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


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]

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.