Desalination isn’t the magic bullet, Water Authority warns Israelis

In the 5th year of a devastating drought, new campaign reminds Israelis to save water even though the country is no longer dependent on the rains

Actress Renana Raz in the latest Water Authority public service announcements encouraging Israelis to save water, released on May 22, 2018. (YouTube screenshot)
Actress Renana Raz in the latest Water Authority public service announcements encouraging Israelis to save water, released on May 22, 2018. (YouTube screenshot)

As the international community marks the UN’s World Environment Day on Tuesday, the Israel Water Authority has a pointed message for Israeli residents: You still have to save water, even if we have desalination plants.

Over the past weeks, the Water Authority unveiled a large public service campaign entitled “Israel is drying out… again,” aimed at reminding Israelis that saving water at home is still important, even though 70% of the country’s drinking water comes from desalination plants.

“The water situation in the north is the worst since we first began taking measurements [98 years ago],” said Uri Schor, the spokesman for the Water Authority. “We’re seeing that climate change is wreaking incredible damage. There’s an increasing gap between our water needs and the reality of the water we have.”

“I’m back, because of the drought,” actress Renana Raz, who has done previous service announcements for the Water Authority, says in the commercial. “Desalination isn’t enough. After five years of drought, we’ve pumped everything that we can.”

Northern Israel is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 100 years, leaving the country’s water tables with a deficit of 2.5 billion cubic liters of water, compared to non-drought years.

That deficit is the equivalent of one million Olympic-size swimming pools, water that would normally flow through Israel’s streams and underground water tables towards the Sea of Galilee and other water sources.

The Sea of Galilee is currently at 213.46 meters (689 feet) below sea level, half a meter below the danger zone of the lower red line. In 2001, the Sea of Galilee was at an even lower level, 214.87 meters (705 feet) below sea level, which was christened as the lake’s “black line.”

The black line is a dangerously low level that can create irreversible ecological problems, including an increase in the water’s salinity and algae blooms that can do permanent damage to the water quality, and flora and fauna. Last year, the Water Authority had to pump 17,000 tons of salt out of the Sea of Galilee to ensure that the lower water levels didn’t cause the water to get too salty.

In this Saturday, September 16, 2017, file photo, swimmers participate in the annual Sea of Galilee swim, the oldest and most popular swimming event, near Tiberias, northern Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Schor said the Water Authority is taking a two-pronged approach towards dealing with the water shortage. They are in the process of building two new desalination plants in the western Galilee, which will take a few years. At the same time, they are also working to reduce water consumption in Israel, by lowering water allocations for farmers and municipalities and educating the public to use less.

Although many find the public service announcements cloying, there’s evidence they work.

Previous water saving campaigns, including a NIS 5 million campaign with a TV announcement featuring some of Israel’s biggest stars like Bar Refaeli and Ninet Tayeb in 2009, reduced home water consumption by 18%. Water consumption stayed low for two years, until the desalination plants came online and leaders started singing the praise of desalination, and Israelis figured their days of water saving were over.

In the past two years, home water consumption has increased by 6-7%. During the same period, the cost of water decreased by 40%.

Home and city water needs account for approximately 70% of Israel’s water needs. Agriculture uses around 20% of the water budget and industry the remaining 10%, but farmers and businesses get their water allocated from the Water Authority based on overall water availability. In times of drought, such as the current situation, the Water Authority lowers water allotments to farmers across the board.

Harvesting of crops, April 21, 2018. (Anat Hermony/FLASH90)

For the Water Authority, private homes are the biggest place to target for water saving education.

Some people expressed doubt that Israelis need to be concerned with saving water in the age of desalination. “We’re giving water freely to our enemies in Gaza, but Israelis they tell to save water,” Harel Noff said in a Facebook video showing himself wasting as much water as possible and taking a bath.

“I think this is a case of the government telling the people not what they want to hear but what they need to hear,” said Professor Alon Tal, the chair of the Department of Public Policy and Tel Aviv University.

“For water, these are the best of times, and these are the worst of times. Desalination has freed us from the intermittent terror of not having water to drink and bathe. But all the natural resources are in peril. In the [Sea of Galilee] we are dancing with disaster. Streams are dry that shouldn’t be dry. It is something we need to be concerned about.”

Bar Refaeli‘s face dries out symbolizing drought, in a public service announcement from 2009 to save water and protect the Sea of Galilee. (YouTube Screenshot)

Tal said the Water Authority is trying to bring people down from the “desalination euphoria” that comes with hosting the world’s leading desalination and water technology.

“Ever since desalination has come on board, personal consumption has increased,” he said. “People did become complacent. For years we sang the gospels of desalination, but that doesn’t hold true if you’re a fish in a stream or a gazelle who drinks water from that stream.”

Taking a shorter shower to save water can’t put water back into the streams. But reducing consumption eases the strain on the entire water economy, and means that the little water left in the streams won’t need to be diverted for human use, said Tal.

Approximately 150 million cubic meters of water is still diverted north of the Sea of Galilee for local use, a rate that has stayed stable for the past 40 years.

Visitors top up their glasses with treated sea water at a desalination plant near Hadera (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
Visitors top up their glasses with treated sea water at a desalination plant near Hadera, Israel. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

In previous years, the Water Authority took as much as 350 million cubic meters of water from the Sea of Galilee. With desalination, that number is down to 30 cubic meters, the minimum possible to ensure the pumps and pipes stay in working order. This should help with the ecological disasters, but the ongoing drought has rendered the Sea of Galilee unable to replenish decimated water tables.

In a sign of desperation, some experts even entertained thoughts about pumping desalinated water straight into the Sea of Galilee, though that will only happen after desalinated water can meet 100% of the country’s water consumption needs.

Tal warned against thinking we live in a “hydrological nirvana” because of the country’s water technology prowess.

Israelis still need to face the facts, he said: The country’s population grows by 1.5 million people every decade and climate change is shortening the rainy season, so there is less water for more people. But as the population continues to swell and climate changes becomes more and more extreme, desalination won’t be able to keep up. It’s also expensive. Current desalination plants produce 600 million cubic meters of drinking water, and cost an estimated NIS 300 million to operate each year, not include construction costs. As more desalination plants go online, that cost will only increase.

A 2005 file photo from the Ashkelon desalination plant. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Schor noted that decreasing home water consumption by 7% is the equivalent of saving 50 million cubic meters of water, or approximately half of a new desalination plant. He recommends the public take small steps, such as being aware of leaking faucets, which can easily waste 60 liters per day. Leaky toilets are the number one water waster in private homes, so leaks should be fixed as soon as possible. Shortening a shower by two minutes can save 40 liters of water.

Due to the ongoing drought, the Water Authority is asking municipalities to wait until next year for planting trees and other projects. “It’s a problem, because this is an election year [for municipalities] which means that everyone wants to plant,” he said. “We call this time the ‘year of the petunias.’”

Alon Tal said he hopes those who doubt there is urgency for conserving water get out of the cities for a bit. “When was the last time they spent time in a natural ecosystem?” he asked. “Anyone who takes a hike into the glorious streams of the Galilee is heartbroken. There is such devastation.”

A swimmer gets ready to enter the Sea of Galilee on September 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

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