water losses of up to 40%. The lack of treatment of agricultural runoff and industrial waste has polluted groundwater. Many remote communities still are not connected to clean water supplies.
     “Raw sewage running down valleys of the West Bank pollutes the underground reserves and the environment killing trees that could retain ground soil. The build-up of urban areas also impacts water conservation. More concrete means less soil to retain and soak up rainfall.” (Ref. 8)

     As usual, instead of helping themselves, the governing bodies in the West Bank and Gaza would rather flagellate themselves and then complain about the wicked Israelis being the cause of all their problems.

Israel’s Neighbors: Jordan is a unique example of an Arab country and Israel working together effectively. Ever since the Israel-Jordan border demarcation was adjusted under the 1994 peace accord, Jordan has allowed Israel to maintain its drilling facilities inside what became Jordanian territory in the south, and Israel helps them in the north. There is good mutual respect and interest. Israel and Jordan help each other.[4] If only the Palestinians and other Arab nations would behave in the same way. Relatively speaking, Jordan has water; their challenge is how to deliver it. Jordan is thinking of desalination in Aqaba. They have a plan for use of brackish water. They can solve their problems overall, and Israel is happy to help. The Israeli-Jordanian water agreement is an example of a deal where both sides benefit.[4]

     On the other hand, Israel, Syria and Lebanon have long contested water rights, and intermittently accused each other of abuses. The West Bank Arabs complain of inadequate water supplies. Gaza faces acute water shortages and pollution. However, in spite of the fact that Israel’s new water health is legitimately being hailed as a remarkable achievement, that utopian vision — of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon (along with Gaza and the West Bank) and Israel engaged in “constructive dialogue” — would seem beyond the foreseeable ambitions of even the most skilled and optimistic of rainmakers.[4] Just one more case of Arabs being Arabs. Co-operation, even in one’s self-interest, does not seem to exist in the Arab lexicon.

Dissemination of Israel’s Expertise

     Israel’s expertise in water management is well known throughout the world. Recently, (June of 2013), a delegation of 16 high-ranking Indian officials of the water authorities of Rajasthan, Karnataka, Goa and Haryana made a seven-day visit to Israel. “They visited wastewater treatment plants, met with some of Israel’s leading environmentalists and agronomists and listened to explanations of some of the newest technologies that keep this desert country green.
      - - -
     “Israel has been a global leader in the fields of drip irrigation and desalination, two ventures for which it has contributed groundbreaking technology. These technologies helped the country of eight million pull itself out of a severe water crisis in the early 2000s.
     “{Perhaps} the most significant lesson Israel can teach India is the Middle Eastern country’s unique approach. ‘It’s a system that balances the demand and available resources among the various sectors: municipal, industrial and agricultural,’ . . .
     “Several delegates said they were shocked to learn how expensive water is in Israel and how all citizens, regardless of income or geographic region, must pay uniform tariffs and fees for the clean drinking water that flows into their taps.” (Ref. 9)

     Developing and developed countries around the world are today seeking access to Israel’s knowledge in advanced water technologies, waste water recycling methodologies, and effective water management practices.[5]

     “International policymakers are also seeking Israel’s expertise: In 2012, {the} Secretary General for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) declared OECD’s interest in ‘disseminating Israeli technologies and know-how [widely] … to deal with the global water crisis.’” (Ref. 5)

Now and in the Future

     For the foreseeable future, Israel’s water crisis is over. This has come about because of an insistent refusal by Israel to let itself be constrained by insufficient natural water sources. Israel has beaten the water shortage problem because it said it would.[4] Other people and nations in the region bemoan their lack of access to adequate water supplies, but they don’t do anything about the problem. They prefer to complain rather than taking the hard steps needed to address the problem. In some cases, they simply want sympathy and handouts. In other cases, they want to blame someone else for their woes, preferably Israel. In still other cases, they lack the expertise to come to grips with the problem and refuse to seek help from those most qualified and willing to help – Israel.

     “While Israel is currently a regional (and global) leader in water management strategies, the nation has faced many challenges with competing user-groups, made trade-offs between short-term economic investment versus long-term sustainability, and leveraged its economic and political clout to ensure that the financial assets were in hand to prioritize water management solutions.
     “Israel’s path to achieve water management success was not simple or easy. . . .
     “{To address its chronically historic water shortage problem,} . . . Israel has {developed} a diverse portfolio of water {management technologies} that include an extensive supply of desalinated water and recycled wastewater and, consequently, puts less pressure on its limited, natural freshwater sources from surface water and groundwater. Israeli water managers have detailed knowledge and data about how much water they have, the precise source of that water, how much water is being used at any given moment, and specifically who is using that water and for what purpose. Every last drop of water is accounted for. There is a direct line of communication between the Water Authority and Mekorot, the national water utility company, which allows for the supply and demand as well as the pricing of water in Israel to be meticulously monitored and regulated. Israel’s water management system is a well-oiled, robust machine.
     “Israel’s detailed understanding of its water resources has allowed the nation to strategically invest in new technology and solutions that allow for more stable and sustainable water planning. Furthermore, the economic and political clout that Israel can leverage to finance such solutions is significant. Without investment, political commitment, and long-term planning, Israel’s water success would not exist. In addition, Israel’s geographic assets – mainly it’s shoreline on the Mediterranean Sea – are essential to its success. The Mediterranean provides Israel an unlimited supply of water as long as the investment for infrastructure and energy costs for desalination are met. With new natural gas reserves discovered off the coast, once prohibitive energy expenses will now be obsolete. Armed with detailed knowledge about its water resources, new energy sources, and a strong sociopolitical backing, Israel’s water future looks bright.” (Ref. 10)

     There will be no more cries of "Israel is Drying out" in the foreseeable future.

  1. The Secrets of Saving: Israel’s water conservation, Merav Ankori, Israel New Tech, 26 July 2012.
  2. Jerusalem - Water Systems of Biblical Times, Hillel Geva, The Jewish Virtual Library, 2013.
  3. How The U.S. Benefits From Its Alliance With Israel, David Pollock and Michael Eisenstadt, The Jewish Press, Page 8, 28 June 2013.
  4. How Israel beat the drought, David Horovitz, Jr., The Times of israel, 26 February 2013.
  5. Water Update, Marjorie S. Federbush and Jerome C. Muys, Jr., B'Yachad, July 2013.
  6. Water surplus in Israel? With desalination, once unthinkable is possible, Ben Sales, JTA, 28 May 2013.
  7. Is Israel really to blame for Gaza's water shortages?, Raheem Kassam, The Commentator, 13 February 2013.
  8. Water in the West Bank and Gaza, ANERA, March 2013.
  9. India Seeks Water Management Lessons From Israel, Debra Kamin, The New York Times, 12 June 2013.
  10. Political Currents of Water Management: Challenges in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, Jay Famiglietti, National Geographic, 27 June 2013.

  8 July 2013 {Article 169; Israel_16}    
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