Bumps on the Road Towards Making the Desert Bloom
Author: Taub Center Staff Bulletin Articles

Israel is an internationally recognized leader in water conservation and utilization, yet there have also been serious problems in national water management and planning resulting in an erosion of the quality of Israel’s aquifers.

As a country with an average of just 40 to 50 days of rain a year in its coastal region and only 4 to 30 days of rain in its more arid regions, Israel is no stranger to water scarcity. As the only country in the world with more trees at the end of the last century than at its beginning, and a population that has grown from less than 1 million to almost 8 million people in just 64 years, Israel has achieved an international reputation as a leading innovator in the utilization of scarce water resources. Extended periods of drought together with the rapidly rising price of water in recent years have raised the issue of water management ever higher on the national agenda, leading the Knesset to establish the Bein Water Management Commission in 2008.

The Taub Center recently published a comprehensive review of the water sector in Israel, prepared for the Center by one of the Bein Commission’s three members, Professor Yoav Kislev, a Hebrew University economist. Prof. Kislev finds that the water system in Israel generally performs its required functions – thanks to a relatively high level of technical sophistication, a large accumulated knowledge base, a sound legal infrastructure, and the professionalism of the system’s employees. However, Kislev also identifies deficiencies in water management rooted in the limited ability – and sometimes, limited willingness – of governmental bodies to fully meet the complex demands of water management in Israel.

The primary challenge is that since the establishment of the State, population growth has greatly exceeded the growth in available water. While the quantity of water supplied in Israel grew by about 35 percent between 1960 and 2010, the population grew by over 350 percent. The result is that per capita consumption of water declined sharply, though this decrease was not uniform across sectors. As the first figure shows, household consumption on a per capita basis has not declined and is virtually identical to its level in 1960. On the other hand, agricultural use of water has dropped sharply and is now less than a third of its per capita 1960 level despite a steady multi-decade increase in agricultural production.

Eng Water fig 1

The Taub Center study shows striking differences between fresh water use and agricultural output from the 1950s through 2009. Water output was almost unchanged during these four decades, although a large fraction of the fresh water was replaced with recycled waste water. At the same time, the output of the crops making use of this water grew continually. During this period the output per unit of water consumed grew sevenfold. This increase was made possible due to the investments made in this sector, improvements in production methods and the move to improved crops and varieties.

Eng Water fig 2
While Israel has taken significant steps to reduce water consumption and increase supply, Kislev finds that there continues to be an imbalance between supply and demand, resulting in an over-extraction of water from Israel’s natural water sources, which in turn can result in major problems. First, when reserves are low there is no cushion to cope with unexpected problems. A few seasons of below-average rainfall can cause a water supply crisis if reserves are inadequate. In addition, over-extraction compromises the quality of the water. Finally, over-extraction causes direct damage to water sources – the aquifers, lakes and reservoirs.

The government and the Water Authority have not been passive in the face of these challenges. From the early days of the State through to the early 1960s, most water consumers – including agricultural ones – could utilize nearby water sources, and the cost of transporting water was minimal. At the beginning of this period the cost of provision of water was only about NIS 0.50 per cubic meter in 2011 prices.

As the country grew, nearby sources became insufficient and water began to be piped from areas with relatively more abundant water supplies to the more arid regions. The National Water Carrier, a pipeline completed in 1964, played a significant role in this evolution. It was a costly project that raised the cost of water production to approximately NIS 1.70 per cubic meter in today’s prices. Within a number of decades, though, this source also proved to be insufficient, and Israel entered the third major phase of its water supply process – the production of fresh water in desalinization plants (three are already operating along the Mediterranean coast and two more are under construction). These expensive plants raised the cost of producing a cubic meter of water to about NIS 3.

In addition to these measures, the use of recycled waste water has become institutionalized. Important water management reforms have also been undertaken. These include the establishment of the National Water and Sewage Authority and the transferring of local water distribution to special water corporations in place of direct administration by municipalities and other local authorities.

Nevertheless, over-extraction remains a serious problem, one that may be exacerbated if it turns out that the region is faced with a continually decreasing level of rainfall. In the 1960s, the effects of over-extraction were already evident in the coastal aquifer. Despite repeated warnings, though, steps were not taken to rectify the problem in the long-term. It is estimated that during the 1990s, excess extraction from all natural sources reached 80 million cubic meters per year.

In water policy management, the Taub Center study points out that it is important to preserve resources, prevent over-exploitation or over-extraction from water reservoirs, and ensure proper planning of water reserves for dry years in the form of emergency reserves. Over the years the government has neglected its responsibilities in this area, and officials in charge of executing the policy have not been sufficiently vigilant in protecting water reserves.

Kislev believes that the government’s failure is not due to isolated misjudgments but rather is structural in nature. Those carrying out the government’s tasks bear a heavy work load; they are subject to political pressures and are sometimes biased in their decisions. He concludes that the primary way to mitigate the failures of government is to increase transparency and public involvement in the water sector.

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