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More water conservation efforts needed, say experts

A fountain in Jerusalem. Water experts say the country's water shortage is the result of overuse.
(Shabtai Gold/IRIN)

With the rainy season in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory nearly over, water experts are concerned that after the dry summer months there may be a serious water shortage, especially if conservation efforts are not stepped up.

Population growth, rising levels of consumption and below average rainfall in some areas in recent years threaten to cause increasing problems, experts say.

According to Eli Ronen of Israel's national water company Mekorot, this winter was the fifth relatively dry year in a row, with only about 60 percent of the expected amount of rain in certain parts of the country so far.

The company sells to the Palestinians about 55 percent of the water consumed in the West Bank and also exports water to Jordan. It is unclear if these services will be affected.

Ayman Rabi from the Palestinian Hydrology Group, a non-governmental organisation, said certain West Bank areas like Hebron had been hard hit by lack of rainfall. "Already the Palestinians receive less water than is needed," Rabi told IRIN. "In the best case scenarios, in urban areas, we receive 50 litres per capita per day."

According to the Israeli non-governmental organisation Btselem there is a huge gulf in water consumption levels between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel has capped the amount of water sold to Palestinians and the Civil Administration requires Palestinians in Area C, under full Israeli control after the Oslo Accords, to obtain permits to dig wells. Sometimes "illegal" wells are destroyed, forcing Palestinians to use expensive water tankers.

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Desalination plants the answer?

Mekorot's Ronen reckoned the overall water deficit was growing and reaching levels which would make it hard to replenish quickly.

"We are getting closer and closer to the red lines that we have never reached in the past," he told IRIN, saying education for conservation among the general public, along with better usage of treated water, was needed.

A solution proposed by some is the building of more desalination plants, though there are environmental impacts.

One study, which said 60 percent of the world's 7,500 desalination plants are in the Middle East, indicated that the impacts included: discharge of chemical waste, such as chlorine; discharge of an unnaturally concentrated brine solution potentially affecting marine life; raised seawater temperatures near the plant's outlet; the conversion of recreational coastal areas into noisy industrial zones. Desalination plants also require large amounts of electricity.

Conservation

A recent unsigned editorial in Israel's Haaretz newspaper called on the government "to go beyond managing supply and to start overseeing demand as well, by promoting water conservation".


Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
A sprinkler system in Jerusalem is on during the day. Conservation specialists say this will have to stop, as it wastes water

It suggested stricter enforcement of regulations on water use, granting incentives to use water-saving devices, and changes to Israel's agricultural sector which currently receives subsidised water.

"The water problem is our own doing," said Peretz Dar, a water expert who has advised the Israeli government in the past. While rainfall is somewhat low, the shortage was the result of overuse.

"By end of summer, the Sea of Galilee will be very close to the point where we cannot pump water any more," said Ronen, referring to a prime source for the company, along with the coastal and mountain aquifers.

Falling water levels in the aquifers are expected to diminish water quality, especially if the coastal aquifers drop low enough to allow in sea water.

Gaza

In the Gaza Strip this has already happened. The amount extracted from the aquifers annually exceeds the amount replenished by about 40 percent, causing harmful sea intrusion.

"According to international standards, drinking water is allowed to contain up to 250mg of chloride. In Gaza, 75 percent of the water has 600mg per litre or higher," Rebhi al-Sheikh, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) in Gaza, told IRIN, adding that it can also contain six or seven times the accepted level of nitrates.


Photo: Wissam Nassar/IRIN
A point near the Beach refugee camp in Gaza where sewage, either partially treated or not at all, runs into the sea


The chloride comes from seawater intrusion into aquifers, while the nitrates come mainly from agricultural fertilizers. The dumping of sewage poses additional risks to groundwater.

In the impoverished enclave, which has lost out on development projects because of the Israeli import and movement restrictions, many people cannot afford to buy bottled or treated water. Instead, they drink well water - piped to homes by the municipality in some cases - though some 75 percent of it is polluted, according to the Palestinian Water Authority.

Gaza has also been hit by the lack of rainfall: While the annual average for the enclave is about 325mm of rainfall, this year only about 225mm has fallen so far, according to the PWA.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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