Israel has always suffered from water deficiency, a fact which has fuelled research and development in the field, and brought about a national practice of education regarding water conservation and advanced water management methods. Today, water management has been transferred to water corporations and the water economy is now based on desalination. Water prices have increased, but so has the reliability of the water supply. Overseeing the move is the Water Authority – an interview.
Meir Shalev is an Israeli author whose books have been translated to 20 languages – bestsellers both in Israel and overseas. He tells how at the beginning of his IDF training, his staff sergeant noticed him in the shower and immediately knew that he was from Jerusalem. “I wondered what it was about my naked body that gave me away” says Shalev, smiling, “but the sergeant immediately solved the mystery, saying I was the only one who turned off the taps while soaping”.
Shalev’s story reflects the approach many Jerusalemites have toward water. During the establishment of the country and the Six Day War, during many years’ in a siege situation, Jerusalem’s inhabitants were forced to turn to pumping water. It thus became internalized in the mind of the nation that water is a valuable commodity which requires conservation – a mind-set which has been passed on to succeeding generations.
In fact, the Israeli population in its entirety is no stranger to drought and water deficiency, and ever since its establishment has been educated in ways to conserve water. Over the past few years, the national water economy has gone through a dramatic upheaval, moving towards an economy based on desalination – handing water corporations the responsibility of water management.
Leading this transition is the Water Authority, the country’s regulator in the water field, responsible for overseeing the water corporations’ activities, but subordinate to the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources. “We need to continuously initiate educational activities – so that efficient usage and conservation become a way of life and not a temporary means to an end”, explains Ori Shor, spokesman for the Water Authority.
It should be noted that to date, the Water Authority has managed other wide scale water conservation campaigns over the years. The most recent campaign commenced in mid-2008, after a number of consecutive arid years resulted in all water sources going below their red lines. The slogan “Israel is drying up” was repeatedly broadcast via all media channels, in order to convey this message to all sectors of the population, of all ages, with significant results: The household and municipal consumption rate decreased by 18.5% on average.
Consumption decreased but prices increased, due to the transition from an Israeli water economy relying on water pumping (mainly from the Sea of Galilee) to an economy based on desalination, which entails much higher costs – a fact that initially caused public outrage. Once again, explanatory, educational measures were necessary.
“Three years ago there was a reform in the water prices, and as opposed to the past, when water was subsidized by the government, it was decided that that price of water should reflect its cost” explains Mr. Shor. And despite the feeling amongst a large majority of the public that water prices in Israel were extremely expensive, according to Mr. Shor “when you compare water prices, the result is that today, after the reforms in water and sewage, we find ourselves in a good position relative to what’s happening in the rest of the world. There are many countries with much more water than we have, yet their water prices are higher – places such as Sweden, France, England, Belgium, Finland and Denmark”.
Along with the transition to an economy based on desalination, there has recently been a move towards assigning water management to designated corporations. “Beforehand, mayors lacked the motivation to invest in water and sewage infrastructure, and preferred investing in tangible, short-term projects – in the here and now. Due to this negligence, infrastructure reached an extremely low point. If we merely take Tel Aviv as an example, we can see that in the past year and a half alone, a main water pipe burst 3 times on Rokach Street, which caused traffic jams across more than half of the Gush Dan area. The pipe that burst was 65 years old, but the standard lifespan of this type of pipe is only 30 years. And we’re talking about a wealthy municipality, so it’s fairly easy to see the approach less powerful municipalities have taken. As soon as the responsibility was transferred to the water corporations, the level of payment increased but the public slowly started to understand that this was a preferable practice – and this is also true of people from less affluent areas. Nowadays, people no longer suffer from Mekorot’s water disconnections which were due to payment issues and no longer experience sewage flowing in the streets. From the very moment water management was transferred to the corporations, they increased the amount of investment in water and sewage infrastructures by 300% on average, and they guarantee reliability in supply”, concludes Mr. Shor.