The latest report from Mekorot, Israel's national water corporation, published a few days ago, starkly underscores the nation's grave hydro-strategic position i.e. its rapidly dwindling supply of water. This is a shortage that is swiftly – but not unexpectedly – developing into an acute crisis whose solution is far from easy to envision.
For over and above the dearth of moisture that nature imposes on the region, there are many who tend to forget – or willfully conceal – that there is another threat that hovers over Israel's water system. This is a threat that is largely political in its origins and may well prove far more ominous than that of nature per se. Indeed, it could totally undermine any conceivable government efforts to resolve the water crisis by desalination in the foreseeable future.
It should be emphasized that disturbing hydrological predicament in which Israel now finds itself was arrived at despite the fact that since 1967 and up to August 2005 (with the unilateral disengagement from Northern Samaria) it was the only body with governmental authority over all the water sources in the area known as "Greater Israel" (with the exception of the sources of the Hasbani, which flows into the upper Jordan from Lebanon.) The same is true with regard to the sources of pollution, whose significance for the fate of national water system is no less than that of the water sources themselves.
The Israeli public should be aware that today whoever controls the areas of Samaria, Judea (which overlie vital ground water supplies) and the Golan (which is a crucial part of the Sea of Galilee's drainage basin,) also controls of the flow of water to the taps in the nation's homes and industries.
In order to contend with Israel's hydrological deficit, estimated at 300-500 million cubic meters per annum, the government has decided, a decade later than it should have, to embark on an ambitious desalination initiative. The objective of this enterprise is to free the country from the fickle whims of the weather in an arid area of the world located on the fringes of a desert, by the large scale artificial generation of water.
The first such plant, sited near Ashkelon, recently began operating, more than five years after the government approved its construction. The plant, which is the biggest and one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world, produces 100 million cubic meters annually – i.e. between one fifth and one third of the current hydrological deficit.
This means that even without yielding a single liter of water to any Arab entity, Israel still requires the construction of an additional three to five similar plants – the biggest in the world – to achieve "sustainable management" of the existing hydro-resources i.e. to prevent their over-exploitation and accelerated salting and pollution due to excess extraction.
This is clearly not the appropriate framework for a detailed professional analysis of Israeli hydrology, so it will suffice to draw attention to two hydrological facts that are not in contention: (a) Whatever the de jure provisions of any future peace treaty may be, evacuation (even a partial one) of Judea, Samaria and the Golan, will transfer the de facto control over about one billion(!) cubic meters of water to Arab hands; (b) Whoever controls these areas can create – whether through purposeful malice or unintended incompetence - a situation whereby these quantities of water will be denied to the Israeli consumer.
'Grave threat to main water supplies'
In this regard, nearly all the relevant professional bodies have issued warnings regarding the risks and ramifications of evacuation. For example then-Water Commissioner Meir Ben Meir told the Knesset State Control Committee (Jan. 3, 2000) that pollution by the Syrians after transfer of the Golan to their control "would, quite simply, herald the end of the Sea of Galilee as a source of fresh water."
Likewise, in a 1996 risk-assessment of the hydrological dangers involved in withdrawal from the Golan, Mekorot experts warned that if Syria began significant use of the water resources on the Golan plateau, this would reduce the inflow into the Sea of Galilee, raise the lake's level of salinity "so as to render waters of the Sea of Galilee unusable…" and create a situation "which in our assessment … the Israeli water system will not, under any circumstances, be able to withstand… "(p. 20).
The hydro-strategic importance of Judea and Samaria is reflected in the State Comptroller's report on the management of Israel's water system: "The Mountain Aquifer which extends … from the slopes of Carmel to Beer Sheva and from the ridges of Samaria and Judea to the coastal plain, constitutes the principal source of drinking water in the country…"
Regarding the vulnerability of this "principal source of drinking water", the Water Commissioner informed the Israeli government that: "The water resources of Judea and Samaria are interlinked with the major water resources of Israel …It is physically possible to increase the extraction in Judea and Samaria to a level that will force closing down production inside Israel". The Commissioner went on to warn that "another danger to the ground water supplies arises from sewage and other sources of pollution that can result in the contamination of the water supplies (inside Israel)".
A report commissioned from the TAHAL Water Engineering Company cautioned that abandoning Judea and Samaria would "constitute a grave threat to the main water supplies of Israel"(p. 105).
Accordingly, one does not need to be a trained hydrologist to comprehend the significance of all this. All that is required is a rudimentary grasp of basic arithmetic! Withdrawal from Samaria, Judea and the Golan creates a very tangible risk that Israel's water system will be deprived of quantities of water far greater than those that desalination, even on the ambitious scale planned by the government, can contribute within any realistic timeframe.
This means that in order to contend with this grim – but not inconceivable – scenario, Israel needs to gear up for the artificial production of water on a scale commensurate with quantities which may be denied it – in other words, one billion cubic meters over and above the 300-500 million cubic meters required to cope with the current pre-withdrawal deficit.
This is an enterprise of enormous proportions – far beyond anything envisaged to date. Implementation of such an endeavor has far-reaching ramifications for the energy regime in the country, the configuration of its national infrastructures, and the storage capacity for the desalinated water - in times of low (off-peak) demand for delivery at peak-demand. These and other weighty topics are not even on the agenda of the public debate - despite their crucial importance for the future.
Moreover, even if Israel succeeds in overcoming the huge difficulties involved in the construction of such a giant desalination project, there are still a number of problems that arise from withdrawal from Samaria and the Golan that no desalination plant, whatever its capacity, can deal with.
These include issues which Water Commission experts warned of prior to the 2005 disengagement such as: (a) The threat of crippling the desalination plants themselves due to sewage flows from Gaza into the sea which will carried by northbound marine currents into Israeli waters; (b) The danger for salination and even "desertification" of extensive areas within the 1967 "Green Line" caused by over-exploitation of the ground water in Samaria and which according to the Water Commission's assessment will "devastate agriculture and tourism, and destroy the unique communities in these areas."
In light of these factors one can state with a large measure of confidence that territorial withdrawal will more than nullify any contribution desalination can make to resolving Israel water crisis, transforming it from a panacea to a chimera. This is not ideology, merely hydrology.
Dr. Martin Sherman is a political scientist at Tel Aviv University