How bad does the water situation have to become before the government finally takes serious action?

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, July 5, 2001

JERUSALEM - Every few days, at the end of the nightly newscast on Channel One, its chief meteorologist Sharon Wexler wraps up her weather forecast with a colourful illustration updating the situation of Lake Kinneret. The drawing's style is always playful but the message is not. Like some ominous metaphor for the current state of the nation, Israel's main source of fresh water is cause for growing alarm.

Even before the summer began, the Kinneret was a shadow of its former self. Three years of severe drought and minimal rainfall have taken their toll. The result is a sad, disturbing sight. The shoreline has receded drastically and it's anyone's guess how much more of the lake will disappear over the next several months. As things stand now, the Kinneret's water level - like that of many of Israel's underground reservoirs and coastal aquifers - is already well below the emergency so-called red line, with the next rain not expected until October.

The country may be facing its worst water crisis ever but you'd barely know it from looking. Apathetic Israelis continue their routine with nary a worry for how much H2o they use. Everywhere you go, you see people washing their cars, watering their gardens, hosing down sidewalks. Local authorities are still planting water-guzzling plants and flowerbeds while operating sprinklers in the middle of the day in parks and at other sites as if Israel were located in Canada. At the same time, the country's agricultural sector persists in growing crops that require a disproportionately huge amount of water, heavily subsidized by the government.

A couple of weeks ago, both the National Infrastructure Minister and the Water Commissioner issued instructions to all local authorities nationwide to reduce water consumption by 15 percent or face the threat of disruptions in supplies of fresh water. This followed a report that most towns and cities had failed to meet water saving targets that they had agreed to last year. The Water Commission's figures showed that urban consumption of water in May was identical to a year earlier despite repeated calls to conserve every drop. Water specialists charged both local authorities and the public with indifference bordering on irresponsibility.

Admittedly, the armed conflict with the Palestinians hasn't helped matters much. Since the violence erupted last fall, it has dominated the public agenda deflecting attention from other pressing issues like the water crisis. Still, that's no reason for the country to be caught so ill prepared for a calamity that is anything but a surprise.

The signs have long been apparent for all to see. In recent years, in true Israeli style, the problem has been discussed, debated, deliberated, dissected - and dismissed until a later date by government officials. Today, the country is paying a hefty price for such shortsightedness and bureaucratic inertia. It's this same approach that has led to other major problems in the country's transportation, public health and education systems.

As if the declining quantity of Israel's already modest water resources was not worrisome enough, experts say its quality is no less reason for concern. In the absence of tough environmental action against industrial pollution, the state of the country's drinking water is steadily deteriorating and now represents a ticking time bomb for the nation's health.

Agreed, Israel's hydrology situation is not simple due to the country's climate, lack of natural fresh water bodies, growing population and increased standard of living. Yet, many available solutions could go a long way to alleviating the problem if only the political will and budget were there to fully implement them.

Piece-meal measures will no longer cut it. Importing water in ships from Turkey, as planned, is at best only a temporary, partial solution. Its potential for problems is considerable.

Water must become a top national priority supported by a multi-billion dollar policy of massive desalination plants, strict rationing, public education and better conservation and allocation of the country's limited water resources. Anything less is an irresponsible dereliction of duty by the government that will endanger present and future generations.

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