The End of Cheap Water: Case Study

The Economist
Jun 5th 2008

Israel

Don’t make the desert bloom

Milk and honey is all very well. But what about the water?

THIS is the fourth consecutive year of drought in
Israel. Last winter it rained only about 65% of
the long-term average. The water level in the Sea
of Galilee, the source of nearly 30% of Israel’s
fresh water, is close to the danger line and
hardly rose during the winter even though the
pipeline that takes water from it was closed for
part of the year. This week the government
reacted with an emergency plan.

It includes spending 120m shekels ($37m) extra on
improving water conservation and 915m shekels on
better water recycling for agriculture. And it
calls for building more desalination plants, to
increase their output from 138m cubic metres a
year now (with another 100m due to come on line
next year) to 750m by 2020. But the priorities,
say not a few critics, are the wrong way round.
“It’s missing the most important element, which
is to charge all sectors a market price for
water,” says Hillel Shuval, head of environmental
health at the Hadassah Academic College in
Jerusalem.

Israel shares its water sources with the
Palestinians (the main aquifer that feeds many of
its wells lies under the West Bank), as well as
Jordan and Syria. Fast-growing populations are
putting a strain on those sources. So is global
warming: although average rainfall has not been
dropping in the region, rain showers have become
shorter and more intense, so more water runs into
the sea instead of recharging the aquifers. The
Jordan River is a trickle of its former self, and
the Dead Sea, which it replenishes, is falling by
around one metre a year.

Water management has improved, but not by enough.
“Making the desert bloom”, a cornerstone of the
early Zionist ideal, turns out not to have been
such a smart idea. Agriculture consumes some 60%
of the country’s total of 2 billion cubic metres
of water a year, but contributes less than 2% of
GDP, thanks partly to water-guzzling export crops
such as bananas and citrus fruits, as well as
dates (these are fine in their natural habitat of
oases, but in Israel large plantations of date
palms stretch across otherwise arid desert).

True, the once huge water subsidies to farmers
have dropped, as has their water use. Yoav Kislev
at the Hebrew University calculates that water
productivity in agriculture has increased
threefold since the 1950s. A year and a half ago
those farmers who got their water from the state
water company (the majority) reached a deal to
pay market price. That, according to Mr Kislev,
would be around three shekels per cubic metre.
But the deal has yet to be fully implemented, and
it will still allow for hidden subsidies which,
he estimates, will cut the average price to
around half that.

Israel could also, he says, do better in
recycling its domestic water for agriculture. A
lot of the treated water flows into the sea, and
what is reused is still dirty enough to
contaminate ground water; this has forced the
closure of some wells. More alarmingly, because
rubbish dumping in Israel is better controlled
than it used to be, contractors now dump more
waste illegally in the poorly supervised West
Bank, which adds to the contamination of the
aquifer.

Domestic use in Israel could easily be cut too.
The government’s 120m shekel conservation
package, Mr Shuval says, is “too little, too
late”. He points to Australia, which after years
of crippling drought began a subsidised national
campaign to install water-saving devices in every
home, reducing domestic water use by 20%.

Even the chief scientist of the environment
ministry, Yeshayahu Bar-Or, said last month,
before the emergency plan was announced, that
desalination was not enough. He predicts a dire
long-term future: rising seas contaminate the
coastal aquifer with salt water, global warming
reduces rainfall by 35% by 2100, rising heat
leads to the pollution of the Sea of Galilee.

The fondness for desalination, argues Gidon
Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an
environmentalist group, stems from a confluence
of interests. Politicians like big,
headline-grabbing projects; Israel’s government
wants to promote the Israeli water-treatment
industry abroad; and the plants, under long-term
build-operate-transfer schemes, provide their
builders with a guaranteed income. But
desalination burns up energy, adds to the global
warming that exacerbates the water problem and
reduces the incentive to save water, even though
conservation is usually cheaper. Mr Bromberg
accepts that some desalination is necessary. But
he says it should be a technology of last resort,
not first instance.

Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The
Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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