Thirsty Sea of Galilee sinking toward lowest level ever recorded
Climatic change has impact 'never experienced in history'

Thirsty Sea of Galilee sinking toward lowest level ever recorded

One of the worst droughts for a century has experts researching possibility of pumping desalinated water into the lake

Hikers near the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater lake (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Hikers near the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater lake (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Days before tens of thousands of Israelis descend on the Sea of Galilee for the Sukkot holiday, the Water Authority warned that the freshwater lake is at dangerously low levels and expected to reach “the lowest level ever recorded.”

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, Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor announced on Monday.

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

Over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, more than 40,000 Israelis crowded onto the lake’s beaches. Even more visitors are expected over the week-long Sukkot holiday, which begins Wednesday night. They will be greeted by the smallest lake in Israel’s modern history.

The north must receive at least 85 percent of the winter average rainfall this winter, or the country can expect major streams and water sources to dry up, including the Banias River in the Golan Heights, something that has not occurred since meteorological record-keeping began in the region more than 100 years ago, said Schor. Last year, northern Israel received just 10% of the average winter rain.

“We’re now in a permanent situation of climate change,” said Doron Markel, the director of the Sea of Galilee division at the Water Authority. “This is not a period of, ‘a dry season, and afterwards we’ll have a rainy season.’ It’s not like the times of Pharaoh, where seven years of plenty come before seven years of drought.”

The Sea of Galilee is currently at 214.13 meters (703 feet) below sea level, or 1.10 meters (3.6 feet) below 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.

MK Yael Cohen-Paran (Zionist Union) warned on Monday that the government needs to take a “significant, strategic approach rather than a temporary solution.” Cohen-Paran said northern farmers should be compensated from a special fund for victims of natural disasters that would allow them to update their equipment and fields to more water-savvy farming techniques or crops. “The drought is part of the climate crisis, and we must understand that it is up to us to adapt our water policy to the current conditions,” she said.

Israelis enjoy the beaches of the Sea of Galilee during the Passover holiday, on April 26, 2016. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Markel warned that Israelis, who obsess over the state of the Sea of Galilee to such a degree that the hourly weather updates often include the latest water level, should realize that the water level does not tell the whole story.

In 2001, and 2008, when the Sea of Galilee reached a similar level to today, Israel was still pumping upwards of 300 million cubic meters from the lake for consumption as drinking water and agricultural use. But thanks to the five desalination plants humming along the Mediterranean coast, Israel stopped pumping water directly from the Sea of Galilee two years ago. Approximately 150 million cubic meters is still diverted north of the lake for local use, a rate that has stayed stable for the past 40 years, but no water is taken from the lake itself.

Today, the lake is at the same levels as it was years ago, but without hundreds of thousands of people opening their taps to drink Sea of Galilee water.

The situation has gotten so bad that experts are researching possibilities of pumping desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee. That possibility is still a ways away, because all of the 600 million cubic meters of desalinated water is being consumed. But as Israel increases its desalination abilities, including constructing a sixth desalination plant somewhere between Akko and Nahariya, extra desalinated water will first be pumped north of the Sea of Galilee, so residents and farmers in the area will not have to take water from the lake’s watershed. If that still doesn’t solve the problem, Markel has not ruled out the possibility of a pipe emptying fresh water directly into the lake.

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)

“If the climate continues the way we see it and the course we’re on now becomes our long term situation, then we won’t have a choice but to bring water from the outside,” he said.

Markel noted that aside from the incalculable ecological importance, the Sea of Galilee also has important security value for Israel. “Any failure in the desalination plant may cause a dramatic event of undrinkable water supply in cities, and the Sea of Galilee is the only natural water source which, by pushing one button, you can get water to most of Israel,” he said.

“The bottom line of situation is that we get less rain; there’s been this dramatic change in the rain,” said Markel. “We’re dealing with climatic change and drought levels that we have never experienced in history.”

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