Weep for Israel’s disregard of its liquid asset

Just as we are beginning to shake off the accusation of killing Christ, why wreck his lake?

By Nathan Jeffay, October 16, 2008

The mentality epitomises Israeli short-sightedness. Fill the private swimming pools of Ra'anana and Herzlia today; worry about the future tomorrow. The Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, is drying up. Water is at the lowest level on record.

A "red line" has been crossed and a "black line" looms. The latter marks the level past which water pressure will be inadequate to stop springs in the lake emitting large amounts of saltwater. Nobody is quite sure whether, if the Kinneret turned salty, the damage could be undone.

A few decades ago, the difference between the lake's annual highest and lowest levels was about 1.5 metres. In recent years, it has been as high as six metres. This is partly down to bad luck - as population and demand for water have grown, there have been several dry patches. In 2008, the fourth year of drought in a row, rainfall has been especially low. But bad management is also to blame.

Some 33 miles by 13 miles of water forming the lowest fresh-water lake in the world, the Kinneret is an amazing national asset. It provides a third of Israel's fresh water. "Although God has created seven seas, He has chosen this one as His special delight," said the rabbis of the Talmud.

Pumping continues at the Kinneret whatever the state of the water. There has been an all-round failure to invest adequately in desalination plants, and desalination stands at around a third of the target set by the government in 2002.

Aquifers and wells have not been properly rehabilitated. Israel's toilets are flushed with drinking water because rainwater harvesting is almost unheard of. And there are virtually no public campaigns to save water.

Despite all of this, agriculture - which uses 30 per cent of the county's fresh water at subsidised rates - is flourishing, especially for the export market. It doesn't take a genius to point out that exporting fruit and vegetables is akin to exporting water.

Quality as well as quantity is diminishing at the Kinneret. As water levels fluctuate, odd algae appear. There are too many leeches to maintain the normal ecosystem. Meanwhile, chronic over-fishing is depleting fish stocks.

This sorry story presents Israel with three problems. The first is obvious - a worsening water crisis and a deteriorating environment.

The second is that the Kinneret feeds large quantities of water to the River Jordan, site of Jesus's baptism and as such sacred to a third of the world's population. Or rather, it does when there is water to feed.

A drying River Jordan - which is what we have at the moment - is hardly the best recipe for an increase in tourism. Unless (and this may suit the mentality of short-termism responsible for this mess) the tourism ministry markets a "last chance to see the Jordan before it dries up".

The third problem is that Israel is rendering itself even more culpable than it is at present in the world arena. The Jewish state has quite enough accusations stacked up against it, and critics are already beginning to make use of its environmental record as ammunition.

The last legacy that Israel needs is that it took hold of a lake and, within a few decades of statehood, wrecked it. And this isn't just any lake.

The Kinneret is famed and revered as the focal point of Jesus's ministry. Several of his disciples were fishermen and various New Testament passages are set there.

Especially in these days when anti-Israel rhetoric borrows so much from classic antisemitism, do we really want to find ourselves in a situation where, just as we are beginning to shake off the accusation of killing Christ, we are held responsible for wrecking his lake?

Last updated: 5:21pm, October 16 2008