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Water In the Middle East Conflict

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Water - The Past Is the Key to the Future

The Water Resources of Israel

 Past, Present, and Future

 A comprehensive outline


Arie S. Issar


Professor Emeritus

Department of Environmental Hydrology & Microbiology.

J. Blaustein Institute for Desert Research

Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Sede Boker Campus 84990  ISRAEL.

 A review prepared for The Palestinian Center for Regional Studies (PCRS)

April 2000.

  Click Here For Figures

 I. Introduction:


A reliable and sufficient supply of water is a precondition for achieving a high standard of living and education, not to speak of freedom from hunger and exigency. Such a supply enables the development of modern industry and agriculture. This scenario of evolution involves the development of the material and virtual structure of various systems of services, to the shift of folk from agriculture to industry and services, and thus to the development of urban centers reaching the levels of a megalopolis. This self-stimulating, perpetually evolving way of life also has its adverse aspects, as it may bring to non-sustainable development of the natural water resources, surface as well as ground water. This by the lowering of the water table which may bring to the invasion of seawater or brines. The need to use fertilizers, pesticides, and the disposal of sewage brings to the pollution of the water resources. Hence the need to focus on the management of water resources which will be discussed later on.

By complying with the fact that development of modern agriculture, industrialization and high standard of living, which means higher per capita water demand, is unavoidable, the question is whether the pollution and non sustainable development of ground water can be eluded.  This question, as a matter of fact, is already answered by the facts of life; namely that in many developed countries groundwater resources are over exploited and polluted.  While it is not proposed to give up the effort of avoiding these processes, it is suggested to start from the conclusion that total avoidance is a wonderful idea, but in the land of  Utopia. This brings us to concentrate on the question of how can we keep it under control to the level that in the first place we can live with it? And in the second place get the maximum benefit out of it?  In other words, how can we mitigate the influence of the negative processes, and even change them into positive ones, from the economic as well as environmental aspects.  It is suggested to concentrate on the case of the development of the water resources of Israel, as a case study.

            This is suggested to be carried out within the framework of the general conclusions of my research carried out by Issar for the International Hydrological Program (IHP) of UNESCO, on the impact of climate changes on the history of the Middle East. This research was aimed to evaluate the future impact of the “Greenhouse Effect” in general, and on the Middle East in particular. The principium at the background of this research was ‘’The past is the key to the future”.  Thus, in order to know the past, time series of proxy-data, like environmental isotopes (13C/12C, 18O/16O, H/D), pollen, sea and lake levels etc. were investigated. The results were correlated with historical data, which led to the conclusion that in the case of global warming, the Mediterranean region will become drier. This will involve the movement northward of the westerlies belt, while in the same time the Sahara belt will move northwards. Thus lower rates of precipitation and longer periods of droughts are the forecast for the countries bordering the Mediterranean, especially those in its southern domain. The tropical areas will become, most probably, more humid benefiting the rivers, like the Nile, emerging from these areas (Issar 1995b).

The question is how the people of this region are going to cope with the results of this forecast for a foreboding regional future scenario? Are they going to fight over the diminishing water resources, or try and find a way to collaborate and solve the regional problem of water scarcity?

 II. History of Water Development in Israel in a Nutshell.

            Applying the philosophy of ‘’The past is the key to the future” to the particular case of the history of the development of the water resources of Israel, one can say that a few lessons can be drawn with regard to the future. It is beyond the scope of the present paper to describe in detail this history. Yet, I will try to highlight the basic issues and describe the achievements, failures as well as the problems, which still have to be solved. This trial is made while adhering to the optimistic forecast for a true and lasting peace in this region. This will comprise a brief and general account on the solutions suggested by TAHAL (Water Planning for Israel) the former national planning agency of the government, as well as those proposed by myself.

Israel as can be seen on the meteorological map has abundant rain in its northern part, while land resources are rather limited there. On the other hand it has a relative abundance of land in the south where precipitation is low. Thus one of the first endeavors the Government of the State of Israel undertook, immediately after it was established, was to reduce the natural water deficiency in its southern part. This was done, during the fifties, by planning and constructing the National Water Carrier. At the same time the National Water Law was adopted (1959) which declared that “All Water Resources in the country are public domain, are under the ownership of the state and are for the benefit of the people and the development of the country”[1]. The law also established the post of a Water Commissioner, and gave him the authority to affect the law and to survey and control the quantity and quality of the water to be used. The law recognized the existing ownership of private people and organizations, before the law was approved, and allowed them to use the quantities they were already using. It also established the regulations according to which the water will be distributed to the various consumers and the tariffs they will pay. The Water Commissioner in consultation with the financial committee of the Knesset decides the prices, which each sector in each part of the country has to pay.

