Israel Flourishes after a Water Revolution ; Desalination Technology and Intense Recycling End Chronic Fears of Dry Spells

By Kershner, Isabel | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Israel Flourishes after a Water Revolution ; Desalination Technology and Intense Recycling End Chronic Fears of Dry Spells


Kershner, Isabel, International New York Times


A major effort to desalinate water from the Mediterranean and to recycle has provided the country with enough water for all its needs.

CORRECTION APPENDED

At the peak of the drought, Shabi Zvieli, an Israeli gardener, feared for his livelihood.

A hefty tax was placed on excessive household water consumption, penalizing families with lawns, swimming pools or leaky pipes. So several of Mr. Zvieli's clients stopped watering their lawns and went over to synthetic grass. "I worried about where gardening was going," said Mr. Zvieli, 56, who has tended people's yards for about 25 years.

Across the country, Israelis were told to cut their shower time by two minutes. Washing cars with hoses was outlawed and the few who were wealthy enough to absorb the cost of maintaining a lawn were permitted to water it only at night.

"We were in a situation where we were very, very close to someone opening a tap somewhere in the country and no water would come out," said Uri Schor, the spokesman and public education director of the government's Water Authority.

That was about six years ago. Today, there is plenty of water in Israel. A lighter version of an old "Israel is drying up" campaign has been dusted off to advertise baby diapers. "The fear has gone," said Mr. Zvieli, whose customers have gone back to planting flowers.

As California and other western areas of the United States grapple with an extreme drought, a revolution has taken place here. A major national effort to desalinate Mediterranean seawater and to recycle wastewater has provided the country with enough water for all its needs, even during severe droughts. More than 50 percent of the water for Israeli households, agriculture and industry is now artificially produced.

During the drought years farmers at Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, took measures like uprooting old apple orchards a few years before their time. Today, the water quotas for Israeli farmers have been raised again, though the price has also gone up.

"Now there is no problem of water," said Shaul Ben-Dov, an agronomist at Ramat Rachel. "The price is higher, but we can live a normal life in a country that is half desert."

With its part-Mediterranean, part-desert climate, Israel had suffered from chronic shortages and exploitation of its natural water resources for decades. The natural fresh water at Israel's disposal in an average year does not cover its total use of roughly 525 billion gallons. The demand for potable water is projected to rise to 515 billion gallons by 2030, from 317 billion gallons this year.

The turnaround came with a seven-year drought, one of the most severe to hit modern Israel, that began in 2005 and peaked in the winter of 2008 to 2009. The country's main natural water sources -- the Sea of Galilee in the north and the mountain and coastal aquifers -- were severely depleted, threatening a potentially irreversible deterioration of the water quality.

Measures to increase the supply and reduce the demand were accelerated, overseen by the Water Authority, a powerful interministerial agency established in 2007.

Desalination emerged as one focus of the government's efforts, with four major plants going into operation over the past decade. A fifth one should be ready to operate within months. Together, they will produce more than 130 billion gallons of potable water a year, with a goal of 200 billion gallons by 2020.

Israel has become the world leader in recycling and reusing wastewater for agriculture. It treats 86 percent of its domestic wastewater and recycles it for agricultural use -- about 55 percent of the total water used for agriculture. Spain is second to Israel, recycling 17 percent of its effluent, while the United States recycles just 1 percent, according to Water Authority data.

Before the establishment of the Water Authority, various ministries were responsible for different aspects of the water issue, each with its own interests and lobbies. …

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