Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

The Quantity and Quality of Israel's Water Resources


7. The Quantity and Quality
of Israel's Water Resources

No natural resource was as important to Zionism as water. In that sense the new Jewish State almost instinctively adopted a traditional Jewish in-clination. Like the Eskimos' reputedly rich vocabulary for snow, the Hebrew language has separate words for the first and last rainfall, dew, dif-ferent levels of floods, and half a dozen types of drought. The word “water” itself appears 580 times in the Old Testament.[1] The Hebrew pa-triarchs concerned themselves with digging and protecting wells. Water is a prerequisite for a variety of ritual purifications. There is no more com-mon metaphor in the religious liturgy.

History holds particular importance for understanding the present con-dition of this environmental medium. Israel's Coastal Aquifer, the coun-try's largest single source of fresh water, lies roughly thirty meters below an unsaturated zone of sandy soils. In many areas it takes roughly a year for pollutants to seep down a distance of one meter towards the under-ground reservoir. Today's contamination can quite literally be traced to ac-tivities that took place during the 1960s.

Within the twentieth-century context of Jewish nationalism, water was the key to creating a vibrant agrarian economy and a fulfilled rural citi-zenry. It held the power to translate the pioneers' lush European aesthetic into a greener Middle Eastern landscape. Water resource development was both a symbol of technology's unlimited potential and the prosperity that the Jewish revival could bring the land. The Jewish farmer was an ideal, and the water that irrigated his land became an integral part of the na-tional identity. Not simply a commodity, it belonged to the realm of ideol-ogy.[2] Hydrological considerations influenced foreign and defense policies.

Once Israel was free of the confining restraints of British rule, water be-came the new frontier. And there was much to be done.

David Ben-Gurion himself set the tone when soon after the State's es-tablishment he bemoaned:

Water and power, these are the two main things lacking in our coun-try. … The groundwaters, springs, rivers, and brooks of our country are limited and scanty. Even these have not been fully exploited; the water of the Jordan flows down to the Dead Sea, and the Yarkon water falls into the Mediterranean: a considerable proportion of the water of Lake Kinneret evaporates and even the rains, plentiful in the north and minimal in the south, flow wasted, in large measures to the Mediterranean or the Dead Sea, without fully benefiting the thirsty soil.[3]

Water development had political backing at the highest levels. During Israel's first twenty years, Pinhas Sapir (the seemingly omnipotent Minister of Finance) and Levi Eshkol (the third Prime Minister) were un-doubtedly among the country's five most influential politicians. A high point of their pre-State résumé was establishing and managing Mekorot, the Yishuv's water cooperative.[4] In a rare act of cooperation, in 1937 the major development agencies in the Yishuv founded a single company to establish, operate, and administer hydrological projects for irrigation and household needs. Under the able management of Levi Skolnick (later Eshkol), the company cornered the market on water supply and develop-ment. Mekorot also assumed ongoing operational responsibility for many of the wells and pipes that delivered water to the Yishuv's cities and farms. When Eshkol went on to head the Jewish Agency's settlement department, he passed on the Mekorot portfolio to Sapir.

Neither ever lost his enthusiasm for the subject of water, and both made it a priority budget item when they became leaders in government. This passion can be seen as almost a Shakespearean tragic flaw. On the one hand, it fueled innovative water development projects on a scale hitherto unknown in the Middle East. On the other hand, it created an unrealistic appetite and blinded decision makers to the long-term effect of stress on a fragile resource. The argument could be made that they almost loved Israel's water resources to death.

Like most frontier histories, Israel's water experience should have passed through two stages.[5] During the first phase water was available, but not at the desired places or times or in the required quantities. During this developmental stage, engineering obstacles constituted the primary policy challenges. A second stage, characterized by resource constraints, might

have followed immediately thereafter. With a growing population and no readily available supplementary sources, the time had come to prioritize consumption needs, enhance conservation, improve efficiency of delivery, and focus on preserving water quality. The fundamentally ideological ap-proach to water, however, prevented a successful transition to the more mature, sustainable stage. The unrealistic optimism and myopia of Israel's political leaders until the present was to some extent a function of the enormous success of the access stage. No one was more responsible for these grand engineering achievements than Simcha Blass.


After a few years of bumming around kibbutzim during the early 1930s, Simcha Blass opened a Tel Aviv office as an engineering consultant. The private sector suited his fast pace, disdain for mediocrity, and somewhat irascible disposition. There he planned and supervised implementation of water development projects for the settlements of the Yishuv. From its in-ception in 1937, Mekorot hired him on a retainer to serve as its Chief Engineer. Blass designed most of its major initiatives, beginning with the Kishon River irrigation project.[6]

As soon as the war was over, Blass was ready to pick up where he had left off as a consultant. Haim Halpren, the Director of the nascent Ministry of Agriculture, had other ideas. He offered Blass a job running the Water Department. As the Mandate's Water Directorate had been based in the agriculture department, functionally it meant putting Blass in charge of the country's water resources. Blass was friendly with many of the ministers in the new cabinet, who well knew his outspoken and impa-tient demeanor. They told him that he might last a few weeks as a civil ser-vant. Blass was inclined to agree but had heard a rumor of who the alter-native candidate for the position was. Blass felt him to be so incompetent he accepted the offer and stayed at the job for four years.[7]

The country was short on everything. The first thing Blass did was to order pipes, which were unavailable locally. The Ministry of Finance and its foreign-currency-conscious clerks felt that any more than thirty thousand tons of pipe a year would be wasted. Blass ordered ninety thousand, but these soon ran out.[8] In 1949 Israeli soldiers stormed southward, reached the Red Sea, and conquered Eilat without a shot. Then they discovered that there was nothing there for them to drink. The army began to desalinate seawater, using a crude, high-energy process that cost six cents a cup, or 240 dollars a cubic meter—more than a thousand times the cost of well water.

Blass felt certain that water could be found in large quantities below the desert floor. He sent four drilling teams down to the surrounding Arava plains to find it. By the time they finished, he was 400 percent over budget, and the drillers had gone unpaid for several weeks. Yet in the fall of 1949 they struck water at Beer Ora, fifteen kilometers north of Eilat; a brackish but potable water source was tapped.[9] And so it went. With much guess-work and improvisation, a water system was created.

Despite the hassles, these were exciting times for water engineers. After being limited to a small percentage of Palestine's lands, they suddenly had the water resources of an entire country at their disposal. More than 75 percent of the freshwater supply came from three sources: Lake Kinneret, which receives the waters of the Jordan River watershed; the Coastal Aquifer, stretching down the Mediterranean coast from Haifa through the Gaza Strip; and the Yarkon-Taninim, or Mountain Aquifer, which runs parallel to the Coastal Aquifer to the east.[10] This much was clear in 1948. What Israel's first water managers did not know was how much water these three reservoirs contained.

The few experts with hydrological expertise sensed that the 248 million cubic meters of water utilized was only a fraction of the recharge potential available, although they had no idea of what that fraction was. Characteristically they were overly optimistic and guessed that with full development, supply might one day reach 3.5 billion cubic meters of water a year.[11] Israel's replenishable volume is now thought to be roughly half that amount.[12] Hazarding long-term estimates was something of an in-dulgence. Within eighteen months of independence the country's popula-tion had grown by 50 percent.[13] The new nation needed more water, and drinking water was the least of it:The Israeli farmer was impatient to stake his claim.

During the 1950s Israel's agricultural development was astonishing, showing over 500 percent growth in yields. Such growth was based solely on groundwater.[14] With its high water table, the Coastal Aquifer was the easiest resource to tap. Dozens of wells were drilled.[15] The environmental problems caused by this burst of productivity were already clear, but as Blass would later write, the exigencies of the period overrode even prudent professionals' sense of caution:

Lack of food during the first years of the state caused speedy development of water sources that could be achieved through shallow wells. In this frantic effort, exploitation of the Western part of the coast was particularly prominent. It was the necessity of the time,

though we knew that, in the near future, overpumping was liable to draw sea water into the fresh water surface and cause salination.[16]

Overpumping leads to pollution, not only because of the vacuum (slowly filled by seawater) created when the water table drops, but also be-cause the natural flow of water to the sea, flushing salts and minerals out of the aquifer, is interrupted. When Tel Aviv's wells became too salty for drinking in the mid-1950s, it was a harbinger of things to come.[17]


There was a need for a coordinated national plan for water resource devel-opment, supported by a legislative framework that would enable the pro-fessional water managers to work effectively. Anarchy and duplication of efforts were undermining the single most critical resource of the new na-tion. But who would plan it? Bureaucratically, the cast of vested interests guaranteed a turf war.

For instance, the British Mandate had operated a hydrological service, whose job it was to measure and estimate water resources. It was run by a hydrogeologist, Dr. Martin Goldsmith, a British Jew. Nevertheless, the Yishuv's Jewish Agency did not trust him, so they set up their own hy-drology department. After the war, the Jewish Agency staffers had no in-tention of closing up shop. Blass had a grudging respect for Goldsmith's professional skills and kept him on as head of the Hydrological Service, which was to serve Blass's department at the Ministry of Agriculture. To this day, Israel's Hydrological Service generates most of the data and tech-nical information (qualitative and quantitative) about Israel's ground-and surfacewater resources.

Then there was Mekorot. When the State was created, controlling shares of the water utility were passed on to it and the Jewish Agency.[18] Naturally, Mekorot wished to continue in this capacity nationally and to expand its control. In 1959 the passage of Israel's Water Law catapulted Mekorot to official status as the national water utility, by appointment of the Minster of Agriculture (with approval by the Knesset and the Government).[19]

Yet another player in the water business was the Ministry of Health. In 1949 the Israeli Hebrew Language Academy created a new word for sani-tation: tavruah (until then, the Yishuv had just used a Hebraized form—hegeniah—of the English term “hygiene”[20]). Aaron Amrami was one of the few Israelis who had formally studied sanitary engineering at the

graduate level; his mentor was Professor Walter Strauss, a German-trained hygienist. The Minister of Health was happy to put Amrami to work. He took the other Israeli with professional training in the field, Hillel Shuval, as his deputy. Shuval (see Figure 17) had just immigrated from the United States, arriving in July 1948 at the height of the War of Independence. He had served in an American engineering unit during World War II and re-ceived a sanitary engineering degree under the G.I. Bill. The nascent army asked Shuval what he could do for Israel's war effort, and he was put in charge of chlorinating drinking water in the new Engineering Corps.[21]

For the first few years, Amrami and Shuval were literally the Ministry of Health's Sanitation Department. They faced a daunting laundry list of responsibilities: sewage and water supply planning; oversight of drinking water and wastewater quality; monitoring of industrial effluent dis-charges; supervision of municipal solid-waste disposal; city cleanliness services; monitoring and grading of food production and services; assess-ment of milk quality; insect, rodent, and pest control; regulation of swim-ming pools and beaches; sanitary oversight of schools and summer camps; sanitation in ports; quarantine services for imports; health conditions in immigrant camps and villages; and air pollution control. With no one to take on the regulation of radiation, it was soon added to the list as well.[22] During the 1950s the Sanitation Department was the only Israeli institu-tion seriously concerned with water quality. Although it consistently sent its staff for advanced environmental training in the United States, the seven permanent sanitary engineers and technicians were simply spread too thin to stem the growing tide of contamination.[23]

In addition to the planning departments of the Health Ministry and Mekorot, the Jewish Agency had its own planning department. And of course, as Director of the Ministry of Agriculture's Water Department, Blass saw himself primarily as a planner. It was a mess. At the same time, Blass began to find the constraints imposed on Israeli civil servants un-bearable. More than his Spartan public-sector salary (which forced him to sell his ten-room house and move into a four-room flat[24]), he resented the never-ending haggling for reimbursements and the awkward personnel procedures that were impediments to attracting qualified professionals.[25] This frustration with the government bureaucracy, rather than any envi-ronmental logic per se, led in 1952 to the creation of Tahal, an acronym that stood for “Water Planning for Israel.”