The construction of the National Water Carrier was done in two stages. In the first one a pipeline carried the water from The Rosh Aayin ( Ras El Ein ) springs, east of Tel Aviv, to the south, by the East Yarkon pipeline. Later on the carrier bringing the water from the Sea of Galilee arrived and was connected to this line as well as to the West Yarkon-Negev pipeline, which was built simultaneously. In the same time a drive to develop the groundwater resources took place. In the first place an effort was concentrated in the foothill central part of the country in order to be able to control the flow of Rosh Haayin springs. This enabled to pump more water during summer months when the demand is at its maximum, and in the same time to produce empty storage to be recharged during winter. Another drilling and pumping effort was carried out in the Coastal plain. This was accompanied by a thorough geological and hydrological investigation, which encompassed the drilling of observation wells every square of 4X4 km. This was done with the support of the US Aid Program. The preliminary results of these investigations all over the Central Coastal Plain enabled the increase of the number of wells and the rate of pumping in this area. This enabled the augmentation of the water supply, due to the expansion of the population, as a result of the mass immigration to Israel during the fifties.  This over pumping caused the lowering of the ground water table and the reduction of the flow to the sea. In some areas this was overdone, which brought to the invasion of the seawater interface.

Drilling of exploration deep wells was carried out all over the country. These succeeded to find new well fields in the Galilee, the Jerusalem corridor and the Beer Sheva Plain. In the Northern Negev Plain and the Arava Rift Valley brackish water was found. This and the wish to save water brought the farmers in these regions to collaborate with the irrigation engineers and develop new techniques of irrigation to make irrigation more efficient. It started with the sprinkler method, to which were added automatic controller, in order to enable watering according to the need and also enable irrigation during night hours when evapo-transpiration is minimal. Later the drip irrigation system was developed. It was further developed to become the computerized  “fertigation” system.

            The intensive exploration, pumping and the hydrological research that followed enabled the understanding of the regional hydrogeological conceptual model, as well as its quantification. This could not be achieved without the close cooperation of the different academic, planning and execution institutes. The Geological Survey of Israel and the geological department of the Hebrew University of Israel undertook the geohydrological investigations. The hydrological investigations, including the development of analogical and later computerized models were done by the Department of Civil Engineering of The Technion in Haifa in collaboration with TAHAL (Water Planning for Israel), and the Hydrological Service of the Water Commission, which belonged then to the ministry of Agriculture. Planning on the national scale was done mainly by TAHAL, while he execution of exploration and observation wells, pumping tests etc. was carried out by Mekoroth, with close interaction with the scientific and engineering team.

The geo-hydrological research started with the 3 dimensional mapping of the main aquifers, i.e. the construction of 3D block-diagrams, and the investigation of their hydrological parameters. Simultaneously, hydro-meteorological investigations were carried out in order to establish annual and multi-annual hydrological balance for the various aquifers. These were calibrated by the results, which were obtained from the running of simulations on the hydrological models of the aquifers.  When it came to aquifers, which extend beyond the boundaries of Israel the investigations were based on the interpretation of spring hydrographs, as well as by hydro-meteorological investigation

III. A general look at the hydrogeology of Israel.

IIIa. The Jurassic and Cretaceous limestone aquifers feeding the Jordan River.

The base flow of the Jordan River, which feeds the Sea of Galilee [2] comes from the limestone aquifers of Cretaceous and Jurassic age. The recharge area of these aquifers is in Syria and Lebanon. To this lake also flow the floods coming during the winter from the Galilee region and the Golan Heights. From 1980 to 1985, the mean annual contribution of the Jordan River to the lake was 494 million cubic meters. Surface runoff and wastewater contributed an additional 216 million cubic meters. The rest came from the direct precipitation and from saline springs at the lake bottom. Of the 812 million cubic meters that flowed annually into the lake during this period, 294 million cubic meters were lost to evaporation. About 500 million cubic meters were pumped for human consumptive uses, and 42 were allowed to flow into the southern part of the Jordan River and toward the Dead Sea (Nativ and Issar, 1988).

The limestone aquifers that feed the Jordan are highly permeable, due to the dissolution (karstification) processes. Because of this during abnormally wet years high recharge levels lead to high flow, and the water is not forming a long term storage in the aquifers, to compensate for low recharge during dry years. The present storage site for the water coming form these springs and floods is the Sea of Galilee, but its long-term storage capacity is limited to about 600 million cubic meters. The low-level constraint is due to the existence of saline springs at the bottom of the lake. It is feared that a too low level will bring to the uncontrolled outburst of saline springs at the bottom of the lake[3]. On the other hand a high level in wet years will flood its banks and endanger the city of Tiberias and other settlements along the lake’s banks.


IIIb. The Cenomanian Turonian limestone aquifer (Judea Group) (fig. 1 & 2).

The other limestone aquifer of primary importance is that of the mountainous anticlinorial backbone of the country. This Mountain Aquifer is built of permeable limestone (The Judea Group of Turonian-Cenomanian age). Its permeability like that of the northern aquifer, is a function of dissolution i.e. karstic processes that the limestone has undergone. The water infiltrating flow vertically until it reaches the saturated part of the permeable limestone, from there it flows in a sub-horizontal direction, as ground water, to all directions, north, south, west and east. In many places the water is discharged through small springs due to the formation of local perched water tables on marl layers. These layers, in some areas become thicker and extend over wider areas. In this cases the springs become perennial.

In general the Judea Group is divided lithologically and thus hydrologically into three parts.

1)      The upper most part is built of highly permeable limestones and dolomites (Turonian to Upper Cenomanian age); its average thickness is about 150m.

2)      The middle part is built of semi-permeable marly limestone, chalks and marls (Mid Cenomanian age). Its thickness is about 150m.

3)      The lower part is built mainly of permeable dolomites (Lower Cenomanian to Albian age). Its thickness is about 400m.

