The cabinet approved an emergency plan on Sunday to transfer desalinated water to Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) for the first time, amid a crippling and ongoing drought.
Israel is suffering from a rare fifth consecutive year of drought, classified by some experts as a once-in-100-year event. The emergency plans are meant to address the growing water shortage that threatens to put the brakes on a booming economy.
Starting in 2019, small quantities of desalinated water will be pumped into the Kinneret – to reach an eventual annual volume of 100 million cubic meters of water within four years.
Desalination provides Israel with some 70% of its drinking water, with the Kinneret providing an ever smaller amount of potable water.
“The emergency plan to deal with the drought problem… has two special elements, and they’re not conventional,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting on Sunday.
“One is to return desalinated water to the Kinneret. Usually we derive water from the Kinneret and carry it throughout the country. Now we’re bringing desalinated water to the Kinneret because when we desalinate water in the winter it’s wasted, there’s no use for it. We’re turning the Kinneret into a reservoir of desalinated water.”
The drought is endangering the fate not only of the Kinneret, but the down-stream Jordan River and Dead Sea – major tourist and pilgrimage sites and sources of both drinking water and crop irrigation.
The quantity of water flowing to the lake is now being surpassed by the amount being pumped from the lake and the amount being lost to evaporation. That jeopardizes the Kinneret and is evident by the lake’s receding coastline.
On June 1, the Kinneret’s waterline measured at 213.46 meters (700 feet) below sea level – five meters below the upper red line. That hasn’t broken the driest record in 2001, when the lake crested lower at 214.87 meters below sea level, the so-called black line. If the Kinneret shrinks past that line, increased acidity could cause ecological problems, making it problematic to pump water out.
In response, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz – whose portfolio includes water management – announced on Sunday the construction of two desalination plants, one in Sorek and another in the western Galilee.
The amount of desalinated water is expected to double by 2030, according to a statement by the Energy Ministry – with a goal of pumping 1.1 billion cubic meters of desalinated water annually. Five currently-operating plants in Israel already desalinate some 585 million cubic meters each year.
Constructing a facility with a capacity of 200-300 million cubic meters would cost some NIS 3 billion ($840 million), Giora Shaham, managing director of Israel’s water authority, told Haaretz. At the same time, household consumption of water has increased by 150 million cubic meters annually.
Plants like that won’t be operational for several years. And with growing demand, that hardly puts a dent into the problem today.
The ministry did not specify how Israel would be able to fully supply the additional amount of desalinated water.
One downside to the plan is that desalinated seawater lacks magnesium. The essential mineral is needed for cardiac health and its lack leads to elevated mortality risk from heart attacks, most notably in areas where desalinated water is widely consumed.
Another problem is that desalinization is one of the most expensive and polluting ways of providing fresh water.
The government will allocate NIS 100 million to rehabilitate seven waterways which have begun to run dry in the Galilee – including the Ga’aton Stream, Na’aman River, Kishon River, Hadera Stream, Tzipori Creek, Betzet Stream and Einan Stream.
Water that normally flows through these streams and underground aquifers to the Kinneret has all but choked up.
At the same time, a public ad campaign has been making the rounds – urging Israelis to adapt further conservation methods since “there is no water to waste.”
So far this year, the water quota has been cut for farmers, and regular customers could face disruptions in service.
Separately, the Water Authority plans to fully connect areas of the western Galilee that are cut off from the national water carrier’s system. Those municipalities currently procure water from local sources and wells.
Steinitz said the government’s proposal would stave off the worst consequences of the drought.
“The plan… will provide long-term and short-term solutions, which include: increasing water desalination; rehabilitating streams in the north of the country; promoting a plan to connect the disconnected areas from the national system; removing bureaucratic obstacles to accelerate the construction of water infrastructure; and implementing actions to reduce the volume of water consumption.”