July 21, 2000

Years of drought and a drop in the Sea of Galilee to 212.5m below sea level have forced Israel to consider importing water from Turkey.

When water is pumped out of the Sea of Galilee for public, private or agricultural use, the water table drops. If it drops below a certain "red line", salty water begins to creep into aquifers.

Desalination plants, reduced water allocation for farming and bans on irrigation for household gardening have been considered.

But very little has been done for decades, according to a leading water expert. Dan Zaslavsky, a former water commissioner and professor emeritus at the Technion-Institute of Technology in Haifa, said the impending "water crisis" could happen not because of a lack of technology, but because of bad management.

Professor Zaslavsky said Israel's water problem was the result of a number of factors, including overpumping; pollution, including sewage and garbage; and "relations with our neighbours" - Israel shares the aquifers with Palestine.

"It will be faster to desalinate existing brackish water or divert sewage water for irrigation (than to import water from Turkey). (Importing) it will cost three times as much as brackish water desalination," said Professor Zaslavsky. He said that long-term solutions include a master plan for water, to be started immediately.

Hillel Shuval, a professor of environmental science at the Hebrew University's School of Applied Science, agreed that the government lacks a national plan for water.

He said: "Israel has tremendous resources of drinking water in the agricultural sector - 40 per cent of water goes to the urban sector; 60 per cent of drinking-quality water is allocated to agriculture. We do not have an imminent shortage of drinking water for the cities.

"Recent scare stories that the taps of Tel Aviv would run dry were motivated by groups such as Mekorot (the national water company) interested in creating an atmosphere of panic to stimulate the building of desalination plants," he claimed.

Professor Shuval said the Treasury and water scientists were worried about Mekorot's monopoly and prefer to put the desalination plants out to international tender.

"The first step is to charge the farmers the full price for water - and end the subsidy to them. It's not right that 3 per cent of the population should use 60 per cent of the water."

Helena Flusfeder

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