(Oil exploration wells have revealed that below these layers there exists a sequence of layers of malrs, sandstones and limestones containing brackish to saline water. It is worthwhile to investigate the possibility of utilizing this water for partial desalination purposes in regions where the disposal of the output brines is possible, without forbidding investment).

In the Galilee where there is a thick sequence of impermeable chalks and clays of Mid Cenomanian age, the aquifer is divided into upper and lower parts. The lower one being, in most areas, under confined conditions. A regional groundwater-divide is located along a line running north south, more or less in the center of the region, along the peak of the regional anticlinorium. This divides the Galilee into two main ground water provinces, one flowing to the west and the other to the east.  The overall flow to the west, discharged mainly by wells and also by springs is about 70 MCM.

The discharge to the east is mainly by springs, the average annual flow of which is about 110 MCM. Another 30 t0 50 MCM are pumped annually. Part of the ground water flow emerges as saline springs, part of it at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee (on the mechanism of salination see: Issar, 1993). The saline springs along the shore are diverted to flow directly to the Jordan River below the lake. The volume is about 20 MCM. This water is planned to be desalinized and delivered to the Jordanians (Hydrological Service 1998)

 In the central part of the country the subdivision is of local nature and this aquifer can be regarded as one hydrological system. All the western flank of the anticlinorium forms the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer. In the foothill regions there is practically no recharge as the limestone is covered by impermeable layers chalks and marls of Senonian to Eocene age (Hashefela Group). In this region the water table is sub-artesian (confined), and rises to a certain level, when the borehole strikes the top of the aquifer. In the past, the aquifer discharged to the west and northwest through the fresh water and brackish springs of Yarkon Taninim. The annual recharge of the Yarkon Taninim system is about 360 million cubic meters. The increase in water pumping from the aquifer reduced the western natural discharge to about 20 MCM of brackish water. 

Due to the high permeability of this aquifer its storage capacity is low. These causes the water table to rise sharply during wet years. Thus after the humid years of 1991-1993 the Yarkon springs renewed their flow. Since then the water table have fallen by 4.5m (Hydrological Survey of Israel).

The part of the Judean Group aquifer east to the ground water divide is flowing towards The Rift Valley. Part of it to the fresh to mostly brackish springs flowing into the Dead Sea. A part flows to the North East to the Beit Shean Valley. It is out of the scope of the present paper to discuss in detail this aquifer, as it is a subject, which still needs intensive investigations and modeling. The quantity that flows to the northeast and east is about 250 MCM (Hydrological Service 1998). The salinity of the springs along the eastern coast of the Dead Sea get their salts, most probably, from the contact with the interface of the Dead Sea water. Thus fresh water may be tapped more to the east, nearer to the ground water divide. This means deep wells and pumping from great depth, which implies non-conventional methods of drilling and pumping. 

IIIc. The Quaternary Coastal Plain aquifer (figs.1, &3).

The third aquifer of importance is the Coastal Plain aquifer. It is built of permeable sandstone rocks. Layers of semi-permeable loam to impermeable clay are sandwiched in-between the sandstone layers, dividing them into sub-aquifers. This subdivision is especially developed in the western part of the coastal plain, where one borehole may go through a few separate sub-aquifers, each having a different water level (sometimes "sub-artesian" i.e. confined) and different quality. Due to this separation the infiltration from the rain falling on the sandstone layers in the western part, as well as polluting solutes, affects only the upper most sub-aquifer. In this part of the Coastal Plain, all along the coast, there are areas in which; due to over pumping and decline of the groundwater table, there is a penetration of the sea interface. This, however, is differentiated according to the position of the hydraulic head in each sub aquifer. The separating layers disappear a few kilometers away from the shoreline towards the east, and the sub aquifers merge together to form one a phreatic system. This causes the water table of the aquifer to be directly fed by the water infiltrating into the subsurface. In general terms one can say that in the central and eastern part of the Coastal Plain the aquifer is one unit, being subdivided only by semi-permeable loams, which retard but do not confine vertical flow. Moreover, these layers, due to their clay content, may act, as filters by absorbing pollutants, like heavy metals.


On the whole the thickest part of the aquifer (about 150m) is along the seashore. Towards the east the aquifer thins out to a few tens of meters. As mentioned already the Coastal Plain aquifer is recharged by the rain falling on its surface and to some extend by floods coming from the mountains. It is also fed by return flow from irrigation and leakage from the sewage systems. The annual natural recharge during 1996/7, which reached this aquifer, is calculated by the Hydrological Service (1998) to reach 242MCM, while the return flow from irrigation reached 57MCM. About 43MCM came from the east, while about 110MCM was recharged artificially. In total about 451MCM were recharged, while 407MCM, were pumped out. About 38MCM were flowing to the sea.

