The world’s first recorded war over water happened 4,500 years ago near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates between the city-states Umma and Lagash, when the King of Umma drained a canal providing water to Lagash and thereby sparked a battle that left 60 soldiers dead.
Thousands of years later, neighboring states are still fighting over water. Water diplomacy — or lack thereof — has plunged Gaza deeper into a humanitarian crisis. When Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, Syria hastily built more dams along the Yarmouk River, the main tributary that feeds into the Lower Jordan River, punishing Jordan by limiting the amount of water available to it.
But Israeli technology is completely upending the notion that the Middle East must be a fierce battleground for water where countries are forced to fight each other for the precious life-giving resource.
Israel’s domestic needs for water are currently about 2 billion cubic meters of water per year, for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. Two major technological advancements — water desalination and water recycling — account for a billion of those cubic meters. Technology alone has allowed Israel to double the amount of available water in the past two decades.
Now, Israel is in the midst of a NIS 1 billion ($276 million) water infrastructure project to pump desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee, an innovative project that could provide a new model for drought-stricken areas around the world to navigate water challenges, as well as potentially alter the face of water diplomacy at home.
When Israel first built the National Water Carrier between 1953 and 1964, it was the country’s largest, most ambitious, and most expensive infrastructure project. More than 4,000 workers laid a network of pipes that brought water from the Sea of Galilee in the north as far south as the Negev desert, helping to realize the dream of prime minister David Ben-Gurion to make the desert bloom.
But since the first desalination plant started operations in 2005, Israel has needed to pump less and less water from the Sea of Galilee for drinking and agriculture, and today very little water is withdrawn from the freshwater lake. The majority of Israel’s drinking water — some 70 percent — now comes from the coastal desalination plants, especially those in the southern cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon. After 60 years, the need for water to flow from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the rest of the country in the south is more or less gone.
And plans for an intricate system of pumps along the existing pipes will enable Mekorot, the government body that operates the national water carrier, to completely reverse the water direction: Instead of water only flowing from north to south, Mekorot will be able to use the same pipes to pump water from the desalination plants in the south of the country back to its north. Eventually, the desalination plants will be operating at a capacity that will allow Mekorot to pump enough desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee to raise the level of the lake by approximately half a meter.
The Knesset approved the first stage of the project in June 2018, earmarking some NIS 105 million ($30 million) for desalination projects, rehabilitating streams, and laying new pipelines to the Sea of Galilee. “We are turning the Sea of Galilee into a reservoir for desalinated water,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time. “This is innovative and important, at least to the extent that we are doing this, and has not been done until now.”
The project, which is expected to be completed in about four to five years, will mark the first time in the world that a shrinking body of natural water is supplemented with desalinated water. If successful, the plan could have far-ranging consequences for other countries dealing with water scarcity, providing a new model for banking excess water for periods of severe drought.
Crossing the red line
Last year, amid a five-year drought in northern Israel, the water flowing into the Sea of Galilee dropped to its lowest rate in over a century. At the same time, the Water Authority was barely pumping any water out.
In 2001-2002, Israel used 513 million cubic meters of treated water from the Sea of Galilee for homes, farms and business around the country. In 2018-2019, the country used only 25 million cubic meters.
And yet because of the drought, the lake levels were nearly identical in those years.
In 2001, the lake reached an abysmal water level of 214.87 meters (705 feet) below sea level, and scientists dubbed it the lake’s “black line” — a dangerously low point that can create irreversible ecological problems, including an increase in the water’s salinity and algae blooms that can do permanent damage to water quality, and flora and fauna.
In 2017, the Water Authority had to pump 17,000 tons of salt out of the lake to ensure that low levels didn’t cause the water to get too salty.
Climate change means that droughts are becoming more frequent, more severe, and longer-lasting than ever before. On average, Israel currently receives 30% less rain than in previous decades.
Last year, the drought left the country with a deficit of 2.5 billion cubic liters of water, compared to non-drought years. That is the equivalent of one million Olympic-size swimming pools.
In most of the world, a drought of the magnitude that gripped Israel from 2013 to 2018 would mean cutting down the amount of time municipalities supply water. In Amman, residents once used to have water coming out of the tap two days per week, forcing them to scramble to fill massive rooftop water containers and any available receptacle on the days when water was available. But an influx of nearly one million Syrian refugees, combined with a five-year drought, has cut that supply in half: Now, residents have only one day a week to get their fill. In some parts of Bethlehem, the municipality provides water once every two weeks.
