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


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.

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.