To walk on water when the water has gone will take a miracle

Bel Trew
1 / 3
To walk on water when the water has gone will take a miracle

If you head to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus allegedly walked on water, today you would see holidaymakers performing the same miracle but over a muddy bog.

Israel’s largest reservoir, which feeds the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, is rapidly shrinking due to overpumping and a 5-year drought.

Now Christian pilgrims and swimmers, wading metres in, stand forlornly knee deep in a puddle. At its southern edge a small island, not seen for years, is slowly rising from the receding waters.

Over the past 15 years the lake has dropped by 6m, and this year could hit the “black line” – 214.87m below global sea level. At that point the damage is irreversible, and the famed lake, which once accounted for 30 per cent of Israel’s water sources, will remain a sludgy soup.

Right now it is hovering just a few centimetres above the danger level.

But it is not just pilgrims and tourists who are being affected, but everyone downstream of the strategic lake. And the plunging levels in the Sea of Galilee is just a symptom of a wider crisis Israel is grappling with, as climate change has pounded its water reserves.

“We have had a severe drought every year for the last five years, which means less than 80 per cent of the annual average of rain,” Chezi Lifshitz, deputy director general of the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources tells The Independent. The rain water levels have not been this bad since the 1920s.

“We are preparing for a future drought because we see now all over the world we are suffering from climate change,” he adds.

Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, which supplies around 90 per cent of the country’s drinking water, says climate models for the coming years “do not bring good news”.

“The forecast is for a sustained decline of 25 per cent by 2050, which could further dilute natural water reserves,” Ruth Renert, Mekorot’s spokesperson says.

She says the volume of demand in the domestic sector has also increased over the past two years, further complicating the issue.

The Sea of Galilee feeds the Dead Sea, which straddles Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, and is shrinking on average by a metre every year. In this location, the River Jordan is nothing more than a trickle, having plunged from more than 1.3 billion cubic metres per year to less than 30 million cubic metres over the past half century.

The shrinking Sea of Galilee could strangle what Israel is able to give Jordan, one of the driest countries on Earth, piling pressure on the relationship between the two countries.

Israel had to stop pumping the lake when it reached critically low levels.

The neighbouring countries are bound by water agreements signed in the 1990s, which given Jordan’s booming refugee population and worsening water crisis are now out of date and require adjustment.

In short, Jordan needs more water, but if Israel relies on the Sea of Galilee it will not be able to provide additional reservoirs. Although Israelis receive enough water each day, and considerably more than their Palestinian counterparts, the outlook is gloomy.

And so this year big plans are afoot.

It is little known, but the comparatively small and young nation is a world leader in desalination technology and water recycling.

During the 1990s, Israel was one of the first countries to use reverse osmosis technology to make water in its first-ever desalination plant in the southern town of Eilat. A decade later it had built five more facilities.

A crane flies low over the Sea of Galilee (Reuters)

The country is currently building a further two sites, including the world’s largest desalination plant in Sorek, just south of Tel Aviv, and another in the water-poor western Galilee region.

Mr Lifshitz says by 2030 these plants could provide as much as 1.2 billion cubic metres of water annually for Israel. This would punch a significant hole in the 2.4 billion cubic metres a year its citizens currently consume, and mean Israel may even have water to spare.

Added to that, Israel recycles some 85 per cent of its water – making it the most water efficient country in the world. The next closest nation is Spain, at just 20 per cent.

With this technology they hope to save the Sea of Galilee and end the burgeoning water crisis being caused by its receding waterline.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources the authorities plan to pipe desalinated water from central Israel to the lake, eventually seeing as much as 120 million cubic metres pumped into it each year.

This will raise the water level by nearly 1m annually, and potentially rescue it within a decade.

Mr Lifshitz says the country is aiming by 2022 not only to revitalise the Sea of Galilee but recharge seven lakes across the thirsty north of the country.

“It is revolutionary. We are looking at nature as a consumer, not a provider, a consumer of water. Which is unique,” he says.

But the leaps forward in water production in Israel have also raised questions about its water provision to the Palestinian territories.

In the West Bank, human rights groups say 25-year-old, out-of-date water agreements with Israel effectively hinder the building of Palestinian water infrastructure, while siphoning off resources to Israel’s citizens, who enjoy in some settlements in the West Bank four times the amount of water Palestinians do.

In Gaza, Palestinians under blockade, and corralled into a 25-mile long strip of land, are forced to overpump their coastal aquifer, which if overextraction continues will see it collapse by next year, leaving 2.2 million people without a natural source of water.

Organisations like EcoPeace, which has offices across Israel, Palestine and Jordan, argue that both water crises, apart from being inhumane, ultimately impact the security of Israel.

They say increased cooperation between the countries, including the sharing of energy and water resources, could be the cornerstone of peace.

The idea appears to be filtering back to Israel. Mr Lifshitz says the country hopes to assist its Arab neighbours like Iraq, who are suffering from serious droughts, by selling them cheap desalinated water.

“Israel has a lot of knowledge in the water sector. We are very happy to share that to face climate change,” he says.

Schor Uri, spokesman for the Israeli Water Authority, agrees. He says Israel’s ability to recycle water and use desalination could be a tool for good.

“A lot of the wars over the world occur over water sources,” he says.

“Since we have the technologies, the knowledge and the experience, we believe water can be a bridge for peace and not wars.”

Read the first five parts of the Water Wars series, Boiling Basra, Iraq’s disappearing Eden, Drought drove people into the arms of Isis​, How a water crisis in Jordan could threaten Middle East peace​ and Ticking time bomb