Rather than just empowering one of the existing entities to centralize planning functions, this new corporation was to advise the government about water planning.[26] Blass happily took over as its director. As part of

the restructuring, Blass's Water Department at the Ministry of Agriculture became the Water Administration, run by development guru Pinhas Sapir (also the chairman of Mekorot and Tahal).[27] Later this Administration became Israel's Water Commission.

Levi Eshkol, who held about four jobs at the time, including Minister of Agriculture and Director of the Jewish Agency's Settlement Department, did not like the arrangement. He saw the new agency as a Mekorot com-petitor. But after four years of suffocation, Blass refused to work out of a large bureaucracy. So Eshkol agreed to the creation of the new non-governmental institution and then appointed himself to be both the gov-ernmental and the Jewish Agency representative on Tahal's Board of Directors.[28] The JNF board representative did not bother to show up for the meetings, so, with Eshkol covering for him, Blass had all the latitude he needed. He inherited the staff members of the competing departments[29] and rolled up his sleeves.


Within four years Blass engineered the two mammoth public-works proj-ects that have defined Israel's water supply strategy until today: the Yarkon-Negev pipeline and, a decade later, the National Water Carrier. Israel's natural water distribution is not suited to its geographic and eco-nomic circumstances. Although 78 percent of the rain falls north of Tel Aviv, most of the lands that need the water are in the south.[30] Moreover, fields, groves, and lawns are thirstiest in the summertime, precisely when the rain does not fall. These dynamics drove the form and content of the two infrastructure projects. In the hydrological equivalent of the prevailing socialist ethic, Israel's water system took from the rich and gave to the poor. Blass had been waiting thirteen years for the opportunity.

In 1939 British land restrictions had essentially shut down expansion of Jewish settlement in the north of Israel. Although land transfers and agricul-tural settlement were permissible in the south, British “flexibility” appeared disingenuous, because there was no water there. That spring Blass, then a pri-vate consultant, bumped into Dr. Arthur Rupin, the economist who chaired the Jewish Agency. Rupin said to him, “Mr. Blass, maybe you can propose to me a fantasy that would irrigate the Negev.” Blass jumped at the business op-portunity; he collected maps, chartered a rickety two-seater for aerial obser-vations (losing his lunch during the bumpy flight), and then hunkered down to work. A few months later he submitted a three-stage program: Pump water from the wells closest to the Negev; take water from the Yarkon

headwaters at Rosh ha-Ayin; and carry water from the Jordan in the north. To get the fantasy moving, Blass proposed starting the first stage immedi-ately. For the bargain price of seven hundred thousand pounds sterling, he could provide half a million cubic meters of water a year to three settlements.

The project was tabled until after World War II. Its resurrection is part of Zionist legend. During the summer of 1946 the British imposed an eighty-hour curfew on Tel Aviv and arrested scores of Zionist activists, an action which became known in the Yishuv as the “Black Sabbath.” Levi Skolnick (Eshkol), who by then was head of the Jewish Agency Settlement Department, sought a creative form of revenge. The night after Yom Kippur, he staged a lightning campaign, creating eleven new Negev settle-ments on JNF lands. Blass was drafted to design the water delivery system. All the Mekorot team had to work with were tiny, recycled six-inch pipes that had been used in London during World War II to help firefighters counter the bombing attacks during the blitz. Now the pipes were to wind past Beer Sheva and irrigate the desert. Pinhas Sapir himself came down to command the operation, barking out orders in his imperious fashion. Measurements were taken a few steps ahead of the diggers, and safety pro-cedures were completely ignored.[31]

The project was completed before either the Mandatory government or the area's Bedouin could interfere. Only weeks before the outbreak of the War of Independence, a pair of pipelines connected the northern Negev desert to the center of the country. Together the pipes could carry only a million cubic meters of water a year, but stage one of Arthur Rupin's desert fantasy was complete (after the war the pipes were replaced by a system whose capacity was fifteen times greater).[32]

Once at Tahal, Blass and his new staff focused on stage two: the Yarkon-Negev pipeline, the first major water development project in the new State. The very speed with which the project was carried out ensured snags and, of course, improvisation. Menahem Kantor, who later became Israel's Water Commissioner, was on the Tahal team. He recalls the paucity of hy-drological data but also a willingness to modify the project when it became evident that mistakes would be made.[33]

The Yarkon-Negev project was completed in July 1955. It delivered one hundred million cubic meters of water to Negev settlements.[34] The line was based on a sixty-six-inch diameter pipe, the largest of its kind in the world (see Figure 18). The pumping stations were all built underground for security reasons. Blass insisted that they be run by diesel engines, be-cause he was convinced that in the next war the Arabs would succeed in bombing Israel's electric power stations.[35]


When it was completed in July 1955, Israel's politicians were happy to trumpet the Yarkon-Negev project as the pinnacle of Zionist ingenuity—opening up “barren” regions for settlement and making the desert bloom. But it also epitomized the environmental price tag of Zionist achievement—transforming the mighty Yarkon River into a smelly trickle of sewage and setting the stage for subsequent environmental disasters. The river's demise did not go unnoticed but was considered a necessary sacrifice for progress. That was before the days of environmental impact statements. Tahal did not think about the mess it left behind, and govern-ment leaders were not inclined to worry about it too much either.

The Ministry of Health's Sanitation Department, however, was con-cerned. Its field staff had checked oxygen levels across the Yarkon River and predicted an anaerobic stench in the heart of greater Tel Aviv.[36] The Reading power station lay at the outflow of the river to the sea, so the Ministry lobbied for the Israel Electric Company to release the station's cooling waters a few kilometers up the river. The Tel Aviv section of the Yarkon would enjoy a cleaner flow, even if it was seawater. There was also concern about the potential transfer of bilharzia (as had occurred in African water projects) as the water was moved from the Yarkon to the Negev; the Sanitation Department imposed snail control measures in response.[37]

The water pipeline produced at least one important institutional benefit: The Yarkon River problems forced Tel Aviv and its suburbs (Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan, Givataim, and B'nei Brak) to think about a regional solution to their waste discharges. The outcome was the establishment of a Dan “Union of Cities.”[38] This consortium of city governments teamed up to build a tem-porary sewage outflow, eight hundred meters into the sea (until then, the effluents were released at the edge of the Tel Aviv coastline, with predictably fetid results). By 1962 the Union of Cities completed a pipeline to a regional sewage aeration facility on the sand dunes south of the city, at a cost of ten million dollars.[39] The level of treatment was not high, and the odors from the settling ponds were sufficiently foul to provoke legal action.[40] Moreover, the overflow system was a major source of marine pollution. Yet it was a vast im-provement over dumping raw sewage onto Tel Aviv beaches. More important, in retrospect, it was the first stage of what would eventually become the Dan Sewage Project, the largest advanced treatment facility in the Middle East.[41]


The final and most ambitious stage was the construction of the National Water Carrier. The list of people claiming patent rights to the project is

long.[42] In his 1902 novel, Altneuland, Theodor Herzl envisioned the Jordan River tributaries providing water for the drier half of the country. (He also envisioned water from the Mediterranean Sea driving electrical turbines as it dropped down through a canal system to the Dead Sea.) In his 1944 book, Palestine, Land of Promise, Walter Clay Lowdermilk, the American soil scientist, devoted an entire chapter to a proposal he called a “Jordan Valley Authority.”[43] Lowdermilk based his model on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an American public-works agency that had successfully tapped rivers for irrigation and hydroelectricity.

Emanuel Neuman, an American Zionist leader, was inspired by Lowdermilk's idea and wanted to convince British authorities that it was not an unrealistic dream. With Chaim Weizmann's blessing, Neuman ap-proached James Benjamin Hayes, an internationally renowned water engi-neer from the TVA, and commissioned a more detailed blueprint for a Jordan River system.[44] Hayes's 1949 report, TVA on the Jordan, projected a total water supply of 2.5 billion cubic meters by diverting Lebanon's Litani River, along with the Jordan tributaries and available groundwater sources.[45] This would be sufficient to produce electricity, allow for the ir-rigation of 2.8 million dunams, and provide for the domestic needs of close to four million people.[46]

It was Simcha Blass and the Tahal engineering staff, however, who would turn the vision into reality. In 1950, while still at the Ministry of Agriculture, Blass established a committee to oversee the planning of the National Water System. Composed of eighteen experts, this committee provided for scientific peer review, a rare and refreshing act of prudence for a young country in a hurry, with little time for formalities. Over six years the committee would hold seventy-five meetings, and its opinion was elicited at every important juncture.[47]

“We asked a very simple question: ‘What information do you have on the quality of the water in the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret?’” recalls Hillel Shuval, the young sanitary engineer at the Ministry of Health who attended these meetings with his boss, Aaron Amrami. “The answer was that the only tests that had been done were for salinity, to see what crops could be irrigated. But it was clear that the National Carrier would provide drinking water as well, and they admitted that they had never conducted bacteriological or chemical testing.”[48]

Blass was happy to leave water quality problems in the hands of the Ministry of Health. He had more pressing engineering problems of his own to contend with. For example, the Hayes plan would require a system of twenty-nine reservoirs to hold water until the summer months as well

as to provide storage for drought years. It was not clear whether the porous local soils were sufficiently impermeable to adopt this American approach. Between 1953 and 1955, nine pilot reservoirs were built, at a va-riety of locations. The results were conclusive: A solution other than arti-ficial reservoirs for storage would have to be found.[49]

Then there were financial problems. Blass demanded fifteen million dollars a year for eight years for the project—an astronomical sum for the young State, considering that its total foreign currency earnings for 1950 were eighteen million dollars.[50] (The final price tag when the National Carrier was completed in 1964 reached 420 million lirot in 1964, or roughly 175 million dollars.[51]) Yet Ben-Gurion's vision of a green Negev would not let him rest, and money was found.

The real challenges were technical in nature. Israel had never attempted an engineering job on this scale. Conceptually the plan was relatively sim-ple. The collective flow of the three main tributaries of the Jordan River was 520 million cubic meters of water a year. These tributaries met on the hills and plains of the Galilee, north of the Huleh swamp, before the river made its three-hundred-meter dive down to Lake Kinneret. The original plan took advantage of this height differential and diverted the waters for the National Carrier north of the lake, letting gravity lead them downhill to the south. On the way, the Netufah Valley would serve as a billion-cubic-meter reservoir, about a quarter the size of the Kinneret. Depending on the specific topographic conditions, the National Carrier was to utilize three different mechanisms to deliver the water across the country: canals, tunnels, and pipelines. Assuming that tunnels would constitute the bottleneck in the pro-gram, in 1952 Blass began excavations of Israel's first, the Ibon. The plan for a National Water Carrier itself would not be approved until four years later.