The salinity of the water in this aquifer in Israel is 50% higher today, than it was during the thirties. This is mainly due to the fact that the water in this region was used mainly for irrigation. Nitrates have increased from an average of ten milligrams per liter in the 1930’s to more than 50 milligrams per liter at present. (In nine percent of boreholes, nitrate levels exceed 90 percent.) (Mercado, 1995). (In the part of the Coastal Plain underlying Gaza, the situation is even worse, and approximately 44 percent of the wells show nitrate concentrations higher than 90 milligrams per liter (Melloul and Collin, 1994)). There is practically no recharge from the limestone aquifers lying towards the east. This is due to a thick layer of impermeable rocks, which separates between the limestones and the sandstones. In the southern half of the Coastal Plain its sandstone layers are in contact with semi-permeable chalk layers of Neogene and Paleogene age. In these areas there exists an infiltration of saline water, which contain brackish water. This causes the water in the southeastern part of this aquifer to become brackish (400 to 800 mg/l Cl) and in some area to contain high levels of natural nitrates (30 t0 70 mg/l).  Generally, the ground water flow in the Coastal Plain aquifer is from east to west (from the recharge area on land toward the outlet which is the sea), except in areas of over-pumping, where the massive lowering of the water table have produced cones of depression. In these areas the flow is directed towards the “sinks”.

As the Coastal Plain becomes one of the most densely populated areas in the world, further pollution cannot be avoided. Moreover, the rapid urbanization of this region causes wider and wider parts of it to be covered by impermeable concrete and asphalt, which reduces the natural recharge to this aquifer. At the same time, continued pumping have reduced to a minimum the quantities flowing to the sea while constantly increasing the salinity in the aquifer.


IIId. The Eocene limestone and Chalk aquifers (fig. 1).

Although this aquifer, compared with the Judean Limestone and Coastal Plain aquifers is of minor importance from the quantitative point of view, it is of significant from the qualitative point of view, as its subsurface flow causes salination phenomena in the eastern parts of the Coastal plain aquifer.

In the Galilee as well as in Mount Gilboa it is found in a reef facies (Bar Kochba Limestone). The total annual quantity discharged from this aquifer either by springs or pumping is in the order of magnitude of 100 MCM.

  In the chalk aquifer in the northwestern Negev the salinity may reach 600-10,000 TDS mg/l. The main source of this salinity is ancient residual water trapped in the chalk pores. The groundwater flow is mostly controlled by fractures; some of them developed by solution processes. Pumping tests performed on the wells in the aquifer indicate aquifer transmissivities from 0.01 up to 100 m2/day.

The flow and transport process involves three media.

·  Chalk porous medium. A very high specific yield and extremely low conductivity characterize this medium.

·  Medium of fine fractures (fractures unaffected by karst development, mainly single-layer ones). Low hydraulic conductivity and low specific storage characterize each fine fracture. However a great number of these fractures cause the medium of fine fractures to be of low transmissivity and high specific yield.

·  Medium of karst fractures (fractures enlarged by karst development mainly multi-layer ones). High hydraulic conductivity and high specific storage characterize each karst fracture. However a relatively small number of karst fractures (compared with fine fractures) cause the medium of karst fractures to be of high transmissivity and low specific yield. (Livshits, in preparation)

The salinization of groundwater can be explained as follows:

1.  Ancient residual saline water (TDS up to 35 mg/l) originated in the Eocene or Miocene sea, is trapped in the chalk pores. This water does not participate in the groundwater flow process but contributes salts by diffusion to the fine fractures.

1.      Brackish-saline water occurs in the fine fractures. These fractures do not control the groundwater flow but transport salt from the porous media to the karst fractures.

2.      Recent fresh-brackish water occupies the karst fractures. Most of the groundwater flows through these fractures.

The amount of water and salts, which flow from this aquifer to the Coastal Plain, is now being investigated (Livshits in preparation).


IIIe. Alluvial intermountain valleys.

IIIe.1. The Yizreel Valley (fig. 4)

            The history of this region demonstrates the negative outcome of piling up of measures taken for saving and reclaiming of water in a semi arid region. Each measure by itself was positive and efficient. Yet, the failure to comprehend the function of the whole system from the hydrological and chemical points of view caused to the development of negative processes, which caused the deterioration of soils and water.    

            More than half of the Yizreel Valley was covered by marshes until the 1920's.  Since then, the marshes were drained by an intensive deep drainage system, which kept the groundwater a few meters below the soil surface.  As a result, one of the most fertile basins in Israel was created.  Wells drilled into the alluvial fill of the valley failed to find ample quantities of water. During the thirties deep wells were drilled into the limestone aquifer of the Galilee, building the northern escarpment of the valley where ample water was found. Later more water was found further west in the limestone rocks of Eocene age. Later additional water was added from the National Carrier.

            About 20 years ago, farmers in the valley were offered the use of sewage water from the city of Haifa for irrigation purposes.  This water enabled double cropping system, namely non-irrigated farming of wheat during the winter and irrigated cotton and corn in the summer.  As the supply of treated sewage water is almost constant year round; the local water authorities in the valley had to build more than 60 reservoirs to store the allocated water.  Most of the reservoirs were built along the Kishon river and stream channels in wetlands with deficient natural drainage. Two large reservoirs were constructed across the Kishon River to control and store winter floodwater.  These reservoirs received treated sewage water for final oxidation and other treatments as well as for quality control and operational reservoirs for summer irrigation. 

              A correlation between the location of reservoirs, high groundwater and an increase in soil salinity has become evident since the mid-70's.  Since then, high groundwater and large saline spots have been forcing farmers to abandon large cultivated areas in the vicinity of these storage facilities. Conventional drains failed to diminish the expansion of salinization. A preliminary survey has shown that a semi-confined aquifer exists at the depth of about 10 meters. The working hypothesis suggested by the author and his collab. ( Adar et al.  1991) was that this aquifer is the main cause for the salinization of the system.

