Desalination May Save Shrinking Sea of Galilee

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By Matthew Kalman

The Sea of Galilee, where the Bible says Jesus walked on water, is drying up along with the springs and streams that feed it—and Israel is looking to desalination to restore it.

Israel is expected to approve plans in the next two months for two new desalination plants and the expansion of five existing ones to bolster the country’s freshwater supplies, some of which will be used to replenish the sea, Yuval Steinitz, minister of national infrastructure, energy and water resources, told Bloomberg Environment.

The new facilities would double Israel’s annual desalination capacity to about 1.2 billion cubic meters (317 million gallons) by 2030 and, for the first time, earmark supplies for nature preserves, agriculture, threatened springs and streams, and the inland Sea of Galilee.

“We decided that from now on we will build our water system not just in order to take care of people’s needs, but also of nature’s needs,” Steinitz, who came up with the plan to reformulate Israel’s water policy, said. “The current situation in the Sea of Galilee and in our water aquifers is the worst in recorded history.”

The Sea of Galilee, once Israel’s major freshwater source, is 2.5 billion cubic meters (660 billion gallons) below capacity and has dipped below the level where water can safely be pumped from it.

Five years of drought have caused such concern that farmers have joined the agriculture minister and religious leaders for special prayers at the Western Wall, Israel’s holiest site. The price of water has soared in recent years, making crops like wheat uneconomical. Avshalom Vilan, director general of the Israel Farmers’ Association, warned recently that if the drought continues, Israeli farmers may be forced to rethink water-intensive crops like avocados and nuts whose volume has doubled in the past decade

Eighty percent of Israel’s drinking water is produced through desalination, while 95 percent of the water used in agriculture and industry comes from recycling wastewater.

Steinitz said the drought caught Israel by surprise.

“Nobody anticipated that we will have five years of drought in a row. The current situation in the Sea of Galilee and in our water aquifers is the worst in recorded history,” Steinitz said in an interview at his office in Jerusalem April 16. “We don’t have thousands of lakes. We have only one lake, the Sea of Galilee. We cannot lose it because of global warming.”

Reverse Water System

The National Water Carrier, Israel’s largest water project built in the 1960s to transport water from the Sea of Galilee to Israel’s cities, will be reversed to carry desalinated water from the Mediterranean to the north and replenish the shrinking lake, Steinitz said.

“The situation for the north and the Sea of Galilee is scary,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East in Tel Aviv. “Without drastic cuts to agriculture it’s going to continue to deteriorate. It’s in a very precarious state.”

He supports Israel’s plan for the desalination plants, saying it would go a long way to resolving the water shortage.

It also would help Israel meet its agreement to supply about 100 million cubic meters a year of water to Jordan and increase its commitments to provide water to the Palestinians, he said.

“One major concern is the impact on the Mediterranean from tripling the amount of brine,” Bromberg said. “We don’t know the long-term effect” of desalination plants planned in Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece.

“We risk turning the eastern Mediterranean into a Dead Sea,” he said.

Renewables

Like Australia, Israel should commit to generating power for the new plants from renewables instead of fossil fuels, Bromberg said.

An EcoPeace report in November called for a regional approach to foster water and energy security by establishing Jordan as a major power producer based on photovoltaic technology.

“Jordan uses its comparative advantage to be a major exporter of electricity to the region, that green electricity is used by Israel and Palestine for desalination purposes and enables them to meet their water security needs and their energy security needs, and in exchange sell back their water to Jordan,” Bromberg said.

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