The project's most conspicuous obstacle was geopolitical. Of the three main tributaries of the Jordan, only the Dan lay squarely inside Israeli ter-ritory. The Hatzbani came from Lebanon, and the Banias was still in Syrian hands. More important, diverting or even tapping the Jordan River would change the flow and water quality of the river. Along with the Yarmuk, the Jordan River was Jordan's primary source of surface water. The Hashemite Kingdom's consternation should not have surprised anyone.

In 1953 Blass pushed to begin the work to divert the Jordan River any-way. The area was technically under Israeli jurisdiction but was part of a

demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. Beyond concern about inter-national pressure, there was fear for the safety of the construction crews. At the time, the general in charge of Israel's northern command was Moshe Dayan. He decided to gamble that Syrian ruler Adib al-Shishakli's own domestic problems and unrest would serve to neutralize him. Dayan ventured that not a single bullet would be shot in response. He was right. On September 2, 1953, Israel sent two bulldozers to begin the diversion at the Jordan River's B'not Yaakov bridge, ten kilometers north of the Kinneret. While the Syrians quickly massed troops across the river from the construction site, they held their fire. Israel expanded its workforce.[52]

Syria had other means of voicing its displeasure. It complained to the commander of the United Nations Peace-Keeping Force, Danish general Wagen Benika. Benika demanded an explanation from the Israelis. The Syrians told him that the water was to be channeled to the Kinneret for hydroelectric power (which was part of the Hayes plan). Syria then lodged a formal complaint with the Security Council. And so it was that in October 1953, the United Nations got its first lesson in the politics of Middle Eastern water resources.

It was Lebanon's and Pakistan's turn to join the Security Council rota-tion in addition to the five permanent members. Although they did not have veto power, their hostile presence weakened Israel's position. Under pressure, the peerless Anglo-Israeli diplomat Abba Eban agreed to halt work along the river until the hearings commenced. During the interim two weeks, Israel did its homework. Blass flew across the United States col-lecting the equivalent of affidavits from three of America's top water man-agement experts, who confirmed that not only did Israeli utilization of the Jordan not contradict a regional development scenario—it actually expe-dited it.[53]

At the United Nations session itself, Syria's representative, Dr. Zein al-Din, made a strong two-hour speech in front of a packed auditorium, ac-cusing Israel of violating the cease-fire, stealing his country's water, and eventually causing the starvation of fifteen thousand citizens. Abba Eban responded with one of his typically eloquent presentations. Eban coun-tered that the demilitarized zone was under Israel's sovereignty and that, according to the preexisting Sykes-Picot agreement between France and England, the British Mandate received all rights to the Jordan River. Israel, he argued, inherited these rights. Eban charmed the diplomats, but he could not stop the Soviet representative from vetoing an American reso-lution that would have allowed Israel to continue its diversion work.[54]


To try to defuse the volatile situation, American President Eisenhower launched an independent diplomatic initiative. Eric Johnston arrived in the Middle East in 1953 as the president's personal emissary and “roving am-bassador” to the Middle East to work out a compromise. Johnston im-pressed the Israelis. A tall, trim, youthful sixty-year-old businessman, his experience in mergers and acquisitions in the corporate world had honed his negotiating skills. Most important, he was not part of the State Department's foreign service establishment, whose sympathies were felt to lie with Arab interests.[55]

During five trips from 1953 to 1955 he hammered out the “Johnston Plan.” Lake Kinneret was to be the main reservoir for waters of the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers. A dam would be constructed on the Yarmuk, and Israel would transfer water to Jordan via a canal. Under the plan, Israel would receive 40 percent of the available water allocation. (Israel's open-ing position demanded 60 percent, and the Arabs agreed to 20 percent.) Jordan and Syria were allocated 45 percent and 15 percent respectively. More important, Johnston's package explicitly recognized the legitimacy of Israeli transfer of water to its southern regions.[56] The United States sweetened the deal by agreeing to bankroll many of the spin-off develop-ment projects, which it assumed would provide employment for Palestinian refugees.

Just as the agreement was about to be finalized, the Arab League got cold feet. Rather than embarrass President Eisenhower openly, their October 1955 debate on the proposal was “postponed.” Then they directed their energies towards blaming Israel for collapse of the negotiations.[57] While Johnston did not achieve a de jure arrangement, his plan became the de facto baseline for water allocation in the region. Its ground rules also gave Israel the green light it needed to begin the National Water Carrier.


Given the new political constraints, Israel decided to shift from the Jordan approach and instead base its National Water Carrier around Lake Kinneret, which would function as the central reservoir for the system. (The Netufah Valley site had turned out to have too high a percolation rate to serve as the central reservoir.[58]) Ecologically, this was fortuitous. The freshwater in the Jordan River naturally has only 5 percent of the chloride concentrations found in the Kinneret. Tapping this primary source of di-lution before it reached the Kinneret would have doomed the aquatic ecosystems in Israel's only freshwater lake.[59]


Yet from an engineering perspective, abandoning the B'not Yaakov bridge created a serious problem. Lake Kinneret lies more than two hun-dred meters below sea level.[60] Water would have to be pumped to a height of 151 meters above sea level before making its trip south, requiring copi-ous amounts of energy. As a result, today the National Water Carrier con-sumes one hundred megawatts of electricity, or 2 percent of the electricity produced in Israel.[61]

From the moment that the government approved the final plans for the National Carrier in 1956, it took eight years for Mekorot to complete the project. For almost a decade it swallowed 80 percent of the Israeli invest-ment in water infrastructure.[62] In June 1964, the gigantic, thundering pumps began to heave prodigious amounts of water up the Galilee hillside to begin a trip that remains unchanged to this day. Upon reaching its northern peak, the water flows into a scaled-down reservoir at Beit Netufah for purification treatment. After being properly sanitized, it makes an eighty-six-kilometer journey through enormous 108-inch, Ashkelon-made steel and concrete pipes. The route is interrupted by three additional tunnels, blasted through mountains and rocky terrain. The longest of these, the Menashe tunnel, stretches for 6.5 kilometers, begin-ning near the Megiddo-Yokneam road. At Rosh ha-Ayin, east of Tel Aviv, the water links up with the Yarkon-Negev system.[63]

Construction was not entirely free of international complications. As work on the National Carrier reached an advanced stage, Syria lodged an-other complaint with the Security Council. This time the United Nations chose not to intervene, and in December 1963 the Arab League decided to take matters into its own hands. It called for diverting the Hatzbani and Banias tributaries of the Jordan from their natural flow into Israel. (This would have left the National Carrier high and dry.) In February 1964, Syrian and Lebanese construction crews began to build canals to this end. Israel declared it a provocation and shelled the bulldozers. That summer the crews returned to the task, and this time Israel's Air Force took out the equipment. With only 1 percent of the work complete, Syria backed off.[64] The National Water Carrier was finally free to finish its “sacred” mission, which had started with Herzl's romantic vision.

It was a Herculean task. Many contemporary decision makers doubt whether the societal commitment exists today for such an enormous in-vestment in national infrastructure and water resource management.[65] Ultimately the National Water Carrier irreversibly changed the terms of reference of Israel's water policy. Of the 850 million cubic meters of water that reach Lake Kinneret, 30 percent evaporates. That leaves roughly five

hundred million cubic meters that can be tapped and delivered literally anywhere in the country. Typically 95 percent of this amount is pumped into the system.[66] When it was completed in 1964, the Carrier provided two-thirds of the country's water. Of this, 80 percent went for irrigation. With the change in Israel's demographics, however, today half goes to the drinking water supply, and by 2010 this may be as much as 80 percent.[67]

The National Water Carrier also solidified Mekorot's role as the only serious player in the field of water supply and development (by 1965, more than 60 percent of Israeli households were receiving their water directly from Mekorot[68]). It is no wonder that there was a major battle over who would get to build the enormous system. Blass, who had spent six years planning the project and who had already overseen the first tunnel's exca-vation, was convinced that Tahal was best suited for the task. Levi Eshkol, Minister of Finance at the time, was concerned about Blass's tendency to go over budget. Eshkol was also worried that building such an enormous project would shift Tahal's role from one of planning to implementation, undermining institutional distinctions that were already muddled. Pinhas Sapir, still chairman of Mekorot, insisted that it run the project.

As usual Sapir got his way. Blass quit in a furor and never again re-turned to government service.[69] It is ironic that, in looking back on the National Water Carrier, all the old-time water managers give Blass full credit for making the project happen. History, however, is written by politicians, not engineers. The National Carrier's pumping station and mu-seum is called the Sapir Center. From there the water flows to the Eshkol Reservoir at the Netufah Valley.


There were serious water quality problems associated with the National Carrier, most of which were solved by Mekorot's engineers. By far the most significant was the salinity of the water, caused by the salty springs that drained into the Kinneret. In 1964 salinity levels in the lake were measured at 390 milligrams per liter of chlorine (chloride ions).[70](Although Israel's drinking water standard allows chlorine to reach con-centrations of 600 milligrams per liter, it recommends 250 milligrams per liter to reduce the risk of hypertension and improve the taste.) In response, Tahal planned a Saline Carrier that collected the flow of the surrounding saline springs and released them into the Jordan River, south of the lake. Chlorine levels in the Kinneret were immediately cut in half and now measure roughly 200 milligrams per liter, a far more acceptable level.[71]


The Saline Carrier was among the many areas of disagreement with Blass, who insisted that the saline streams' diversion precede all other work (he was overruled, and as a result from 1964 to 1967 Tel Aviv's drinking water was very salty[72]). Even after the diversion, the high chloride content of the Kinneret posed a problem for irrigation. Mekorot responded with a system that diluted the water in transit by injecting clean, low-chloride water into the flow from the lake.[73]

In addition, from its survey during the 1950s, the Ministry of Health was already aware of high levels of coliform bacteria in the Jordan. This was primarily attributed to the runoff from dairies and fishponds (manure is a relatively popular fish food). Chlorination is the standard treatment, but it poses other risks. Chloroform and other trihalomethanes are created in water when organic sediments mix with chlorine gas. These compounds are some of the unfortunate by-products of disinfection and are associated with cancer of the liver.[74] (Given the levels of suspended solids in the Kinneret, it was no surprise when trihalomethanes were discovered in Israeli drinking water.[75]) To make matters worse, the Kinneret has a rela-tively high bromide level (two parts per million), which, when chlorinated, oxidizes to become active bromine. The bromination of these organic ma-terials may pose an even more significant carcinogenic risk.[76]

Even if the cancer risk levels are disputed, the sediments alone created a serious turbidity problem. During the winter months, the Jordan River can turn a dark cocoa-brown from runoff. In those days, the Ministry of Health measured turbidity according to Jackson turbidity units (JTUs), with the benchmark (as opposed to legal) standard set at 10 JTUs. Today, the allowable level has dropped 1000 percent, corresponding to 1 JTU. After rainstorms, however, frequently even the 10-JTU standard could not be met, and turbidity levels went into the thousands, leaving the water unfit for human consumption.[77] This produced the naturally corrosive conditions and murky waters found downstream in the Kinneret.[78]