                  A more detailed investigation (Adar et al. 1992, Sorek et al. 1992) revealed that indeed such an aquifer extends underneath the valley. Its lateral recharge is from alluvial fans along the foothills of the Nazareth Mountains. It flows into a thin permeable layer, which is 2m. thick, consisting mainly of gravel mixed with sand and gray marls.   This layer was found to be a confined aquifer. It had an artesian pressure, which leaked upward into the covering soil layers.   This head did not allow the upper soil layers to leak downward. Moreover the reservoirs which were built over the natural drainage zones of the valley, obstructed the natural horizontal drainage from the soil.  Furthermore, when storage was full, the reservoirs formed a hydrostatic barrier that prevented natural horizontal flow towards the Kishon River.  As a result, higher artesian pressure was built in the confined aquifer increasing the upward leakage into the soil cover.  The combination of leakage from below, back-flow from irrigation and rainfall combined with obstructed subsurface outlets caused the water to accumulate in the soil.  The combination of heavy clay soil, high water table close to the surface and hot dry weather accelerated the soil evaporation and, hence, the accumulation of salts in the top soil.         


 IIIe.2. The Arava Rift valley

The aquifer in most parts of the valley is built of the Quaternary alluvial fill composed of gravel and sands. In the northern Arava there exists an additional aquifer, namely the Hazeva Formation, of Neogene age. This is built mainly of sands. This aquifer is artesian. The salinity of the ground water in the Arava is different in each sub-basin and depends on the source of recharge and on local salination processes. The range is from 1000 to 10,000 mg/l TDS. The two main sources of recharge are from the floods infiltrating into the alluvial fans and inflow from the Nubian Sandstone aquifer. The annual quantity of recharge is about 50 million, but this is not certain yet, and is still under investigation, in first approximation, based on isotope analysis one can say that about 50% of the water are of fossil origin. The outflow is to the Dead Sea in the north and the Red Sea in the south. The north-south groundwater divide line is at Qa e Saidin or Gav Haarava. Where ground water table gets near to the surface sabkha conditions are formed. This brings to the accumulation of salts at the surface due to capillary action and thus to very saline ground water in the uppermost layers. At bigger depths water of better quality, although brackish, and in confined conditions are found. Israel and Jordan share the alluvial aquifer.

 IIIf.  The Nubian Sandstone aquifer.

 An additional aquifer, of importance mainly for the Negev Desert and Arava Rift Valley, is the Nubian Sandstone aquifer. It underlies central and northern Sinai Desert and extends northward to the Negev Desert. The aquifer is built mainly of sandstones of Lower Cretaceous and Jurassic age (Kurnub Formation). The water it contains is brackish to saline (200 to 1000 mg/l TDS, with up to 500 mg/l SO4). The age of the water is of a few ten thousands years. The general gradient is from south to northeast i.e. from the paleo recharge zone, which are the outcrops of the Nubian sandstone in Sinai to the main outlet, which is the Dead Sea. At some secondary outlets, along the Arava Valley the direction of flow becomes west east. The water is fossil, like the water under the Sahara Desert and parts of Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula; consequently, pumping of water from the aquifer is actually mining a non-renewable resource.

Water is pumped from the upper part of this aquifer for irrigation, mining, and chemical industry. The present annual pumping is about 30 million cubic meters.

 IV. Future plans for water development.

            It is obvious to all the authorities concerned with the future development and management of the water resources of Israel that the potential for the development of new natural water resources is negligible and will come either from surface or fossil water. Thus the partial answer for future demand for household consumption will come from desalination of brackish and seawater, while the supply to answer part of the demand for agriculture will come from reclaimed sewage.  In 1994 about 365 MCM of sewage water was produced in Israel, of which about 309 MCM was treated. From this about 254 MCM have been used. About 136 MCM having been treated to the level allowed for irrigation and was used directly (Klein 1999). The rest was partly recharged into the Coastal Plain aquifer and part flowed to the sea. According to the Hydrological Survey (1998) the quantity of reclaimed sewage recharged into the Coastal Plain aquifer in 1997/8, was 110 MCM. Needless to say that this has affected the quality of water in this aquifer.

The plan for future development of reclaimed sewage prepared by TAHAL in 1997 for the Water Commissioner, forecasts that in the year 2020 about 593 MCM will be available, from which 494 MCM will be directly used to answer part of the agricultural demand.  The rest will be recharged or used for recreation sites, like keeping the flow of rivers etc. The rest of the demand by agriculture reaching 647 MCM will come from natural resources[4]

V. How to cope with the impact of the greenhouse effect.

            A survey of the various water plans for Israel, which were prepared either by TAHAL or those revised by the Water Commissioner experts, as well as those commissioned by the World Bank, show that no consideration have been given to possible scenarios in case the greenhouse effect will materialize.

An investigation has been carried out by Issar (1995b), in the framework of UNESCO's IHP project IIc, under the title of "The impact of climate variations on water management systems and related socio-economic systems". This showed that during all historical periods, the warming up of the climate caused the Levant to become dryer, causing flourishing settlements along the desert margins to become ghost towns (Issar 1990). Thus, the forecast for the future based on the records from the past is rather gloomy.

