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The Quantity and Quality of Israel's Water Resources
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Miriam Ben-Porat, Israel's State Comptroller, was used to breaking barri-ers. She was the first woman to represent the country in the State Attorney's Office. Then she was appointed as the first female justice in the Israel Supreme Court. When the mandatory retirement age forced her to step down at age seventy, she was considered to be at the peak of her pro-fessional powers. It made sense to make her the first female State Comptroller. As always, she was fearless, and the public loved her for it.

Each spring the State Comptroller releases a voluminous report cover-ing various areas of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement across government agencies. By the end of the 1980s the water situation was suf-ficiently bad to warrant a special report. Ben-Porat did not mince words:

Since the middle of the 60s, the water reserves of Israel have deteriorated, and today, November 1990, in the three main reservoirs of the State—the coastal and mountain reservoir and the Kinneret—the amount of the water deficit reaches 1.6 billion cubic meters, close to the annual amount utilized by the country. As a result of overpumping, the levels in these reservoirs dropped, the reserves depleted completely, and a severe drop in the quality of water ensued. Water allocation, particularly to agriculture, in a quantity that exceeds the water that is replenished from rains on an average basis, is what caused the overpumping and the liquidation of operational reserves.[199]

It was the top story in the news, made particularly relevant by weather reports that indicated a third consecutive winter with low rainfall. The Comptroller's report did not happen by itself. Rather it was the culmina-tion of a long campaign. As early as the mid-1970s, the Water Commission's own environmental reports from over 1200 wells openly

documented the same unsustainable trends.[200] A decade later, Israel's sci-entific community finally spoke out about the public-policy implications.

Hillel Shuval, by now a senior professor at Hebrew University, had been declaring a “crisis” situation for Israel's water resources in academic forums for years.[201] As time went on, the chorus of disenchantment grew louder. In 1986 a group of engineers and scientists decided to go public with the message in the form of a Committee of Scientists for Water Affairs. Except for Darcy's law, there is little that is simple about hydrology. As a result of Israel's diverse geological circumstances, its groundwater science is riddled with nuances, uncertainties, and competing models. To the layperson, technical discussions about water can quickly turn arcane and mystifying. So the scientists kept the message for Israel's media simple: Overpumping to sate agriculture's unquenchable thirst was destroying the quality of Israel's water reserves.

The media blitz led to meetings with the Minister of Agriculture and even the Prime Minister but did not translate into any policy changes. On the contrary, between 1987 and 1989, the Water Commissioner allocated from 8 to 14 percent more water than the amount recommended by Tahal and his own Hydrological Service.[202]

Despite the technological transformation of drip irrigation, domestic policies encouraged wasteful habits. With such low water prices, farmers were not always assiduous about fixing leaks. It was not uncommon for a farmer to turn sprinklers on fallow fields, rather than risk a reduction in the next year's water quota for not utilizing present allocations. Environmentally, farmers were even less conscientious. Reduction in the application of fertilizers and pesticides was not given a prominent place on anyone's agenda.

Like the captain of the Titanic, agricultural leaders ignored warning signs and sailed on defiantly toward disaster, showing no intention of vol-untarily reducing consumption and resenting every drop that reached the Dead Sea unnecessarily.[203] They trumpeted the plight of the farmer, com-plained that water subsidies in America were four times higher than in Israel, and assumed that the engineers at Mekorot would continue to find a way to provide huge quantities of high-quality water at artificially low prices. Most of all, they ignored unsustainable trends, refusing to recog-nize the incompatibility of present practices with demographic growth in the country and the region. The international community of experts, once generally sycophantic, became critical.[204]

By the 1990s, agriculture's status was also completely different from when Simcha Blass made irrigation the paramount national infrastructure

priority. Irrigated agriculture's contribution to Israel's gross national prod-uct had dropped from 30 percent in the 1950's to 3 percent.[205] Of the many Zionist axioms, agriculture's paramount role in national well-being was among the first to lose its luster. The image of the kibbutz suffered from thirteen years of Likud rule and disingenuous smears, branding the collec-tives elitist and even parasitic. Even so, objectively, the richest kibbutzim no longer made their money farming. In many instances, the tractors and fields seemed a sentimental gesture to old-timers—a living museum to an ideology whose time had passed.

In a phenomenon that continues to this day, the difficult agricultural work in Isrel was done increasingly by Palestinian day laborers who were bused in from the West Bank and Gaza. (Later, when political tensions made the workforce unreliable, they were replaced by a combination of Thai, Chinese, and Filipino laborers.) Some dispassionate water experts even openly advocated the end of agriculture in Israel. Although still icon-oclastic (and economically foolhardy), the view was no longer sacrilegious.

Meir Ben Meir, the two-time water commissioner and life-long advo-cate for Israel's agricultural sector, linked the issue to the basic right to an occupation, a right recently conferred quasi-constitutional status. More compelling were arguments in favor of continued agricultural water sub-sidies as an indirect way of preserving open spaces and landscape heritage in the face of the relentless “Los Angelization” of Israel's heartland. Yet, the traditional ideology, glorifying the spiritually edifying experience of working the soil, became increasingly irrelevant as a societal force. Only 2 percent of Israel's population worked as farmers, and the contribution from agricultural commodities to gross domestic product continued to drop, settling at 5 percent by the end of the century.[206]Economically,it was difficult to justify the allocation of 70 percent of water to agriculture. Environmentally, it was impossible. Water policy reform offered a rare zone of agreement between these two frequently incompatible disciplines. And as the 1990s approached, grim water-quality indicators vindicated the urgency of calls for change.

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