These factors determined Israel's treatment strategy for the waters de-livered to the south. The Ministry of Health ordered that the Carrier in-clude treatment by coagulation and sedimentation along with chlorination to reduce the pollutant concentrations. No one had any experience in a project this size, so Ben Nessen, the Chief Water Quality Engineer from New York City, was brought over to Israel to help prepare the treatment plan.[79] Nessen's disinfection strategy has changed little in thirty years.[80]

Israel took a chemical rather than a biological approach to drinking-water treatment. For instance, Mekorot engineers for years were nervous about introducing fish into the National Carrier reservoirs as part of the

water's biological treatment. They still had not gotten over the surprise of 1959, when consumers in the south found tiny fish flowing from their taps (the fish had swum out of a reservoir built as a section of the Yarkon-Negev line[81]). By the end of the 1970s, however, evidence of the beneficial properties of fish was compelling. Fish were introduced into the Eshkol Reservoir to eat algae, snails, and other small aquatic creatures, which they devour voraciously.[82]

In evaluating the impacts of Israel's national water system, there is ul-timately no single environmental bottom line. It certainly hurt the Dead Sea. Without the Kinneret spillover, the saltwater lake quickly began to shrink, producing an unsightly naked shoreline and reducing the attrac-tiveness of the recreational experience.[83] Lake Kinneret itself shows mixed trends. Although salinity dropped, other parameters, such as nu-trients, rose. To ensure water quality, the carrier withdraws water at a rel-atively shallow intake that is low in nutrients. This increases the Kinneret's overall concentration of ammonia and sulfides and over the long term may exacerbate the eutrophication or aging processes.[84] Nitrogen, rather than phosphorus, was identified as the nutrient most linked to this phenomenon.[85]

The Carrier made the entire country dependent upon Lake Kinneret's water quality, elevating its preservation to a national priority. During the winter months, newspapers post the level of the lake in their front sections alongside weather forecasts, where it is followed with a devotion otherwise reserved for the standings of the National Soccer League. While far from being springwater, the quality of Lake Kinneret water is reasonable.[86]

The alternatives may have been worse. Blass's impatience was not based solely on the need to expand agriculture but also on the overpumping and rapid salination of the Coastal Aquifer. Groundwater is less subject to re-medial measures than the Kinneret. “The powers-that-be thought that I was only trying to scare them,” he later wrote. “The fact is that by the time the Carrier went on-line, there was already a deficit of 500 million cubic meters along the coastline.”[87]


Once the National Carrier was underway, it was clear that Israel had al-ready tapped the majority of its replenishable water. It was time for the country to institute a policy that focused on conservation and preserva-tion rather than simply allocation and expansion. Such a strategy had to

be anchored in law, with a strong arbiter empowered to sort out competing needs. As early as November 5, 1952, Blass presented thirteen principles for a Water Law to a committee of experts and government ministers. But he was more interested in developing water sources than in writing laws regulating their use.[88]

A subcommittee was appointed, chaired by Haim Halpren, who had moved from being Director of the Ministry to Director of the Agricultural Bank of Israel. At the committee's first meeting, one of its five members, Pinhas Sapir (who was both the Director of Water and the Director of the Ministry of Finance as well as the Chair of Mekorot and Tahal), announced that he was against a water law in principle. At the time Blass was busy planning the National Water Carrier, and it is little wonder that it took seven years for the committee to complete the task.

When it was finally enacted, the Water Law was hailed as an innovative and comprehensive statute.[89] Among its key provisions were the elimina-tion of private water rights, along with a vague guarantee of the public's right to receive and use water as long as it did not deplete a source or cause salination. A Water Commissioner—appointed by the government, based on the Minister of Agriculture's recommendation—oversees the allocation of water. The law created a Water Council to advise the Minister of Agriculture, a Water Court to offer judicial review to the Commissioner's decisions, and a system for setting water prices. Tahal retained its planning function, and by government agreement, Mekorot remained the primary water utility.[90] Yet it fell short of what might be called an environmental statute. The word “pollution” did not appear in any of its 150 sections.[91]

It fell to Moshe Dayan, who then served as Minister of Agriculture, to ap-point the first Water Commissioner. (The relationship between the Commissioner and the Minister of Agriculture can be compared to that be-tween the Israeli Army's Chief of Staff and the Defense Minister.) Here again, Dayan made the right call, setting an important precedent by ap-pointing a professional rather than a politician for the job. Even at age thirty-seven, Menahem Kantor was probably one of the most experienced water engineers in the country. Kantor moved to Israel in 1922, when he was one year old. Fourteen years later he joined the Haganah and soon thereafter found work at Mekorot as one of its first five Haifa-based employees. When Mekorot's planning department moved to Tahal, Kantor went to work under Blass as head of the Hydrology Department. Among his many tasks was as-sessing just how much water was available in the country.[92]

Retired today at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, Kantor describes the water bureaucracy during his tenure as Commissioner as one big happy family.


He has only good things to say of his compatriots, including his old boss, the controversial Simcha Blass. Kantor's quiet, authoritative demeanor was quite a contrast to Blass's emotional style, and he managed to quell some of the turbulence that his former boss enjoyed stirring up. As Water Commissioner, he instituted weekly meetings with the directors of Tahal and Mekorot. Even academia was co-opted. In those days the Technion had an even tighter monopoly on technical training in the field than it does today, and Kantor quickly acted to bring its faculty on board as consultants and thereby ensure a consensus.[93]

The record is not quite so cozy. For instance, in 1967 a committee was established to recommend ways to reduce friction among the different water institutions.[94] As might be expected, the tensions continue to this day.[95] Kantor was respected and consistently came out a survivor in the in-ternecine quarrels. He remained at the job for twenty years, more than twice as long as any subsequent commissioner, and then he went on to run Tahal. His longevity was not hurt by a consistently paternalistic approach towards agricultural interests. The Minister of Agriculture remained the government reference for water until 1996 and was unquestionably the Commissioner's boss. The agricultural sector consistently received the vast majority of overall water allocations, enjoying a much cheaper price than industrial and domestic users, far below the actual costs of extraction. The record shows precipitous deterioration in water quality during Kantor's administration, but water supply ambitions still dominated Israel's hydro-logical agenda.

For a time, desalination was thought to be the key to a continued strat-egy of resource expansion. Although it typically connotes high technol-ogy, the process is hardly new. Aristotle wrote that saltwater became sweet when it turned into vapor and was condensed. During the siege of Alexandria, Julius Caesar used stills to desalinate seawater for his sol-diers.[96] It was only natural, then, for Israel's history-conscious leaders to attempt to give this ancient idea a modern application.

If there was an environmental area in which Prime Minister Ben-Gurion displayed his visionary qualities, it was that of desalination:

The purification of seawater by an inexpensive process is not only vital for Israel—it is a necessity for the world. Hundreds of millions of the inhabitants of the great continent in which we live suffer from lack of food, but as yet only a small part of the earth's surface is tilled. … If Israel succeeds in desalting the water of the sea, it will bring great benefits to the entire human race, and the task is not beyond the power of Israeli science. … The irrigation of the desert with purified seawater

will appear a dream to many, but less than any other country should Israel be afraid of “dreams” which are capable of transforming the natural order by the power of vision, science, and pioneering capacity. All that has been accomplished in this country is the result of “dreams” that have come true by virtue of vision, science, and pioneering capacity.[97]

Spurred by this ardor at the highest level, in 1965 Tahal proposed a fifteen-year, one-hundred-million-dollar massive desalination venture. It was officially adopted by the government, but by then, Ben-Gurion was no longer running the show. This time the Cabinet was not inclined to sign a blank check. Israel tried to interest the U.S. government in joint funding for the project, but the Americans balked at the price, considering the proj-ect technologically premature and economically unfeasible.

At the same time, the agricultural lobby was decidedly unenthusiastic. Even as late as the 1990s, in the circular logic that ruled the agricultural lobby, the idea prevailed that once water was desalinated, farmers would be forced to pay the full treatment price.[98] And so the pursuit of desali-nation technologies was abandoned. Without an engineering fix, Tahal had no alternative water strategy. Instead Tahal lamented inadequate infrastructure and began to assume the prophetic role of “predicting water doomsday.”[99]


Once desalination was deemed prohibitively expensive, water policy mak-ers sought other ways to squeeze more water out of existing resources. Cloud seeding, for example, is still practiced, but it produces only a mod-est increase in rainfall.[100] (The process uses silver iodide, which causes ice particles to form in the clouds. Mekorot estimates that these efforts lead to an additional eighty million cubic meters of rain each year within Israel.[101]) Sewage water was much more promising.

With only a small percentage of freshwater resources being utilized during the 1950s, it is not surprising that Blass took little interest in ef-fluents as a source of irrigation while he was Director of Water. Yet, in con-trast to desalination, irrigation with sewage effluents had two powerful proponents lobbying for it as early as the 1950s. One was Aaron Amrami at the Ministry of Health. His motivation was sanitation. Reuse offered an incentive for cities to collect sewage, treat it, and sell it to agriculture. The other interest group was the farmers themselves. On their own initiative, several kibbutzim established small-scale wastewater irrigation projects and solicited the treated wastes of nearby cities and towns.[102]


The quantities that required treatment were rising fast. During the Mandate, most of the Jewish population had access to running water and flush toilets. For disposal, however, homes relied primarily on septic tanks. Independence did little to change this. Of the thirty new towns that Israel built during its first twenty years of statehood, only one had a waste treatment facility.[103] Certain sectors, such as the kibbutzim and the Arab villages, had neither septic tanks nor central sewage. In the former case this was an ideological decision. Abraham Herzfield, perhaps the central figure in both the Jewish settlement movement and kibbutz budgeting during the formative years after Israeli independence, believed flush toi-lets to be a luxury and violently opposed them. A rumor made the rounds of the sanitation community that when the first kibbutz installed a proper toilet, he burst in with an axe and destroyed it.[104] Herzfield could not stop progress, though, and by the 1960s most kibbutzim permitted their mem-bers the frivolity of a flush toilet. Progress in the Arab sector was some-what slower.

It was the cities, however, that held the key to wastewater reuse. Because of the crowding and heavy, impermeable soils in many neighbor-hoods, septic tanks and pits began to clog and spill over. The stench, health risk, and general nastiness became unacceptable. With public outrage mounting, the Ministry of Housing began to make central sewage systems a priority.[105] During the country's first ten years, Israeli cities and towns began to link homes and businesses systematically to central sewage sys-tems. The trouble was that nothing was waiting for the wastes at the end of the pipe. Sewage was dumped, with little or no treatment, into the clos-est stream, wadi, or body of water.

Once concentrated, the untreated or partially treated wastes created an enormous nuisance. For instance, during the 1960s, 90 percent of mosqui-toes were attributed to untreated sewage outflows, which provided an ideal breeding ground for pests.[106] Groundwater also suffered, although it would take some time to learn how badly. It was not just overpumping and salinity that forced Tel Aviv to close its wells during the early 1950s. The city's ubiquitous septic tanks leaked into the wellheads. Then, in 1956, hundreds of residents in Kiryat Bialik and Kiryat Motzkin, north of Haifa, came down with gastrointestinal diseases.

