Fears of ecological damage if situation continues
Almost every weather forecast in Israel ends with the level of the Sea of Galilee, or Kinneret, in Hebrew. Children learn songs and poems about it, and tourists take boat trips on the lake where Jesus walked.
The Sea of Galilee also provides a significant percentage of northern Israel’s water. Today, with the Sea at one of its lowest levels in a century, Israel has cut back on the amount of water it gives to farmers, and there are fears that there will be ecological damage that may be irreversible.
“As the water level drops, the salt remains the same and it gets more saline,” Clive Lipchin, the Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute told The Media Line. “In the south of Israel, farmers have access to treated wastewater but in the north, they still rely on fresh water.”
Israel already has five desalination plants, mostly in the south and along the coast. Until now there had always been enough rainfall in the north to ensure a reasonable supply. Rainfall all over Israel, but especially in northern Israel is down significantly. At this time of year, after the winter, the water should be gushing into the Sea of Galilee but it is hardly moving.
The current level of the Sea of Galilee is 13 centimeters below the lower red line, the lowest level at which water can be safely pumped from the lake without endangering the pumps. The salinity level is 298 milligrams of chloride per liter.
Experts say that the natural salinity level was once 350 milligrams of chloride per liter, which made it difficult to use the water for irrigation. But a special water channel built in 1967 diverted the saline springs away from the lake, causing the salinity to decline and the water to be usable for irrigation. Experts say that the current level of salinity will continue to rise until the next rainy season and is expected to reach 320 milligrams per liter.
One result has been that the shallows, which is where many of the fish lay eggs, have retreated. The number of St. Peter’s fish, which is one of the most important fish for maintaining the Kinneret ecosystem, is falling.
The Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) this week called on Israel to urgently address the growing water crisis in the Sea of Galilee by building a desalination plant in the Western Galilee. That would reduce dependence on the water of the Sea of Galilee, but it is an expensive solution. SPNI also called on the government to cancel plans to expand agriculture in the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee as long as there are no alternate water supplies.
Israeli water experts say the main culprit is climate change.
“Climate change doesn’t exist, it’s all a big conspiracy,” Doron Markel, the manager of the Lake Kinneret Watershed Monitoring and Management Authority told The Media Line, tongue-in-cheek. “Of course it’s climate change. The annual amount of precipitation in the north is decreasing year after year. Rainfall has decreased over time in the eastern Mediterranean – Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This is the fourth successive weak winter.”
The low level of the Sea of Galilee comes as Israel already supplies 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan as part of their 1994 peace agreement. Doron Markel says Israel has no intention of reneging on this commitment despite the current water situation.
The main danger is ecological. Greater salinity could cause more algae blooms and cyano-bacteria, Markel says.
“This type of algae makes it harder to filter it and could release some toxins in low concentrations,” he said. “Once you chlorinate and disinfect the water you eliminate the toxins totally. However we still treat it as a water quality issue and we don’t like this phenomenon.”