Desalination means that Israelis continue to have water whenever they open the tap, though the NIS 5 million public education campaigns from the Water Authority warn that desalination shouldn’t be considered a magic bullet for the region’s water woes, and it is still up to Israelis to conserve water as much as possible.
From north to south, then south to north
Israel is a world leader in recycling wastewater, with approximately 87% of the country’s wastewater treated and recycled, providing vast water resources for farmers. Currently, about 50% of the country’s agriculture grows on treated wastewater, according to EcoPeace, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental organization that advocates for better water policies in the region.
Israel desalinates around 600 million cubic meters of water per year at five desalination plants. This, together with the recycled wastewater, means that technology is responsible for approximately a billion cubic meters of water yearly — 50% of Israel’s domestic needs. Two more plants are being built.
Israel’s water infrastructure overhaul will give Mekorot complete control to change the direction of the National Water Carrier by pushing a few buttons.
When someone turns on the tap in their kitchen, the water that comes out is a constantly changing ratio of desalinated water, ground water, and treated surface water. A person living near Ashkelon will likely get a higher ratio of desalinated water, whereas someone in Jerusalem is more likely to get a higher ratio of groundwater from the mountain aquifers (though that’s not always the case).
Water treatment process engineer Yoav Barkay Arbel said that despite the NIS 1 billion price tag, the process of changing the direction of the water carrier is fairly straightforward.
“You close a valve here, you turn on a pump there,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. The National Water Carrier can currently switch direction, albeit at limited capacity. If water is flowing at full capacity, it can go from the southern-most point to the northernmost point, or vice versa, in two to three hours.
In order to allow enough water the reach the north to fill all domestic consumption needs and then have water left over to put in the Sea of Galilee, Mekorot will need to build more pumping stations. Around NIS 700 million ($195 million) worth of new pumping stations, to be exact. And laying approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) of new pipes from the Eshkol water treatment plant in northern Israel to the Sea of Galilee will cost around NIS 300 million ($83 million), putting the total overhaul costs at around NIS 1 billion ($277 million).
When two additional desalination plants now in the planning stages come online, Mekorot plans to pump 100 to 120 million cubic meters of water from plants directly to the Sea of Galilee. “One centimeter of the [water level of the] Sea of Galilee is 1.5 million cubic meters, so it could increase the height by half a meter,” said Arbel.
During the summer months, the Sea of Galilee evaporates at the rate of approximately one centimeter per day, according to Water Authority spokesman Uri Schorr.
“This plan won’t fill the Sea of Galilee, but it will prevent it from hitting the black line,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli co-director of EcoPeace.
The non-rainy day fund
Droughts fueled by climate change are forcing scientists to rethink the way Israel manages its water safety net.
“Now that our winters are about two-thirds of the average rainfall, you don’t get enough recharge to replenish what is drawn on during the summer,” said Prof. Jack Gilron, the head of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at Ben Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.
The plan to pump desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee will allow Israel to treat the freshwater lake as a sort of savings account for especially dry years, Gilron said. It is cheaper to store excess desalinated water there than anywhere else.
Officials say that at the height of summer, when Israel uses the most water, Mekorot will be able to take out water from the Sea of Galilee without fear of reaching the black line. This could save Israel from having to build additional desalination plants to meet the high-demand periods, plants that would not be needed the rest of the year. The country has run into difficulty finding places to build new desalination plants, due to local opposition from residents angry over losing their beach access.
“In the winter, desalination [production] is greater than what’s needed,” said Gilron. “What they did in the past is they simply stopped desalinating when electricity rates were high. That would have been fine if all aquifers and lakes were filled to capacity, but they weren’t.” A series of dry winters meant the lake kept dropping lower and lower each summer. “This is a proven practice: exploiting your capacity to build up your buffer for a non-rainy day,” said Gilron.
It can be problematic to mix different bodies of water, especially two different kinds of saltwater. The Red Sea-Dead Sea Water conveyance canal includes a plan to transport brine from a desalination plant in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba to the Dead Sea. But scientists are worried about what will happen when Red Sea brine water mixes with Dead Sea water. Although both are saline water sources, differing levels of minerals could be problematic for the Dead Sea’s delicate ecosystem.