The initial explanation for the epidemic was food poisoning. But the Ministry of Health sanitary engineers quickly noticed that only specific communities were affected and that the breakout occurred simultaneously in several places. Drinking-water maps revealed that the affected individ-uals all drank water from a well in nearby Afek; it did not take long to find

a sewage source one meter from the well.[107] Based on this experience Shuval, who took over as Chief Sanitary Engineer in 1958, began to press for preventative chlorination. This provided a reduction in short-term risks but addressed the symptom rather than the cause.

The most pervasive problem associated with the neglect of sewage treat-ment was the contamination of rivers (see Figure 19). By 1967 practically all of the streams south of the Galilee were utilized as sewage conduits.[108] A 1970 description of the central region's Alexander Stream is typical:

The appearance of mass quantities of dead fish on the banks of the stream during the month of August 1970 was a depressing sight. The day before the appearance of the fish kill, a powerful stench of sewage was detected in the area of the train bridge. At the same time, the level of water in the river was high as a result of a clogging of the exit to the sea. With the opening of the stoppage the next day, the stream level dropped and the dead fish appeared on the banks. After a few days, things returned to their regular state. Testimonials and photographs point to a typical fish kill, caused by an extreme drop in the level of dissolved oxygen in the water. There was no proof seen nor provided beyond that of Netanya's sewage that was discharged at the time.[109]

It was during this period that the tightly knit agricultural community came to accept sewage as a valuable nutrient resource. Wastewater reuse meant foregoing control over the timing of fertilizer applications; crops might suffer some nutrient deficiency during the winter and then excess nutrients (and weeds) later in the season.[110] Still, farmers were impressed to learn that agricultural yields from sewage-irrigated plots were signifi-cantly higher than from comparable plots with normal water, even when an equal amount of fertilizer was added (in some cases, yields were two to three times greater).[111] With sewage disposal problems mounting and an agricultural sector willing to be part of the solution, reuse seemed to offer the proverbial two birds with one stone.

In 1956 Tahal drafted a national Master Plan for Israel Irrigation Development. It projected 150 million cubic meters of wastewater for agri-cultural usage.[112] For once, Blass's predictions turned out to be pessimistic. Today Israel recycles twice that amount of water. In 1962, fifty projects connecting Israeli farms to municipal sewage treatment centers were up and running. By 1972 the number had climbed to 120, using 20 percent of all urban sewage.[113] Today, Israel's 66 percent reuse rate is spectacular alongside that of other countries; the United States, for example, recycles only 2.4 percent of its sewage.[114] There were certain disadvantages from

the farmer's perspective, however. For instance, the small number of per-missible crops that could receive the effluent limited the combinations of rotations. And then there was the smell! But once Israel bought into sewage as an irrigation source, it never looked back.

In the short term at least, wastewater recycling was more cost-effective than desalination. Yet here too the government was unwilling or unable to generate capital locally to launch a major reuse initiative. It therefore turned to the World Bank. In 1972 the Bank provided a thirty-million-dollar loan to establish the National Sewage Project. Run as a revolving loan program, it identified seventy-eight subprojects involving seventy-five local authorities. By 1981 the long list of projects was completed. Although not a panacea, this loan gave Israel's environmental infrastruc-ture a substantial boost.

The jewel in the public-works crown was the Dan Regional Wastewater Reclamation Project, which received 40 percent of the overall National Sewage Project budget. By the late 1960s, Tel Aviv's problematic aerobic settling ponds had been redesigned and the offending smells dissipated.[115] The initial cooperation showed that economies of scale held clear advan-tages and that a regional approach was more efficient. A half dozen more coastal cities wanted to join the consortium, bringing the total amount of sewage in the greater Tel Aviv area that had to be collected and treated to ninety million cubic meters a year. The system urgently needed an up-grade. On the collection side, the National Sewage Project funded five hun-dred kilometers of sewers and force mains, eighty pumping stations, and forty treatment works.[116]

For a change, the investment in sewage treatment was as serious as the investment in the plumbing. The Dan Union of Cities enlarged the aeration ponds (approximately two thousand dunams) on the Rishon L'Tzion sand dunes. It installed additional secondary and advanced treat-ment technologies, based on activated sludge and denitrification. As the final stage of treatment, the wastes were recharged into the aquifer (through flooding and drying). After a prolonged period of dilution un-derground, the water is generally clean enough to drink.[117] For aesthetic reasons, however, when the third line to the Negev became operational in 1989, all the eighty million cubic meters of water a year it sent south were designated for agricultural use. The total price tag for the initiative was only 115 million dollars,[118] but it increased the national water sup-ply by 6 percent.[119]

While sewage's popularity grew as a source of water, the Ministry of Health moved to confront a potentially lethal public-health problem. It

was the pathogens and bacteria in the wastes, rather than the high salinity in the effluents, that bothered them most.[120] In 1953 the Ministry recommended some of the first wastewater irrigation standards in the world, disqualifying raw sewage as an irrigation source. Yet even primary and secondary treatment of wastes does not always rid sewage of pathogens and bacteria. Thus, the Ministry limited the crops that could be grown with treated sewage to cotton, fodder, and produce that is not consumed raw.[121] If these proscriptions were followed, then using efflu-ents was deemed safe. For instance, a study of eighty-one kibbutzim dur-ing the 1970s found little significant difference between the health of communities that used sewage effluents in irrigation and those that did not.[122]

The problem was that the Ministry of Health's irrigation recommen-dations were often ignored. Gastrointestinal illness was part of life in Israel until the 1970s. For instance, during the 1960s, 6 percent of hospi-talizations and 8 percent of outpatient visits[123] were related to digestive-tract problems; fruits and vegetables were among the main causes. Perhaps the loudest wake-up call to the effluent-irrigation problem was the 1970 outbreak of cholera in Jerusalem. Some 250 laboratory-confirmed cases were reported between August and October of that year. Because of the higher incidence among Jerusalem's Arab population, it was deduced that the disease was caused by vegetables sold in East Jerusalem markets. Typically they were irrigated and contaminated by raw sewage water.[124]

The disease perpetuated itself as patients' excrement made its way through the city's sewage system. (The Environmental Health Laboratory at the Hadassah Medical School found 18 percent of sewage samples for the city to be positively contaminated with the Vibrio cholerae bacteria.) Even though treatment could not neutralize the pathogen, sewage water continued to be utilized by many Arab small farmers, who were dependent on it for irrigation, in particular during the summer months. The Ministry of Health scrambled to close restaurants linked to cholera and to give locals and tourists the painful cholera vac-cination. But the infected sewage continued to flow into the Dead Sea through the Kidron Stream or to the Mediterranean via the Sorek.[125] In November there was an outbreak in the Gaza Strip with an additional three hundred cases; half of the victims were children.[126] The Knesset re-sponded by amending the Public Health Ordinance. It empowered the Ministry of Health to promulgate legally binding standards for sewage

treatment prior to wastewater irrigation.[127] The Ministry did so—eleven years after the cholera outbreak.[128]


One consequence of the Six-Day War of 1967 was Israeli control over all of the Jordan River's tributaries. There had been at least a dozen water-related cease-fire violations in the Jordan River basin since 1951.[129] But, for the time being, the issue of the Kinneret's water supply seemed resolved—quite favorably, from Israel's perspective. (Transboundary water quality problems would not be recognized until thirty years later.[130]) The National Water Carrier was up and running. Water was even discovered in considerable quantities in the Arava, and subsequently a string of settle-ments was established.[131] With water quantity falling into place, sustain-able allocation and water quality should have at long last become the Water Commissioner's paramount issue. Yet this was not to be. Spurred on by the new resources liberated during the Six-Day War, Israel's political leaders were not yet ready to abandon a paradigm that had so successfully lubricated past development. Pollution would have to wait for government attention—but of course it did not.

Israel's water is naturally alkaline and hard, quickly coating the coun-try's electric teakettles with the chalky white residues of calcium carbon-ate. Salts are often added by industries and laundries to soften the water. Intensive human activities quickly upset the natural water chemistry, however. The Water Commission was well aware of a steady deterioration in water quality. Yet initially its experts did not fully grasp the scope of the problem. The only pollutant that garnered serious attention was salt. Salinity takes many forms, but is usually regulated according to chlorine concentration (salt is composed of sodium and chlorine atoms). It can also be roughly assessed by measuring electrical conductivity because the atoms are ionized. At high enough levels, salinity is associated with hy-pertension and elevated risk of heart disease.[132] Its negative impacts on crop yields has been apparent since the dawn of agriculture. Of course, its effect on taste is often what people notice first.

The fixation on salt makes sense, given the perspective of water man-agers who were obsessed with expanding access to water resources during Israel's early years. Salinity is a parameter directly linked to issues of groundwater mining and overpumping. Even today, former Commissioner Kantor speaks of no other environmental parameter.[133] This narrow water

quality orientation is reflected in the original text of the 1959 Water Law, purportedly the most modern water statute in the world at the time. Although the law did not include the terms “pollution,” “contaminant,” or “water quality,” it did prohibit activities causing salination.

During the 1950s and 1960s, scientists did not seem to fully grasp the contribution of surface pollutants. For instance, Israel's romance with wastewater reuse exacerbated the salinity levels in groundwater. Wastewater is saltier than freshwater, because conventional treatment does not really remove what is added during its original use, such as the leftover water softeners from industry. The salting of kosher meats makes slaughterhouses the single greatest contributor to Israel's effluent salin-ity.[134] Furthermore, effluents sit in storage ponds until farmers need them in the summer. The resulting evaporation raises salt concentrations even further.[135]

Dan Zaslavsky, a professor of engineering at the Technion, served as Israel's Water Commissioner during the 1990s. He describes the perils of the prevailing management strategy of the period:

Intuitively, water managers thought that the amount of water that you could pump should be equal to recharge. But they didn't consider two things: First, you are adding salts all the time from above, and you have to rinse them out. Second, you may be getting salts from lower geological strata. I still have to explain to hydrologists that if you don't allow water to flow to the sea, salts will concentrate indefinitely. The major problem for water managers in Israel and in fact in most arid and semiarid countries is to change the balance of solutes: to import less into the source and export more.[136]

It is little wonder that Zaslavsky has emerged as Israel's most outspoken promoter of tough, drinking-water-level treatment standards for sewage or discontinuation of wastewater reuse in Israel altogether. Yet he is quick to defend the conscientiousness of Israel's first generation of hydrologists, whose determination made the desert green.

The practical way to prevent overpumping was to set an optimal level of usage, beyond which no pumping of water would be allowed. Unfortunately, this required more hydrogeological knowledge than was available. Kantor explains the somewhat arbitrary origins of Israel's most famous environmental standard:

I thought we were dealing with 3.5 billion cubic meters of water per year, and today I know that I'm a lot poorer. But I also knew from the first minute in the job that I had to establish a “red line” beneath which we wouldn't pump. This required a national consensus. Not

among citizens, but in academia. Almost all the Israeli academics were working for me already. We'd supplement them every five years by hosting a forum of international experts on hydrology. We'd send out materials, and they would prepare for the meeting. And that's how we established the red line in the early 1960s. It was in the concluding session of one of these meetings.[137]

The designation of red lines in Israel's three major sources of water was ultimately a somewhat arbitrary “guesstimate.” Once they were set, however, the Kinneret's and the aquifers' red lines assumed enormous significance and quickly entered the national consciousness. Weather broadcasts refer to them, informing the public about the practical importance of rainstorms. As Water Commissioner, Kantor took them very seriously.