            Yet, it is claimed that this discouraging prognosis is not mandatory, once water experts of all fields make the effort in order to develop innovative, non-conventional methods of water resources management and use. In other words, it is claimed that the potential of the water resources in the Middle East can still be extenuated, once its inhabitants are willing to invest knowledge and capital in order to develop and share these resources. This, in addition to new methods of water conservation, will bring to more efficient ways of utilization of all resources still available. Sharing of water resources, means that all this has to be done according to a regional holistic plan based on hydrological investigations and economic evaluations, to avoid the danger of overuse which may bring non reversible environmental damage, which looms in the background.

              One can argue, of course that breakthroughs can not be forecasted, and to rely on breakthroughs as a necessity rather than a chance is a too optimistic approach, and is on the brink of faith rather than scientific analysis. The claim of the present author, however, is that in modern methods of management of industrial enterprises, where new innovation is a basic condition for success in a market economy based on competition, modern methods of promotion of ideas bringing breakthroughs have been developed. These include the employment of specialists who have proved their creative and innovative proficiency, their explorations for a breakthrough during brain storming sessions. In such sessions, in the first stage, the reasons causing the stalemate are analyzed and in the second stage unrestrained thoughts regarding solutions are brought forward, followed by an alleviation stage, which produces a short list of only the most practical solutions. These are passed to a group of engineers and economists to investigate their feasibility. At the end a few solutions remain, which are still basically non-conventional, but still feasible from the engineering economical aspects. The most optimal solution is then passed over to the detailed planning.

            In the forthcoming sub-chapters will be presented two new ideas, which have crystallized from brainstorming sessions the author has had with his colleagues at various instances. These are hereby presented in order to promote new directions of solutions for the water problems in the Middle East. Needless to say, that the execution of these ideas will have to be done stage by stage, parallel to the progress of the peace process.  Yet, it is important to proceed with the preparation of a master plan based on new ideas and concepts in order in the first place to eliminate unnecessary obstacles to the peace talks, and in the second place to give negotiators new ways of thought.

            This optimistic attitude is supported, in some way, by a survey of the history of the development of the water resources of Israel. This survey shows that from time to time experts were expressing the opinion that the limited water resources of this area will not be sufficient to supply a new modern agricultural and industrial society. The innovations in all what concerns methods of water development and use, introduced by water engineers, hydro-geologists and agronomists have falsified this prophecy.

            On the other hand it seems that the climate change may have a positive impact on countries influenced by the tropical and sub tropical climatic systems. This is the case of Egypt, which is dependent on the floods of the Nile. This under the condition that precautions are taken in time to reduce the damages inflicted by the floods and to use the water in a positive way.

            In order to pursue this strategy, it is suggested to create a scientific forum, which will excite non-conventional interdisciplinary innovations, in all what relates to the development, management and methods of use of water in relation with the possible impacts of climate changes. This will be carried out through the promotion of brainstorming workshops in which creative scientists and engineers will participate. The discussions and ideas expressed in these meetings will be published, and distributed in order to ferment new ideas, methods and policies. As preliminary and partial contribution to this attitude the following ideas are presented.

 V.a. The development of a new long-term storage reservoir for Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the Coastal Plain aquifer.

            According to various estimates annual agricultural water demand by the year 2020, in Israel and Palestine is expected to reach 1,540 MCM (Bar-El, 1995).  Taking into account that part of it will have to come from reclaimed sewage water, which when fully exploited in both countries may reach 650, and about 900 MCM from natural resources, there will still remain an unsatisfied annual demand of about 400 million MCM for agriculture. All this is said when no major deterioration of the climate is forecasted. Once a pessimistic forecast is adopted, the fall in the natural supply may amount to 25% of the present average amount. This will bring the deficit for agricultural demand to 500 MCM/y

Taking this figure into consideration, one can not escape from the conclusion that water supply from natural resources for irrigation will have to be reduced drastically in by the year 2020 (and even totally cut during spells of dry years that. In the same time, a major part of the urban demand of the Israeli and Palestinian population, will have to be met by the desalination of brackish and of seawater. It is beyond the scope of the present paper to deal with this issue, and as a matter the author's opinion is that any forecast is debatable, as it involves too many variables of political and socio-economic nature. One can only estimate that due to the relative high income per capita in Israel a relative big portion of the supply for the urban sector will have to depend on desalinized water. In the same time the increase of demand for agriculture will be mainly by the Palestinian population and for this purpose the use of reclaimed sewage will increase. Taking these general assumptions into consideration, then the two main problems, which will have to be dealt with, are:

2.      The storage of surplus of water during years when precipitation will be above the average.

3.      The storage of reclaimed sewage during the winter months, when supply exceeds the seasonal demand for irrigation.             

