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Environment : Taking a Stroll on the Parched Sea of Galilee : After three years of drought, the historic lake’s water level is at a record low. And it spindex termsignals future water problems for Israel and its Arab neighbors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s easier to walk on the Sea of Galilee than it used to be.

No miracle is required. A severe lack of rain has lowered the level of the historic lake so much that an island has emerged near its southeast corner.

The drop is a symptom of three years of drought and, experts say, a signal of future water problems that may not only bring hardship to Israel but to its neighbors in the semi-arid eastern Mediterranean.

At November’s end, pious Jews in Jerusalem prayed for rain. On the same day in Jordan, observant Muslims, including King Hussein, also prayed for wet weather.

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But it hasn’t done any good.

Last Thursday, Israeli Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan held an emergency meeting to discuss the imperiled water supply, one day after the country’s state comptroller, Miriam Ben-Porat, issued a highly critical report on the country’s water management over the past 25 years.

Warned Eitan: “I fear very much that by next summer we will face a very severe problem with drinking water.”

Israel’s problem, however, is a regional problem. There have been calls throughout the region for cooperation among neighbors to ensure fair sharing of the scarce resource. But in a part of the world where most major disagreements have been settled with jet bombers and armor, the idea of peaceful agreement seems a dim dream.

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“We need cooperation with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan. However, if water becomes short, there will be no option but to get it by war. It is like lifeblood. What choice is there?” asked Zvi Ortenberg, who heads the Lake Kinneret Authority. (Kinneret is the Old Testament name used in Israel for the pear-shaped, 64-square-mile lake.)

Drought is not the only reason for the Sea of Galilee’s decline.

Israel has been overexploiting its supply of available water--in a sense mining the resource before it has a chance to replenish itself. The lake supplies one-third of Israel’s water while underground aquifers supply the rest, and these are slowly being invaded by salt from the coast as fresh water is pumped to the surface.

There is also excessive exploitation in Jordan and Syria. In Jordan, the shortage may be more critical because wells have been dug atop ancient underground deposits in the desert, which cannot be renewed by rain water.

“Jordan will face a very serious situation by the turn of the century. There is just not enough water to go around,” Tuma Hazou, a United Nations official, warned in a recent interview.

Earlier this year, Syria and Iraq objected to the building of a large dam in Turkey that essentially put control of the Euphrates River in Turkish hands. Turkey has refused to agree to a quota system, guaranteeing supplies to the two downstream countries.

In the short term, Israel is trying to conserve water by reducing pumping from the Sea of Galilee and its underground deposits at least until winter rains--now more than a month late--begin.

In the long run, solutions are not so evident. At one time, Eitan proposed to build three plants to turn sea water into fresh water. But the expense is prohibitive. It costs Israelis about 35 cents a cubic yard to obtain water from underground; desalinization would cost 80 cents a cubic yard.

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“Desalinization has been a sort of technological messiah, but it won’t be economically feasible in the foreseeable future,” predicted Hebrew University professor Shlomo Shuval.

Importation is another idea that has been floated--literally--in a proposal to tow giant balloons filled with water across the Mediterranean from Turkey.

But this also requires investment, at least in reservoirs to hold the imported supply. No such plans are being developed. Also, Turkey is sensitive to the anti-Israeli sentiments of its Arab neighbors and to be seen damming the Euphrates and selling water to Israel would be controversial.

Israeli officials eye with envy the free flowing Litani River in southern Lebanon. It empties into the Mediterranean virtually untapped. It would create a political upheaval if Israel--which for reasons of border security occupies south Lebanon in cooperation with an allied Christian militia--were to dip into the Litani.

“Imports, for the moment, are a political as well as practical problem,” Ortenberg commented.

Israel’s domestic supply, which includes water from beneath the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, is also subject to political uncertainties. Under any form of talks to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, water would be a difficult topic.

On a per-mouth basis, Israel drinks in much more water than do the Palestinians.

“No settlement could ever succeed without finding a way to regulate mutual access to the water,” said Joseph Alpher, a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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Politicians warned that the source could fall under the control of the country’s longtime enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization. “A Palestinian state in the West Bank would be like giving your drinking water to Yasser Arafat,” said a far-right party in an advertising campaign last month.

Another political problem, according to Comptroller Ben-Porat’s report, is the subsidized price of water, particularly that bought by farmers. Through their national lobby, farmers exert strong pressure on the committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that influences decisions on water pricing and allocation.

The comptroller’s report said that to conserve water farmers should pay the true cost of water they use.

The country’s water strategy of the moment is to coddle the reserves available, especially in the Sea of Galilee. It is a lake kept under careful watch. Pumping into Israel’s extensive national water carrier was halted when the lake’s level neared 213 meters below sea level. Already, the level is at its lowest in 60 years of measuring.

There is worry that should the level fall farther, reduced pressure on the lake floor might release pent-up salt springs that would ruin water quality.

Near the shore, feeding grounds of fish are drying up, threatening the lake’s fishing industry. One breed, called St. Peter’s, is considered a local delicacy. Tourists, alarmed by news stories of the shriveling lake surface, are also staying away, Ortenberg said.

Environmental critics say Israel wastes water. Some of its water-intensive farm products could be more cheaply imported from abroad. But the resistance to less agriculture in Israel is symbolic as well as practical. The founders of the state envisioned a rural hinterland in which Jews would return to the land.

“Israel would not be Israel without agriculture,” said Ortenberg, who lives on a small kibbutz that produces bananas, grapes, avocados, mangoes, cows and chickens.

Irrigation cutbacks were ordered on Israeli farms by 30% last year and water is being cut off to farmers who exceed their quota. Next year’s quota could be further reduced if winter rains do not replenish the lake and aquifers.


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