But not everyone was as conscientious as Menahem Kantor. As Israel's Water Commissioner, Dan Zaslavsky took bold action to reduce allocation and bring water levels up above the red line. Zaslavsky remains furious at the lenient attitude towards red lines and the chronic overpumping that prevailed among previous Water Commissioners during the 1970s and 1980s, when agriculture received whatever it asked for, regardless of the available reserves.[138] Meir Ben-Meir, a lifelong advocate for agricultural interests, served as Water Commissioner twice, during the early 1980s and at the end of the 1990s. His cavalier attitude towards the red lines and al-location policies, which seemed to reflect a belief that overpumping could continue with hydrological impunity, made him a reviled figure among many in the environmental community.

At the end of 1990, State Comptroller Miriam Ben Porat prepared a scathing review of water allocation policy at the Water Commission. The collective deficit of the aquifers and the Kinneret had reached 1.6 billion cubic meters—an entire year's worth of water. The drop in water table lev-els caused by the overpumping allowed the seawater to encroach 1.5 kilo-meters inland.[139] Sixteen percent of the wells in Israel's largest Coastal Aquifer were deemed unusable, because of chlorine concentrations too high even for agriculture.[140] By then it was clear that pollutants other than salinity might be just as deleterious to Israel's water resources.


On February 15, 1953, Dr. S. Wago, a pediatrician from the Zrifin hospital, admitted a three-week-old infant from Ramla and immediately diagnosed her condition as acute methemoglobinemia. In layman's terms, the baby was

suffering from blue-baby syndrome. Methemoglobinemia occurs following exposure to excessive nitrate levels. Infants (and some stomach cancer victims) have bacteria in their stomach that reduce nitrates to nitrites. When nitrified water is ingested, the hemoglobin in the blood shows a distinct preference for the nitrite ion and binds with it to the exclusion of oxygen. When oxygen levels in the blood drop too low, asphyxiation sets in.[141]

In this case, the infant was lucky and was only in an intermediate stage of distress. After a shot of methylene blue, her color returned to its natural state. A day later the baby could be released.[142] Two years later, an-other Ramla girl was brought to the emergency room with the same symptoms. The treatment produced similar results, but she returned a day later in a critical blue condition even after the family had begun to drink water from another faucet in the neighborhood. Samples showed nitrate levels at her family's home reaching sixty-seven milligrams per liter (the recommended drinking water standard was forty-five milligrams per liter, although Israeli regulations allowed levels to go twice that high). In her re-port Dr. Wago hypothesized that the reason that more infants were not af-fected by the high nitrate levels was because most babies nursed. Even if methemoglobinemia never reached epidemic proportions, there was room for concern about the carcinogenicity of nitrosamines, a by-product of ni-trates after they are metabolized.[143]

The Ministry of Health was consulted on this and three subsequent cases of the disease.[144] The Sanitation Department sensed that nitrates posed a more severe public-health problem than salinity, even if the chem-ical was of little interest to the official water agencies. On this issue, they found an ally in the form of a Mrs. Esther Foa, who worked at the Hydrological Service. Although she never published in professional jour-nals, she was deeply concerned about nitrates and began to collect copious quantities of data about the steady increase in concentrations, which she passed on to the Sanitary Department.[145] At the turn of the century, ni-trates were almost nonexistent in Israeli wells.[146] By 1970 Foa reported three hundred wells within the Coastal Aquifer that had reached the rec-ommended forty-five-milligrams-per-liter ceiling, with several showing nitrate concentrations as high as 100 milligrams per liter.[147]

Stopping nitrate pollution is a particularly daunting regulatory chal-lenge, because its sources are so diffused. Nitrogen is a basic nutrient with-out which plants cannot survive, and synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers (e.g., ammonia) have been the crucial factor for the last century in the in-creased productivity of farmers around the world. (Cow manure is such a good fertilizer because it contains fifteen times the nitrate concentrations

of human wastes.) When fertilizer is applied at a rate faster than the plants can absorb, however, the chemical leaches into the groundwater. In nonagricultural areas, the problem was particularly acute in wells lo-cated near septic tanks.

Eventually the planners at Tahal began to wake up to the problem. In 1972 Dr. Chen Soliternick prepared the first systematic evaluation of the problem. Soliternick estimated that about forty-eight thousand tons of ni-trates reached the soil, beyond the plants' ability to absorb them. Most of these nitrates could be traced to agriculture. Of the six identifiable sources, over 50 percent of the loadings came from manure and fertilizer applica-tions.[148] Soliternick also identified wastewater irrigation as a major nitrate source.[149] Data indicated that it would not take long before the water from entire sections of the Coastal Aquifer would be rendered unfit for human consumption. Of even greater concern was the discovery of increasing ni-trate concentrations in the Mountain Aquifer. Although its nitrate levels were still within the drinking-water standards, this much deeper source of water previously had been considered to be in pristine condition.[150]

Regardless of the pathway, most of the nitrate contamination could be traced to Israeli agriculture. But Kantor and subsequent water commis-sioners had a paternalistic attitude towards farmers. They never got tough on the issue. For example, Section 20(D)(2) of the Water Law amendments of 1971 calls for the issuing of regulations to control agricultural cultiva-tion and fertilizer usage. The Water Commissioner never drafted any such regulation for the Minister of Agriculture to sign. Nor did a Water Commissioner ever promulgate any directives to protect water from the growing menu of pesticides, even though the Water Law empowers him to set such regulations as well. Ultimately the Water Commission never owned water quality as an issue and never felt compelled to go beyond the bacteriology-and pathogen-based standards of the Ministry of Health.[151]

Even at the very end of the twentieth century, Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir preferred to accept nitrification of Israel's aquifers as in-evitable and focus instead on well water treatment.[152] The selective elec-trodialysis provided by Israeli companies (using EDA, a Mitsubishi sub-sidiary's technology) can reduce nitrate concentrations by some 50 percent for a fee of roughly one shekel per cubic meter.[153] The price and concen-trations will rise as the aquifer's nitrate levels continue to mount. Combating pollution at its source required sophisticated enforcement efforts and political resolve, rendering it an unpopular policy option.

For forty years Israel's water policy towards agriculture was consistent: Copious quantities were provided at a low, highly subsidized price.

Farmers understandably took the path of least resistance. The lack of any clear regulatory signal spawned inefficiencies. Water-intensive crops such as cotton were introduced. No one considered whether it made sense for Israel to export its scarce supplies of water (in the form of produce) or whether there was an associated environmental price tag.

Kantor today becomes angry when it is suggested that water policies were influenced by an agricultural lobby. “It is just silly and ignorant to claim that there was an agricultural lobby,” he says. Lapsing into the Zionist catechism, he explains that “in those days we knew that the water was available and that if we wanted to make the country blossom we had to develop it. You know, not long ago if you drove fifteen kilometers south of Tel Aviv everything was brown. Government bureaucrats did not change this. Farmers did. And I don't know a single farmer who got rich from his work.” Kantor is appalled at present policies that have reneged on the national commitment to the Israeli farmer. He calls present agricul-tural policies “a national larceny.”[154] But a firmer regulatory approach to agriculture, designed to preserve water quality and impose an ethos of hy-drological frugality and conservation, might better serve the long-term in-terests of Israel's farmers.[155]

It is important to emphasize that Israeli agriculture was never the one-dimensional dinosaur that some environmentalists like to vilify. Beyond farmers' achievements in wastewater reuse, Israel is deservedly proud of being among the few food exporters in the Middle East, where hundreds of billions of dollars go to imported food to meet a growing population's basic needs.[156] And, of course, its paramount innovation has been drip irrigation.


Once again Simcha Blass emerges as an unheralded hero. In terms of global significance, the tiny, individual drops of water that Blass learned to release through his irrigation pipes dwarf the rushing streams of water flowing in his massive engineering projects. Like many inventions, it was something of a fluke. According to his memoirs, sometime during the 1930s Blass visited Abraham Lubzovsky, a Second Aliyah pioneer near his Karkur home. Lubzovsky proudly showed Blass an enormous tree that had been watered by a leaky pipe that had left droplets of water on the seem-ingly dry surrounding soil. In Blass's inimitable words: “Water droplets raising a giant tree hit me like a mosquito in the mind of Titus the Evil.”[157]


It would take Blass another twenty years to find the time to perfect the technology. By the end of the 1950s, however, low-cost plastic piping en-abled him to develop a system that used a fraction of the water with much greater efficacy than conventional sprinklers did.[158] Rather than flooding the plant's root zone, water (and fertilizer) is spoon-fed to trees and plants drop by drop through narrow black pipes whose drippers regulate the amount of water released. Computer systems eventually optimized the rate and timing of applications.[159]

Blass set out, peddling his innovation to Israel's economic establish-ment. Although they heard him out, the contraption was politely dismissed as harebrained by the major economic corporations of the period, including several kibbutzim who later came to regret their position.[160] Eventually Blass settled on Kibbutz Haterzim, a young set-tlement near Beer Sheva, as a partner. On August 8, 1965, they created the Netafim Company, and production began.[161] Thirty-three years later, for Israel's fiftieth anniversary, a team of experts picked Blass's drippers as the most important Israeli invention since the founding of the State.

As Netafim grew to become the undisputed world leader in drip irri-gation, racking up over two hundred million dollars in annual sales by the end of the 1990s, Israel's reputation as the state-of-the-art leader in water engineering reached new highs.[162] For instance, a Netafim-supplied ten-thousand-acre cotton plantation in Arizona was the biggest drip irrigation site in the world.[163] (Although Netafim representatives feigned embarrassment, it probably did not hurt their business when California law enforcers attributed much of the earnings in the state's lucrative marijuana crop to savings from the efficient Israeli technol-ogy.[164]) Drip irrigation solved any number of technical problems. Evaporation is greatly reduced relative to sprinkler or flood systems. Even steep terrain and shallow soils, as well as coarse sands and clays—which had always posed a problem for traditional irrigation techniques—responded favorably.[165]

Much of the water delivered to Israeli farms is recycled sewage, and drippers hold the additional environmental advantage of not producing aerosols, which can form from conventional sprinklers and drift 750 me-ters downwind. When recycled sewage was delivered to vegetables via drip irrigation systems, they were free of infectious bacteria.[166] With the steady increase in wastewater reuse, Israeli farmers reduced water demand per yield to new lows.[167] From the perspective of conservation, Israeli farmers

were justifiably admired around the world as a paragon of thrifty water management.[168]


Despite the country's sentimental attachment to agriculture, it was indus-try that quickly came to serve as the backbone of Israel's thriving economy. For the first ten years of the State, factories enjoyed carte blanche when it came to the environment. Eventually, however, the pollution became too offensive to ignore. With the Water Commission's blessing, in 1971 new draconian antipollution provisions to the Water Law were enacted.[169]

Under the amended section, the definition of water pollution was broader than comparable definitions in other environmental laws passed at the same time, such as the U.S. Clean Water Act. The amendments gave the Water Commissioner almost dictatorial powers to defend water re-sources.[170] The Commissioner is authorized to institute a system of envi-ronmental permits, force polluters to clean up environmental damage, and even order without warning the cessation of water supply to a pollution source. The trouble was that this formidable environmental arsenal was never really used. Industry's insouciance was therefore not surprising.