            Examining the various aquifers from the point of view of storage, it seems clear that the greatest potential for further augmentation of storage is in the Coastal Plain. This is due to the fact that the sandstone layers from which this aquifer is built have a high storativity coefficient, due to their high porosity. In the same time the velocity of flow in the sandstones is relatively low due to low permeability coefficient K=1m/d.  Another fact, which has to be taken into consideration is that in the eastern part of the Coastal Plain a large volume of these aquifers is yet unsaturated, and this volume can be recharged and filled up artificially and be utilized for additional storage. The shifting of the recharge and storage areas to the east is a prerequisite in order to meet the future requirements for storage, which should reach about five times more than that of the present. To day this is carried out in a region densely populated and as the demand and cost of land is increasing. Moreover the location of the present subsurface storage field of the treated sewage of the central Coastal Plain (the Shafdan) is at a rather small distance from the sea. This is an area underlain by confining layers, which limits the inflow of the recharged water to the deeper aquifer and thus causes water to flow to the sea. If the proximity to the sea remains, these losses will become even more pronounced once the quantity stored is increased.

            Taking the above mentioned basic assumptions, concerning desalination and agricultural use, into consideration, as well as the hydrogeological characteristics of the Coastal Plain which enables the storing of reclaimed sewage and floodwater. Then when the Israeli and the Palestinian Authorities collaborate, they will be able together to close the gap between availability and demand.

            In the first place the Coastal Plain aquifer will have to become the conjoint storage for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Once the recharge of reclaimed sewage and storage areas will shift from western part of the region to its eastern part it will be possible to recharge and store also the floodwater coming from the Palestinian territory. In the same time Israel will have to plan anew its recharge areas for its reclaimed sewage as well as floodwater. Due to paleo-environmental conditions which existed during the Quaternary period, all the riverbeds, which cross the Coastal Plain are underlain by thick layers of clay. Moreover, adequate natural sites for storage dams are very rare in the central and western parts of the Coastal Plain. These conditions dictate that the best places for storage and later gradual recharge of the floods are in the eastern parts of this region, close to the foothills.

             As part of the new cooperative planning, storage in the part of the Coastal Plain underlying the Gaza Strip should follow a similar policy. This will enable the recovery of the over pumped aquifer of the Gaza. This can only be done once the gap between supply and demand in the Strip will be supplied from Israel, on two levels of quality, fresh water for drinking purposes, and reclaimed sewage for irrigation for recharge.

            If all these projects were accomplished, the total quantity of water recharged annually to the Coastal Plain would be on the order of 600 MCM. The quality of this water supply would be as follows: one-third, locally recharged from precipitation and returning irrigation water, would contain about 300 milligrams per liter of chloride; another third, coming from the Jordan River, would contain about 100 milligrams per liter of chloride. One-third will come from reclaimed wastewater, would contain an average of 400 milligrams per liter of chloride. This would eventually combine to give an average water quality of about 270 milligrams per liter of chloride.  These levels will not be uniform all over the Coastal Plain, differences due to local conditions may be in the order of magnitude of 10% below or above this average. The nitrate content would then depend on decisions regarding the treatment processes of this water, but if the water is not intended for drinking, then nitrate content is no longer a constraint. This does not necessarily mean that this water will not be drinkable. The reclaimed sewage will be recharged in the eastern part of the Coastal Plain, enabling filtration as well as a sufficient interval of storage time to mix with the natural, cleaner water of this aquifer. These filtration and dilution processes will eliminate pathogens. This conceptual model takes into consideration the re-routing of part of the flow of the Jordan River, diverting it above the Sea of Galilee, at about 100 meters above sea level (the original plan for the National Water Carrier). This will enable the use the Sea of Galilee as storage for Yarmouk River floodwater instead. This would also help Jordan store water for its Jordan Valley agriculture without the need of a big dam on the Yarmouk River. Currently, the Jordan flow is stored in the Sea of Galilee, 200 meters below sea level, from which it is later lifted and distributed through the National Water Carrier to areas extending mainly over regions averaging 150 meters above sea level in altitude. Pumping thus requires about 12 percent of total Israeli electricity production and raises the average cost of water in Israel to 0.30 US. Dollars per cubic meter (Lonergan and Brooks, 1994). This conceptual model of the coastal aquifer as the main long-term storage aquifer is an example for a new way of thought, a regional plan for Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. It also emphasizes the immediate need for considering such plans in order to avoid investments in projects that will be found later to be redundant. Moreover, added debt due to the past investments in the redundant projects will make future projects more expensive. For example, at present sizable areas are being planted with citrus in the southern foothills of the Coastal Plain, to be irrigated by reclaimed sewage. It is arguable that this water should be placed in subsurface storage to avoid a crisis during bad years to come, rather than be exported now as good water in the form of oranges.

            Finally, once the role of the Coastal Plain aquifer is recognized as a storage reservoir for a regional water supply, a related target of planners should be to guarantee that Yarkon-Taninim aquifer, which was mentioned above, is secured as the main supply of water of drinking quality. This will require close cooperation between Israel and the Palestine. Cooperative efforts will enable the two parties to capture the water from the eastern subsurface drainage basin of the Mountain Aquifer, which flows to the Rift Valley to emerge as brackish or saline springs (about 100 million cubic meters per year) (Issar, 1993).


V.  b. Development of  new recharge techniques.

A series of problems related to the more technical aspects of recharge calls for interdisciplinary brain-storming, in which geologists, environmentalists, water engineers, and economists attempt to devise solutions to problems of inventing new recharge methods, and locating new recharge areas in a region with a very high population density.  A special emphasize has to be put on the reclamation and storage of water from built up and paved urban areas. This either by the development of porous concrete and asphalt, or by devices of collection of urban runoff and its recharge.

