Brief Scare Spurs Israelis to Heed Their Water Crisis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A tap-water pollution scare that left panicky Israelis fighting over bottled water in supermarket aisles Tuesday accomplished what years of doomsday predictions from experts had failed to do: It turned a severe water shortage into front-page news.

Drought and soaring urban consumption have produced such a large gap between supply and demand here that farmers are chopping down banana trees and plowing under vegetables, and water officials have threatened city dwellers with rationing.

But until Monday night, Israelis seemed determined to ignore the shortage, washing their cars, watering their lawns and filling their swimming pools this scorching summer even as reservoirs were being over-pumped.

The magnitude of the crisis hit home, however, when the Health Ministry ordered residents of the heavily populated coastal plain to stop drinking tap water for a few hours because pollutants had entered the nation's water distribution system.

Although the scare wasn't caused by the country's water shortage, Efi Stenzler, the mayor of one of the towns affected, said it reminded everyone that "this resource is gradually becoming extinct."

Maybe now, experts say, Israelis will understand that the crisis is real.

Israelis have "forgotten how to conserve water," Israeli Water Commissioner Shimon Tal said mournfully. "Our water reservoirs are really empty. We have never been in such a situation."

Israel's water problems may make it even more difficult for the nation to achieve peace agreements with its Arab neighbors, experts say. Over the decades, Israel has had water disputes with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and it has insisted that it must continue to control an aquifer that runs under the West Bank even if most of that land was ceded to the Palestinians in a peace accord.

As the nation's demand for water grows, it becomes harder to consider relinquishing control of water resources or sharing water in the framework of a peace treaty. Already, some Israeli water experts are advocating that the government renegotiate its water treaty with Jordan, which requires Israel to provide the kingdom with 14 billion gallons of water from the Sea of Galilee annually. They argue that Israel can no longer afford to keep that commitment.

The shortage also threatens to limit Israel's economic growth and its capacity to absorb Jewish immigrants. It's damaging nature preserves, tourism and recreation.

Yet, until recently, Israeli politicians showed little interest in legislating conservation measures or developing new water supplies.

On July 2, a parliamentary committee began holding hearings on the crisis. Members of the Knesset, as parliament is known, are asking why successive governments ignored the warnings that water experts began issuing a decade ago about the nation's increasingly meager freshwater resources. Some water experts say the committee's work is too little too late to stave off disaster.

Critics say the government still is unwilling to face up to the powerful agriculture lobby and loath to impose stern conservation measures on a public too enamored of its water-wasting lifestyle and too stressed out by car bombings to deal with yet another crisis.

"In Israel," said Doron Merkel, a geochemist working for the Water Commission who oversees the Sea of Galilee's water quality, "you can only move things when you get to catastrophe. Everybody is so concerned about the security situation here that nothing else is important."

For years, ministries squabbled over the best ways to cut consumption but failed to raise heavily subsidized water prices for farmers or cut agriculture's allocation. Successive governments declared it essential that water desalination plants be built so water from the Mediterranean could be used, but they failed to authorize the construction.

Two prime ministers--Ariel Sharon and his predecessor, Ehud Barak--rejected Water Commissioner Tal's plea that they declare a state of emergency and accept his recommendations for cutting consumption.

Now Israel needs a staggering 132 billion gallons more water this year than it can safely pump from its only freshwater lake--the shrinking Sea of Galilee--and its aquifers. Merkel said the Galilee's level has never been lower and that it currently is more than 3 feet below what he and other water experts believe is needed to avoid damaging the lake's ecology.

Already, he said, blooms of blue-green algae have begun to appear in the lake. The water level is so low that the national water company was forced to buy devices abroad to boost the sucking power of its pumps.

Tal is considering lowering water pressure in cities and shutting off supplies to some regions for a few hours each day. Maybe then, he said, Israelis will believe that the crisis is real.

So far, farmers have borne the brunt of the shortage. Agriculture consumes nearly half the water used in Israel. Economists have long argued that Israel needs to take some land out of production because the country doesn't have the water to sustain it. But a large chunk of Israeli identity was shaped by the greening of the desert and the return to the earth that farming represents.

"We built Israel through farming," said Yitzhak Lidor, director-general of the Agriculture Ministry. "If people keep cutting water to farmers, the country will return to the desert it was when we came here 100 years ago."

Agricultural water allocations have been slashed by 50% this year, and Tal has asked the government to immediately approve an additional 10% cut. But his recommendation faces opposition from farmers and their advocates. Production of water-hungry bananas, citrus, vegetables, cotton and peanuts has dropped, and more farmers are planting olive trees and grapevines.

Any further cuts would be disastrous for the $4.5-billion industry, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon said.

"It is absolutely impossible to cut water further. It is out of the question," Simchon said. "We hear about a 50% cut, but in some places it has actually been a 70% cut. The direct result is that fields are being uprooted, farmers are moving into new crops, and in some places the water is virtually being turned off in the middle of the season."

Mayors and Cabinet ministers are fighting Tal's recommendation that municipalities be required to stop watering public parks and flower beds and that homeowners be banned from sprinkling their lawns.

Experts agree that the crisis may be temporary, lasting only until desalination plants approved by the government are built and begin treating hundreds of millions of gallons of seawater annually. But the first of four plants is not expected to start functioning for three more years. If little rain falls this winter and next, Tal said, "in this interim period, the situation may become catastrophic."

Tal said Israelis have no one to blame but themselves. "We know what we should do, but we don't do it," he said. "A nation cannot reach such a situation, such a severe crisis, and do nothing, but that is what is happening."

In the last five years, he said, urban consumption grew by 5% a year. That rise continued even in the face of severe drought in the winters of 1999 and 2000.

On the shores of the Galilee, the effects of drought and over-pumping on the biblical lake are easy to see.

At Tamar Beach, Shimon Karasenti stared glumly at the nearly deserted shoreline. His grandfather bought this beach before the state was born, he said, and for years tourists and locals flocked here to sun and swim.

But years of little rain and drawdowns of the lake to quench the thirst of both crops and people have caused the water to recede 300 yards from the shoreline, leaving a rusting boat launch, a tattered lifeguard station and a restaurant no longer anywhere near the water's edge. Beach-goers have chosen to go elsewhere.

"There has never been a year like this one," Karasenti said. "Of course the government should do something."

Some of the lake's beaches have been closed to swimmers for fear of drownings: The water has receded so far that bathers find themselves stepping into deep water inches from what is now the shoreline. Hoteliers have been warned not to remove rocks left exposed by the retreating waters, for fear they will destroy fish habitats.

But so far, Merkel said, the lake's fish seem to be surviving. No one knows, he said, how much more over-pumping the government can do before serious damage is caused. The lake provides 27% of Israel's annual water supply.

"All I know is that the government is reducing the level of the lake far below what we have recommended as a safe level," he said, "and that if this continues, it will be a disaster for the lake."

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