Despite Kantor's convenient recollections of his “standing up to indus-try,” general government obsequiousness to, or even collusion with, in-dustrial interests has been glaringly apparent to this day. Water Commissioners made only token efforts to hold industry's feet to the fire. Between 1974 and 1976 the Commissioner issued twenty-eight orders against polluters, requiring the upgrading of effluent quality. Compliance was extremely spotty.[171]

There were many reasons for the poor record in this realm. Many in-dustries were government-owned and enjoyed functional immunity. The lack of an enforcement team at the Commission that could effectively measure pollution levels did not help either. Frequently, monitoring re-sults were fabricated in reports, with no government follow-up. For in-stance, as late as 1994, Dr. Mouna Noufi, an analytical chemist working for the public-interest environmental group Adam Teva V'din, measured the actual discharges into the Kishon River from various outfalls of Haifa-area petrochemical plants. The facilities were still operating under the lenient requirements of a 1979 generic permit from the Water Commissioner. Noufi's laboratory results proved all outfalls to be in violation of the ef-fluent standards, with one factory discharging wastes with concentrations a thousand times above the permissible level.[172]


Even without this chemical analysis, biology offered a damning indict-ment. Dead fish and the sickeningly sweet stench of chemicals in rivers and on beaches could hardly be ignored. When former frogmen from Israel's elite commando unit “Shayetet 13” began to develop cancer, they began to blame their military training during the 1970s and 1980s in and around the Kishon River. A Commission of Inquiry, headed by former Chief Justice Meir Shemgar, was formed in 2000 to consider claims of the Navy's negligence. When Shemgar's commission confirmed the sick vet-erans' complaint, the Navy temporarily took the unprecedented step of suspending all military diving until it could sample water quality in all training areas, as recommended by the report. The story provided another rare, full-front-page sensational environmental headline that passed from public consciousness as quickly as it had entered.[173]

When the Water Commissioner did move to address a particular facet of the pollution problem, implementation was feeble. Industry did not seem to take his rules seriously. The ban on hard detergents that the Minister of Agriculture promulgated in 1974 is illustrative. In the mid-1960s the United States and England banned laundry detergents that were less than 80 percent biodegradable. In these “hard” detergents, conven-tional sodium (as in soap) was replaced with organic sulfur, because its sol-ubility was not limited by the level of water acidity. When rinsed into a body of water, however, the resulting suds interfere with aerobic processes and lead to fish kills. The Water Regulations (Prohibition of Hard Detergents), promulgated in 1974, forbade the import or manufacture of hard detergents without a permit from the Water Commissioner.[174] Over two years later, a study showed that most laundry detergents in use were still categorized as hard, in flagrant violation of the regulations.[175]

As Israel came to assume a position of world leadership in the area of wastewater reuse, industrial noncompliance became particularly problem-atic. As mentioned, some negative hydrological impacts from sewage re-cycling are inevitable, because effluent waters are much saltier than fresh-water and tend to exacerbate groundwater salination. Contamination by industrial toxins, however, is avoidable. Most domestic sewage systems re-ceived wastes from the city's industrial zones as well as from residential homes. When pretreatment at the factories was poor, conventional sewage purification facilities could not remove the toxic contaminants, such as heavy metals and organic solvents. As farmers watered their fields with treated sewage, they had no idea that they were systematically spreading industrial chemicals across the soil. With the exception of chromium, con-centrations of heavy metals generally remain low in Israel's sewage.

Nonetheless, 5 to 10 percent increases in cadmium at the plow level have been measured.[176]

As early as 1974, Tahal hydrologists were predicting contamination of the Coastal Aquifer by toxic chemicals and metals in sewage effluents re-claimed for irrigation. The models suggested that the northern part of the aquifer would be contaminated by the year 2000.[177] It did not take that long. In the late 1980s, research conducted by Dr. Leah Muszkot indicated that industrial chemicals had already reached rural wells.[178]

Muszkot was an unlikely ecosleuth. An analytical chemist working out of the Volcani Institute, her research took place within the agricultural es-tablishment, funded and supported by the Ministry of Agriculture. Muszkot was careful not to sensationalize the results of her research at conferences or with the press.[179] She was unwilling to show environmen-tal organizations maps indicating the precise location of well sites. But she did publish the results of samples taken from wells at thirty-meter depths in areas with twenty years of wastewater irrigation.

Her mass spectrometer identified a veritable toxic cocktail of chemi-cals.[180] Israel did not even have drinking-water standards for chemicals that she reported on, such as benzene and toluene and the many organic compounds used in the plastics industry. For years it had been easy to discount concerns about industrial contamination as doomsday exagger-ations and hide behind the pervasive uncertainty in the hydrology mod-els. The presence of industrial, carcinogenic chemicals in groundwater underlying nonindustrial regions such as the Sharon suggest that not only Navy commandos will pay the price for pervasive environmental casualness among Israeli manufacturers and those whose job it was to monitor them.


From an institutional perspective, these disparate water quality issues share a common denominator. According to the traditional English admin-istrative orientation that survived in Israeli laws, municipal governments were the key institutional address for combating public-health insults and nuisances. In fact, however, they were often the problem. For example, Israeli cities were responsible for delivering water to the tap but typically lacked the technical staff to ensure optimal chlorination levels. In addition, city governments profited from the water they sold to residents, under-mining any incentive to encourage conservation. Although the Licensing of Business Law empowered them to set environmental conditions for factories

and commercial enterprises, protecting their local property tax base constituted a more compelling interest.

Drinking-water quality is another example of the bureaucratic quandary created by a multiplicity of central and local agencies. Technically the Minister of Health was empowered to set drinking-water standards but failed to do so for twenty-five years. Instead, between 1958 and 1970, a nonbinding instruction sheet adopted by the Israel Standards Institute was used by regional doctors to determine the potability of the country's drinking water.[181] In practice Mekorot pumped and delivered 60 percent of the water to municipalities, but the cities provided the delivery, including chlorination.

Mekorot was a public utility that needed to be regulated itself; it was not designed to be an overseeing agency. But with its meager resources, the Ministry of Health's monitoring capacity was limited. The Ministry could take only about 6500 samples of water each year during the 1950s, testing for a very narrow number of drinking-water parameters.[182] By the mid-1960s, this number had quadrupled, if Mekorot's own testing was considered, but the financial constraints also meant that only bacterial concentrations were checked regularly, and small population centers went virtually untested.[183] For the most part, water quality seemed acceptable.

The serious water problems were to be found in areas where there was not only no information, but also no running water. By 1957, ten Arab vil-lages in the Galilee had been connected to Mekorot's water system, and their drinking water quality was comparable to the Jewish sector's. But that was only 14 percent of the Israeli Arab sector.[184] A special committee was formed to address the issue, but it would take years before the gap began to close.

As chemical analysis became more precise, and environmental epidemi-ology advanced, the number of potential drinking-water contaminants ex-panded. Testing was expensive. The Ministry of Health's own 1974 stan-dards required only that drinking water sources be given a full chemical checkup once a decade![185] (Bacteriological testing was much more fre-quent, but cities with as many as twenty thousand residents were checked only on a monthly basis.) The Ministry of Health had little choice but to leave the drinking-water issue at the doorstep of local governments, even though it knew that they lacked the budget, interest, or technical capabil-ities to treat drinking water properly.

Pollution from sewage, arguably the most severe environmental prob-lem of the period, is also the best example of municipal failure. Although

the Water Commissioner was responsible for water resources in general, sewage was framed as a local issue. Under the British Mandate's Municipal Sewage Ordinance and the 1962 Local Authorities (Sewage) Law that re-placed it, city governments are responsible for sewage.[186] Under the 1962 statute, they are granted special authority to levy two types of sewage taxes to pay for infrastructure. The surcharges have been hailed as an ex-pression of the “polluter pays” principle.[187] But until the 1990s, Israeli mayors made a mockery of the concept, diverting sewage charges to more politically popular budget items, such as festivals and football stadiums.[188]

The Ministry of the Interior, the agency responsible for enforcing the sewage law, was also responsible for the solvency of local government. Perennially short on resources, the Ministry usually found it easier to ig-nore long-term pollution problems and to focus, for instance, on finding the funds to cover a city's education budget deficit. Moreover, the Ministry of Health was already involved in the issue of sewage water monitoring and standard setting. The Minister of the Interior and the Water Commissioner could place their limited resources in other areas and pre-tend that sewage treatment was somebody else's problem.

Symbolic efforts were made in response to the capacity gap. For exam-ple, Israeli kitchen sinks almost universally lack garbage disposals, in order to reduce the organic loadings on the overloaded municipal treatment cen-ters. The inadequacy of investment in sewage infrastructure, however, has prevailed until the present.


The Kinneret Secretariat, in retrospect, is the closest thing to a water-quality success story from this period. Yet it too reflects the Water Commission's dubious commitment to water quality during the 1960s and 1970s. As the Kinneret's role as a national reservoir became clear, consid-erable energy went into limnological research in order to understand and protect it better. By 1968 over five hundred articles, books, and reports about the lake had been published, mostly during the preceding ten years.[189] The picture that emerged was not encouraging.

When the JNF drained the Huleh region, it removed an essential “nu-trient sink” that absorbed much of the nitrogen and phosphorus from the surface runoff into the Kinneret. In addition, the rich organic peat, newly exposed and nitrified, was washed down into the reservoir. The resulting 50 pecent increase in nutrient loadings threatened to induce eutrophica-tion.[190] Straightening segments of the Jordan River also increased the

amount of sediments flushed directly into the lake. In 1964, Mekorot, re-sponsible for operating the National Water Carrier, recognized the danger and approached both the Minister of Agriculture and the Water Commissioner with a request to create a Kinneret Watershed Authority to protect water quality. Kantor agreed in theory and set up a committee to discuss the possibility but then stalled.[191]

It was a peculiar dynamic. Generally, a national Water Commissioner, charged with protecting Israel's water resources, should serve as the main promoter of water quality. The regulated utility is expected to take a more evasive role. In the Kinneret it was just the opposite. Perhaps the best thing about putting Mekorot in charge of operating the National Water Carrier was that it forced its managers to take a long-term look at water quality.

