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Brief Scare Spurs Israelis to Heed Their Water Crisis

July 11, 2001|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEA OF GALILEE, Israel — A tap-water pollution scare that left panicky Israelis fighting over bottled water in supermarket aisles Tuesday accomplished what years of doomsday predictions from experts had failed to do: It turned a severe water shortage into front-page news.

Drought and soaring urban consumption have produced such a large gap between supply and demand here that farmers are chopping down banana trees and plowing under vegetables, and water officials have threatened city dwellers with rationing.

But until Monday night, Israelis seemed determined to ignore the shortage, washing their cars, watering their lawns and filling their swimming pools this scorching summer even as reservoirs were being over-pumped.

The magnitude of the crisis hit home, however, when the Health Ministry ordered residents of the heavily populated coastal plain to stop drinking tap water for a few hours because pollutants had entered the nation's water distribution system.

Although the scare wasn't caused by the country's water shortage, Efi Stenzler, the mayor of one of the towns affected, said it reminded everyone that "this resource is gradually becoming extinct."

Maybe now, experts say, Israelis will understand that the crisis is real.

Israelis have "forgotten how to conserve water," Israeli Water Commissioner Shimon Tal said mournfully. "Our water reservoirs are really empty. We have never been in such a situation."

Israel's water problems may make it even more difficult for the nation to achieve peace agreements with its Arab neighbors, experts say. Over the decades, Israel has had water disputes with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and it has insisted that it must continue to control an aquifer that runs under the West Bank even if most of that land was ceded to the Palestinians in a peace accord.

As the nation's demand for water grows, it becomes harder to consider relinquishing control of water resources or sharing water in the framework of a peace treaty. Already, some Israeli water experts are advocating that the government renegotiate its water treaty with Jordan, which requires Israel to provide the kingdom with 14 billion gallons of water from the Sea of Galilee annually. They argue that Israel can no longer afford to keep that commitment.

The shortage also threatens to limit Israel's economic growth and its capacity to absorb Jewish immigrants. It's damaging nature preserves, tourism and recreation.

Yet, until recently, Israeli politicians showed little interest in legislating conservation measures or developing new water supplies.

On July 2, a parliamentary committee began holding hearings on the crisis. Members of the Knesset, as parliament is known, are asking why successive governments ignored the warnings that water experts began issuing a decade ago about the nation's increasingly meager freshwater resources. Some water experts say the committee's work is too little too late to stave off disaster.

Critics say the government still is unwilling to face up to the powerful agriculture lobby and loath to impose stern conservation measures on a public too enamored of its water-wasting lifestyle and too stressed out by car bombings to deal with yet another crisis.

"In Israel," said Doron Merkel, a geochemist working for the Water Commission who oversees the Sea of Galilee's water quality, "you can only move things when you get to catastrophe. Everybody is so concerned about the security situation here that nothing else is important."

For years, ministries squabbled over the best ways to cut consumption but failed to raise heavily subsidized water prices for farmers or cut agriculture's allocation. Successive governments declared it essential that water desalination plants be built so water from the Mediterranean could be used, but they failed to authorize the construction.

Two prime ministers--Ariel Sharon and his predecessor, Ehud Barak--rejected Water Commissioner Tal's plea that they declare a state of emergency and accept his recommendations for cutting consumption.

Now Israel needs a staggering 132 billion gallons more water this year than it can safely pump from its only freshwater lake--the shrinking Sea of Galilee--and its aquifers. Merkel said the Galilee's level has never been lower and that it currently is more than 3 feet below what he and other water experts believe is needed to avoid damaging the lake's ecology.

Already, he said, blooms of blue-green algae have begun to appear in the lake. The water level is so low that the national water company was forced to buy devices abroad to boost the sucking power of its pumps.

Tal is considering lowering water pressure in cities and shutting off supplies to some regions for a few hours each day. Maybe then, he said, Israelis will believe that the crisis is real.

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