The problem posed by mixing two different types of water is much less pronounced in freshwater sources. On a chemical level, mixing desalinated water with fresh water in the Sea of Galilee is not problematic, as long as the desalinated water accounts for less than a third of the overall lake, Gilron said. The current plan of a maximum of 120 million cubic meters per year will be a fraction of the lake’s composition.
Gilron added that this plan to store desalinated water in a surface lake could be a model for other arid countries. Some countries are already doing this to a limited extent, but not at the level that Israel plans in the coming years.
Perth, Australia, has a “groundwater replenishment” program whereby treated wastewater is injected into a underground aquifer. Israel could also inject desalinated water into a underground aquifer, but it requires much more energy to inject the water deep into the ground. Perth also stores desalinated water in man-made dams, but not in naturally occurring lakes like the Sea of Galilee.
All this is not to say that desalination is the be-all and end-all solution: There are some drawbacks.
The Middle East is a leader in desalination, with more than 70% of the world’s desalinated water being produced in the region. The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain, produce the majority of it.
Scientists are still working to understand the effects of brine, the salty byproduct of desalinated water, which is injected back out to sea. Because the Persian Gulf is much smaller than the Mediterranean Sea, the impact of the brine is felt sooner in Gulf states. For every liter of desalinated water created, the process creates 1.5 liters of brine. Since the Persian Gulf is also fairly shallow, with its deepest point around 100 meters (328 feet), this has led to some concern that the brine could have an effect on marine life or lead to coral bleaching.
Another problem is that desalinated water is not cheap. In Israel, desalinated water costs about NIS 2 ($0.55) per cubic meter to produce. Water from the Sea of Galilee, by contrast, costs about NIS 0.30 ($0.08) per cubic meter to treat. “The main cost of water is the energy for transportation,” said Mekorot engineer Arbel. The farther the water must travel, the more expensive it is.
That is why other areas of the world should concentrate on water recycling before desalination, said Bromberg. Water recycling increases the overall amount of water available in a process that is cheaper than desalination. But because Israel already recycles the majority of its wastewater, desalination was the logical next step.
Neighbor, can you spare a glass of water?
Pumping desalinated water in the Sea of Galilee could have consequences that reach beyond Israel’s borders, including water-starved neighbors. “Right now, Jordan gets 55 million cubic meters of water [from the Sea of Galilee] in the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty,” said Bromberg. Water diplomacy and cooperation was a major part of the 1994 peace treaty.
By easing the overall strain on the Sea of Galilee, Israel could increase the amount of water it sends to Jordan, Bromberg said, as a goodwill gesture or as a bargaining chip in negotiations for other issues. “In Israel, technology brings us water security, but water security does not equal national security,” he said. “If your neighbor is suffering from water insecurity, that threatens your security as well. In an interconnected world, your own water security is not enough. We need to guarantee water security in Jordan, so it remains stable. Cooperation on water is not an issue of generosity, it’s a national security necessity.”
Despite the growing droughts from climate change and a steadily growing population in an arid region, the water crisis in the region is solvable, said Bromberg. There is, surprisingly, enough to go around.
Bromberg criticized political leaders who take an “all or nothing” approach to peace, refusing to find solutions to some of the solvable, smaller problems that could vastly improve quality of life for people on all sides of the conflict.
“All the Republican and Democratic administrations want the prize of striking the final peace agreement,” said Bromberg. In 2017, there was a glimmer of hope for water issues, when Donald Trump’s envoy to the Mideast, Jason Greenblatt, brokered a water-sharing agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But when USAID canceled $200 million of funding for all Palestinian projects, most of the agreement ground to a halt.
“Moving forward on what we can now is much more realistic,” Bromberg said. “We at EcoPeace believes in a two-state solution, but the ‘all or nothing’ for the peace process hasn’t worked for over 25 years.”
“The attitude is we must get something in return [for any negotiations],” said Bromberg. “You could avoid the crisis in Gaza, increase cooperation, build trust, but there are actors on all sides that don’t want people to build trust.”
“There is no reason for Gaza to be in a water crisis,” said Bromberg. “The assumption that there is only a limited amount of natural water is no longer relevant. There is only good that can come from solving water issues.”