V. c. Separate urban supply systems.

            Another task of the brainstorming team will be to examine the prerogative and insistence of the planners of maintaining one general-purpose water supply system in the urban areas. This brings to the demand of keeping the quality of the water in the Coastal plain aquifer, from which most municipalities get their supply, at a drinking quality level. Once this constraint is eliminated, the flexibility of storage and management options for this aquifer will expand. The human ingestion of water comprises only about 10 percent of the total water consumption of a modern household. Thus, innovative approaches are required to separate the supply for drinking, which may be brought by tankers or a separate pipe system for example, from the supply for non-potable domestic consumption.

V. d. Utilization of one time reserve from fossil aquifers.

            A series of studies by the present author (Issar et al. 1973, Issar and Nativ 1988, Tzur et al 1989, Issar 1994) have shown that a few hundred million cubic meters per year may be pumped out from the Nubian Sandstone aquifers underlying the Negev and Sinai. This pumping is guaranteed for at least the coming century. The actual quantity and duration would be a function of the management policies and various economic factors. In principal, however, such a project is technically feasible, and the water is of adequate quality. Although this water source is not replenishable, it may be regarded as any other non-replenishable resource (e.g. oil, coal, and iron ore). In other words, the evaluation of whether or not to use it should be based on economic considerations. The water may be used in the region of the Negev Desert to the Beer Sheva Plain. This as a replacement supply for the industry in this region which does not require water of drinking quality and which is supplied at present with water from the National Water Carrier and the Mountain Aquifer, which underlies the Beer Sheva Plain. This aquifer is now pumped to its full capacity  (The water from the Nubian Sandstone aquifer is brackish containing about 1000 mg/l chlorine and 500 mg/l sulfate). This will require the transport of water over a distance of about 100-km. The economic feasibility of such an alternative compared to that of use of reclaimed sewage has still to be investigated.

 V.e. Importing water from Turkey (fig. 5).

            Turkey has proposed a mega-project of transporting water from the eastern Mediterranean coastal area of Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates in the past. The Turkish plan includes two pipelines. The western line would extend 2,800 kilometers and pump 1,300 million cubic meters per year to Syria, Jordan, and Western Saudi Arabia. The eastern line would cover 4,000 kilometers en route to the Persian Gulf, through Kuwait, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. An alternative pipeline has also been proposed (unofficially) to supply water to Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, its capacity being 730 million cubic meters per year (Lonergan and Brooks, 1994).

            While the problem of water scarcity of Syria is more that of transport from one part to the other, the problems of Jordan, Palestine, Israel and especially Egypt are much more crucial than that of the Arabian Peninsula. The most crucial problem is that of the fast growing population of Egypt where the demand for food supply may pose a severe economical crisis in this country if no special measures are taken to boost its available water supply. Thus an alternative plan to that mentioned above should aim to avoid this catastrophe and at the same time solve the long-term problems of water shortage in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. This plan, in view of the forecasts of global climate change, is a "win or win" project. This because the warming of the oceans may bring a strengthening of the monsoons, which would in turn cause during some years a surplus of water in the Nile River exceeding the capacity of the Aswan dam. Yet, this is still only a hypothesis. Thus, when the likely water shortage develops in Egypt, a Turkish project may bring water from north (Turkey) to south (Egypt), but if there is an abundance of water in the south, a Nile-based project may work in the opposite direction. Israel, in the meantime, is investigating the possibility of a pipe on the seafloor or the import of water by tankers. Preliminary estimates, reported in the media, say that the cost of the water from a submarine pipe will be that of desalinized seawater. The question is whether it is not worthwhile to postpone such a mega-project to the times when a comprehensive peace will be installed in the Near East. This will enable a comprehensive water supply project as proposed in Figure 5.

 VI. Conclusions

            The twenty-first century is going to be in many aspects different from the passing one. It will bring with it a different climate, which will most probably have an impact on the hydrologic cycle. At the same time, the new century will make evident the unfurling of the Information Age, ushered in during the last few decades. This will most probably promote the trend, already started in Israel, in which income from high-tech industries replaces that from agriculture in the national economy. This will further the trend of increasing urbanization and consequently, of increasing urban demand for water. No one, except a few science fiction writers, has foreseen such dramatic changes in such a short period, including the engineers who planned the water systems of the Middle East. Thus, with regard to the management of water resources in the region, new approaches will have to be examined, and if necessary, new water resource development and management plans will have to be developed.

 VII. Acknowledgments. 

 I would like to acknowledge the advice of Prof. Shaul Sorek head of the Department of Environmental Hydrology & Microbiology, J. Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who read the manuscript and commented on ideas and style. I would like also to acknowledge the advice of Prof. Nathan Buras from The University of Arizona, with whom I had long discussions on problems of water management in general, and Israel’s water problems in particular.

  Click Here For Figures


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[1] Translated by the author.

[2] The Sea of Galilee is called Lake Kineret in Hebrew. The former, English name will be used here.

[3] On the mechanism of the emergence of these springs and references to the literaure dealing with these lakes see Issar 1983 &1993.

[4] TAHAL’s report is in Hebrew and was submitted to the Water Commissioner. The author learnt on its proposals from an abridged version as well as from reports in various meetings and articles in daily newspapers.



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