Jerusalem, 24 July 2001

Water Commissioner Shimon Tal briefs foreign press
(Communicated by the Government Press Office)

Water Commissioner Shimon Tal on Tuesday, July 24, 2001, briefed members of the foreign press corps on various issues – bilateral and otherwise – related to Israel’s water crisis. Following are excerpts of his remarks:

Today, Israel is passing [through] its deepest and most severe water crisis. This crisis is expressed mainly, by the lowest levels of water in all the main freshwater resources. Water levels are significantly below the red lines which were determined as the water levels under which there is a sincere risk of irreversible deterioration of water quality of the various resources.

I shall not delay to explain the reason why we have reached that point, but I shall only determine that this situation is due to a managerial failure of water business in Israel: infinite disagreements between governmental entities about the solution and an adoption of a rapid policy of water resources management called "marching on the edge" led us to this dangerous and risky situation.

The production of new water resources in the last decade did not catch up with the development of water consumption for all purposes. Life went on and the sequence of several drought years uncovered this weakness.

Last year, the Government of Israel took some essential decisions which enabled us to prepare ourselves for water supply in the future. These decisions will enable us to balance water production and water consumption within three years from now but will leave us with an interim period in which we shall have to live from-hand-to-mouth. During this period, there is a serious risk to the availability of water supply for basic needs, to say nothing of the real possibility of the destruction of water resources and the vanishing of the agricultural use of freshwater.

Now I will say a few words about for what we have to prepare ourselves in the future, let’s say 20 years for now.

The need for freshwater in Israel 20 years from now will be around two billion cubic meters per annum. 8.6 million people will consume around 1.1 billion cubic meters for urban purposes based on a consumption of around 130 cubic meters per person per annum. Freshwater consumption for industrial purposes will be around 150 million cubic meters per annum. Agriculture will have to keep its size but will have to be content with around 500 million cubic meters out of 1.2 million cubic meters a year. Water supply to our neighbors, according to existing agreements and future demand, will be around 200 million cubic meters. This means that we will have to desalinate around 450 million cubic meters, 50 million cubic meters of which will come from the desalination of brackish water, the rest will come from the desalination of sea water.

Israel will have to deal with more than 800 million cubic meters of domestic and industrial sewage effluents, including a certain amount coming from the West Bank. Most of the sewage effluents will be reused in adequate quality for agricultural purposes. We shall have to be sure that the sewage effluents will not do any harm to the soil or the crops, and will not damage groundwater and cause environmental nuisances. The rest of the sewage effluents will be reused for urban purposes, gardening, industry, etc.

If we take into account the marginal cost of fresh water in the area of sea water desalination, many of these activities will prove to be economical. Efficient utilization of water resources and the recycling of water will create a situation in which around 1,000 tons of salt accumulate on the west basin of Israel, raising the concentration of salt in water resources. Most of the human activity is being done on the burnt area of water resources. A large part of the coastal aquifer is already being contaminated by industrial activity. The diminution of the salt concentration in drinking water and the removal of ground entering the reused sewage effluents are the needs of the hour. The water business cannot allow itself to lose one of its most important fresh water reservoirs.

As I mentioned before, the Government of Israel recently took some essential decisions in order to assure water supplies for all purposes in the future. I will now specify the main decisions. The desalination of 200 million cubic meters of seawater will take place within the next three years. This is half of the amount of seawater that will have to be desalinated in 2020 in order to balance water resources to the needs. It will be done by several plants. The first plant will be in Ashkelon; it is now under tender. I hope that within the next two months we will have a winner that will construct a 50 million cubic meter plant that will be operational by the second half of 2003.

Mekorot is responsible for a tender issued in Turkey for another plant in Ashdod. A tender that is oriented to receive desalinated water at maximum speed in relatively small plants is being processed today. It is compatible with entrepreneurs that have already authorized locations for sea water desalination plants. Participation in this tender is very active. A search for an additional site for an approximately 50 million cubic meter plant is underway. I hope that a BOT tender will be published. All tenders include an option of expansion. The required quality of the product is relatively high, taking into account the need to reuse sewage effluents after being supplied for domestic use.

The advantage of importing water from Turkey is the relatively high speed with which we can receive fresh water. A tender for the transportation of the water is now proceeding. The import of 50 million cubic meters per annum, which can be done within 12-18 months, depends on the total price of the water.

The Government of Israel allocates hundreds of millions of shekels to encourage the reuse of sewage effluents, mainly for agricultural irrigation by private bodies or by Mekorot. The target is to use every drop of sewage effluents within five years and to develop a supply system capable of delivering 150 million cubic meters. At the same time, a national plant is being prepared for the transportation of surplus effluents to the consumption zones. This plant will take into account the option and the profitability of the advanced treatment of the sewage effluence so as to allow unlimited use of this effluence and to prevent any environmental influences. Brackish water desalination will add around 50 million cubic meters per annum to the potential water resources. Most of the water will be desalinated near Lake Kinneret, in the Carmel coast, the western Galilee and the Har Hanegev area in the south. He construction of additional plants for the removal of salt and nitrates from produced water will increase the flexibility of the water supply system and reusable water but will not add more water to the total potential.

Water saving in all sectors in general, and in the urban sector in particular, is the most important measure which can be taken in the interim period up to the operation of all the new plants. By taking appropriate moves, water savings should become a way of life in Israel. Saved water is the cheapest form to produce. By taking all these steps, after a long period of deadlock, the Government of Israel will be able to secure water supplies in the future. For the time being, Israel will have to reduce water consumption in order to lower the risk of water resources destruction and assure the supply of a reasonable amount of water for all consumers. In the next three years, we should move on a very dedicated bridge over stormy waters. All the involved sectors should combine forces in order to get out of this situation. I don’t feel that we have enough cooperation and understanding of the situation from all sectors. The way down is very short and the result can be destructive. This is what is happening with the water supply in Israel.

Now, with your permission, I will say a few words about water as a strategic resource in this region and I will raise some key points that can explain what should be done.

First of all, we have to remember that the origin of a large part of the water resources in Israel is from outside flows. For example, two-thirds of the watershed area of Lake Kinneret is in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights. The catchment basin of the mountain aquifer is on the West Bank. The region is thirsty for water. I think that every excess drop of water is being used now.

In Jordan, the situation is at least as severe as it is in Israel. There is a restriction of water supply to agriculture and urban consumption. In Amman, water is available for only ten hours a week.

Global warming has an influence on water potential in this region but we cannot yet estimate its size. This influence at the edge of the desert may be significant.

In the Gaza Strip and West Bank, drinking water is supplied by tankers in some places. The existence of illegal connections in some areas prevents as much as 40% of the total flow from reaching consumers. There is a need for drastic solutions for additional water resources on a large scale. I think that this is very important that we should understand that Israel has already understood that we must produce water in bog quantities and I think that the desalination of hundreds of millions of cubic meters is very important. I think that the solution for the entire region must be the same solution.

We have to take into account the vicinity of this area to the sea. This fact is a significant advantage. There is a possibility for combined solutions, and mutual desalination plants and water imports. We must take into account the cost of new water production. At least for our neighbors’ point-of-view, there is a need for international support.

Finally, although we are short of water in this region, I don’t think that water should be a reason for struggle. We have many other reasons to struggle about. Negotiation about water will go on with Jordan and the Palestinians even in bad moments. The poor situation of water resources does not affect the fulfillment of water agreements.