When Bob Davis, a South African limnologist, joined his son in Israel in 1971, Haim Gofer, the new Kinneret Committee head, asked him to prepare a comprehensive assessment of the lake.[192] Davis's report sug-gested that the Kinneret was in an advanced trophic state. He predicted that if immediate measures were not taken to reduce its nutrient loads, the lake would die.[193] The trouble was that the engineers at the Water Commission had never really taken into account the Kinneret's role as an aquatic habitat but rather saw it only as a reservoir.[194] When the Water Commissioner did not respond to Davis's recommendations, it was leaked to the press, creating quite a stir. (Kantor later claimed he never saw the report.) Yigael Alon met with Davis and created a special committee of Ministerial Directors General to field a Kinneret strategy. The Com-mittee banned all construction within fifty meters of the lake and also called for a new regional plan to protect the Kinneret. The Water Commissioner fired Gofer, apparently for insubordination.[195]

In all fairness, it should be said that the Kinneret Secretariat, declared in 1971 and formally authorized as a Regional Drainage Authority, made remarkable progress. Drainage authorities are created primarily to prevent flooding and to continue the job of land reclamation. They are not consid-ered to be environmental pit bulls. But, after thirty years, the Kinneret Secretariat has shown what a committed drainage agency can do if it has high-quality data, a cogent watershed orientation, and political support. The Secretariat's activities included developing and managing the shore-line, supervising fishing, and monitoring bacteria and pesticide residues, as well as launching environmental education initiatives. Perhaps most im-portant has been its policy of no effluent discharge, which led to upgraded sewage treatment and to improved solid waste management in sanitary landfills outside the watershed.[196]


Environmental indicators, for a change, reflect meaningful progress. During the past twenty years eutrophication has not advanced, and indi-cators such as primary production and chlorophyll did not rise between 1972 and 1993 (at the same time there has been an increase in total nitro-gen concentrations and algal biomass in the lake).[197] This remains a far cry from a fairytale ending. Today the Kinneret is still polluted by a variety of point sources, including drainage pipes and outfalls from industrial areas such as the Zemah complex.[198] Overpumping during the drought years of 2000 and 2001 shrank the lake's banks as never before. Yet, had the Coastal Aquifer been protected as energetically as the Kinneret was by the Secretariat, Israel's natural resource portfolio would be much richer today.


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.


Change appeared to come in the form of Dan Zaslavsky, a bespectacled professor of agricultural engineering at the Technion given to wearing suspenders and exploring alternative energy sources. Zaslavsky was born into a family of engineers. Following the 1948 war, he started out his adult life on a kibbutz, but it proved too confining for a man of his considerable

talents. After completing a Ph.D. in soil physics at Iowa State University in 1960, he returned to Israel and thrived in academia and as a consulting engineer. Zaslavsky's research and personal interests generally went be-yond the theoretical, and during the 1980s he briefly served as Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Energy. Yet until 1990, Zaslavsky was just an-other of the many illustrious Haifa-based academics.[207] All that changed when he was unexpectedly appointed to be Israel's Water Commissioner.

Rafael “Raful” Eitan became Minister of Agriculture after the 1988 elec-tions and brought a reputation for honesty to the job. Soon recognizing that Israel's water resources were being cheated, Eitan wanted to fire the Water Commissioner, Zemach Yishai, immediately. But Yishai was active in Liberal Party politics and was close friends with Likud minister Moshe Nisim, who backed him. With the Labor Party tacitly supporting Yishai's proagricultural positions, Eitan was initially unable to muster the majority required in the Cabinet to throw him out. When the State Comptroller dropped her bomb about Israel's water management, he had the excuse he needed to replace Yishai with an expert.

Zaslavsky never learned from whom the Minister of Agriculture got his name. Originally Eitan offered Zaslavsky chairmanship of the Mekorot water utility, a position which did not interest him. So Eitan told him, “You know what, you'll be de facto Water Commissioner, and I'll work with you until Zemach Yishai leaves.”[208] In fact, the Water Law gave the Minister of Agriculture most of the key powers to make policy decisions. So until Yishai stepped down, Zaslavsky worked as “adviser to the Minister,” focusing on long-term planning after years of apparent neg-lect.[209] Once appointed Commissioner, he focused on the short term. The situation was considered critical: With the Coastal Aquifer and the Kinneret rapidly approaching the red lines, the threat of a drinking water shortage loomed for the first time in the country's history. There was no time for changes in price structures, deregulation schemes, or new laws.[210] Eitan heard Zaslavsky's remedy—drastic cuts in allocations—and decided to push the bitter pill on his constituents.

The State Comptroller's report had raised the profile of the water short-age, and the drought weighed heavily on the public consciousness. After the Iraqi Scuds stopped falling in the spring of 1991, Zaslavsky started to make his changes. He tried to use economic tools, cutting subsidies and raising water prices. But the Knesset grandstanded the changes, and his boss, the Minister, was powerless to help. Then Zaslavsky tried to cut allo-cations to the cities and to dry up grassy parklands he considered wasteful given the need for austerity. The nation's mayors called his regulations

illegal, and the law was on their side. So Zaslavsky appealed directly to the public. During the two years of drought, there was a voluntary drop of 10 percent in overall urban usage—not withstanding the increase in immi-gration and economic growth during the period. Zaslavsky recalls the re-markable swelling of civic spirit and how citizens would proudly tell him how they tiled over gardens for the national good. Only the mayors were recalcitrant.[211]

Seventy percent of Israel's water was still going to the farmers, though, and here Zaslavsky was resolute. On the whole, farmers were extremely resentful of even minor cuts. One Friday morning, Zaslavsky was invited to speak in Tel Aviv, at a meeting chaired by former Water Commissioner Meir Ben Meir, who then headed the Agricultural Research Center. He never got a chance to talk. One after another, speakers launched into tirades. Part of the problem may have been Zaslavsky's presentation. It took little time for farmers to recognize that he was smarter than anyone else in the room and knew a lot more about water; some agricultural ad-vocates found this hard to take. Years later, one agricultural lobbyist would quip that three years of drought were not as destructive to Israel's agri-culture as two years of Dan Zaslavsky.

The cuts Zaslavsky spoke of were tantamount to a hydrological earth-quake. Ultimately the issue reached the government. But the Minister of Agriculture backed his man, and Zaslavsky got his way. Yitzhak Shamir, who was the Prime Minister, presided over a very heated debate:

I didn't need to be an expert in water. I had enough experts who were quite dedicated and serious about the subject. We heard Zaslavsky, who certainly had his own theories on the subject that seemed quite original. Then we heard from others who felt differently than him. It was hard to say who was correct. I didn't feel that I had to sit as a judge and decide between two views. In this case there was a Minister in whom I had confidence.[212]

With the government's blessing, Zaslavsky did what he had to do and issued reforms. After the Water Commissioner cut back, God did His part to get the nation's water balance sheet back in shape. The summer of 1991 was moderate, and the winter of 1991–1992 was astonishingly wet. Zvi Ortenberg, Chairman of the Lake Kinneret Administration, reported that a total of 1.2 billion cubic meters of water poured into the lake from December 1991 until May 1992. It rose over four meters, from an all-time low of 213 meters below sea level to an astonishing 208.9 meters below sea level, with a threat of flooding.[213] The aquifers also bounced back much faster than the most optimistic hydrological projections.[214]


But in the 1992 summer elections, the Labor Party reclaimed power. Yaakov Zur was appointed Minister of Agriculture. Zur was a kibbutznik with strong ties to the agricultural establishment. Getting rid of Zaslavsky was a priority, and he wasted no time.[215]

Zaslavsky never received his due for trying to change the course of Israel's water policy, and some farmers openly celebrated his unceremoni-ous dismissal. As is the case with Water Commissioners, the vast majority of Israelis have never heard of him. Gidon Zur (no relation to the Minister) was appointed in his stead. He was a career civil servant, and, while not quite the fighter that Zaslavsky was, he harbored environmen-tal sensitivities. As rainy years improved the water balance, however, water allocations slowly but surely began to resemble the agricultural “largesse” of the 1980s. Meir Ben-Meir, appointed for his second term in 1996, was unabashedly open in the priority and subsidies he brought the agricultural sector and dismissive of the “doomsday” criticism of the hydrological community. The Water Commission celebrated its fortieth year with a strategy that did not look altogether different from what had characterized the Menahem Kantor administration.

Given the climatic cycle of drought, and the steady growth in demand, Israel's water policy remained a far cry from sustainable.[216] Enthusiastic pumping and the generous ceding of water rights to Jordan during the wet years of the 1990s left little reserves for the inevitable dry span. Whether a result of global warming or not, rainfall during the winters of 1999, 2000, and 2001 fell far short of average, bringing Israel's water resources to their lowest recorded levels, far below the red lines.[217] The public was aghast at the frequent photos in the press of anomalous islands that now stuck out in the middle of the lake and the parched and exposed shoreline of the Kinneret on land where clear water had once glistened and children waded.

When Shimon Tal, the competent and congenial chief engineer from Mekorot, was appointed in Ben Meir's stead in 2000, he slashed agricul-tural allocations again. He could not, however, bring the Knesset to ap-prove the massive cuts in urban usage (including a ban on watering lawns) and the conservation policies that were needed to meet the growing hy-drological challenge. A special Knesset Commission of Inquiry began to investigate the issue during the summer of 2001, and the parade of witnesses—including former water commissioners, scientists, and politicians—was quick to point blame and bring historic citations to the legislators, documenting just when “I told you so.”[218] As the politicians considered who the scapegoats should be, real institutional reform once again became a common topic of speculation and discussion.


Tal, the new Water Commissioner, quickly came to support a revolution in management strategy that would cancel the old quota system entirely in favor of a market-based allocation system. In such a system, Water Commission personnel would no longer serve primarily as “allocation ref-erees” but begin to function as water quality regulators. “If someone is willing to pay the costs of desalinated water to wash their car, why should we impose restrictions?” he asked.[219] How Israel's thirsty streams, wet-lands, and other aquatic habitats might find the funds to compete in such a new system was not yet resolved. Nor was the ultimate effect on Israel's greenhouse gas emissions of this belated embracing of energy-intensive desalination. And of course, it wasn't clear that the beleaguered agricul-tural community was in fact ready to accept economic subsidies in areas beyond their water bill.


The story of Israel's water resources reflects Zionism's finest hours and its most glaring deficiencies. A delivery infrastructure created by zealous politi-cians, bureaucrats, and engineers jump-started an economy and led to un-precedented achievements in semiarid cultivation. The development of water resources solidified a healthy national myth that glorified farming as the most honorable of Jewish occupations after a two-millennium exclusion from tilling the land. For most of its history, Israel was a net food exporter. But this hydrological “progress” also left rivers filthy and subjected aquifers to a contaminant bombardment from which they may never really recover.

Successes in protecting the Kinneret watershed or implementing drip or wastewater irrigation technologies confirm that history could have been different. After all, during years when water allocations were adjusted, agriculture did not vanish. And as the issue of competing water rights be-came a salient controversy in peace negotiations, government leaders were forced to think more realistically about Israel's long-term water manage-ment. But it remains unclear whether the policy has truly gone full cycle and whether politicians really want to rewrite the narrative. Even as the data continued to pour in about pollution and contamination, the old Zionist water quantity paradigm cast a powerful shadow. In the wake of the bureaucratic clamor that followed the 1996 elections, the link between the Water Commissioner and the Minister of Agriculture was finally sev-ered. But control of Israel's water resources was not passed over to an en-vironmental ministry, whose mission was preservation, but to a new Ministry of Infrastructure, responsible for development.

The Quantity and Quality of Israel's Water Resources

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.