Israel – Water Crisis

Vintage paranoia – prepare to laugh. Last month, an Iranian vice-president blamed his country’s ongoing drought on the West, claiming it is part of a violent conspiracy launched against Iran.

“I am suspicious about the drought in the southern part of the country,” he said. “The World Arrogance and Colonist [i.e., the West] are influencing Iran’s climate conditions using technology… The drought is an acute issue and soft war is completely evident… This level of drought is not normal.”

He was only echoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s accusation last year that Western countries are using special technology to force clouds to dump their water over Europe leaving thin pickings for Iran. This is a prime example of how Arabs love blaming others for their problems – their dark fantasy at its worst.


Drying Middle East

According to a paper released in March by the US Director of National Security on Global Water Security, Iran’s troubles are ubiquitous to the region. Most of the Middle East, says the report, will be in a state of drought by the year 2025. On a global map, the report depicts a vast swathe of land stretching from Egypt to India in fiery orange and dull brown. These are the code colors for “extremely more stressed” or “exceptionally more stressed” regions of future geography. The report concludes that the Middle East and its neighbors are in for a tough time.

“Our bottom line: During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives,” the report warns. “Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.”

Unlike Iran that prefers to blame others, Israel is well aware that the Middle East is drying out. In the face of decreasing rain and rising water consumption, Israel is vastly increasing its use of recycled wastewater and building gigantic desalination plants on the coast that already supply a huge proportion of the country’s drinking water.

Water in Yerushalayim

Drought is a major component of our history. Drought is what drove us from Eretz Yisroel to foreign lands in the days of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov. Drought culminated in the long Egyptian exile. As punishment for sin, the Jews suffered droughts in the days of the Shoftim, Dovid, Eliyahu, Elisha, Chagai, and Nechemiah.

The Mishnah and Gemara often speak of drought, relating stories of how tzaddikim like Choni Hame’agel davened to Hashem for rain. A large part of masseches Ta’anis is devoted to the procedure of fasting, repenting, and davening when there is no rain. Even in good years, frenetic efforts were necessary to provide millions of olei regel with sufficient drinking water. Among the functionaries of the Bais Hamikdosh, the Mishnah (Shekalim 5:1) mentions Nechunya, Digger of Pits, who was involved in this work. Chazal tell how Nakdimon ben Gurion promised to pay an enormous amount of money for water unless rain filled the seller’s water pits by a certain time, and how Hashem delayed the setting of the sun to fill the pits in time. During the hot summer months, almost the only water available in Yerushalayim was the supply of the Gichon Spring which emerges in the Kidron Valley opposite Har Hazeisim. However, its water supply was erratic and unreliable. Winter rain saved in cisterns helped sustain the city for thousands of years.

The chronic dryness of Yerushalayim lends itself to an unexpected interpretation of Yechezkel’s prediction that in the time of the future Bais Hamikdosh, water will pour from its precincts and turn into a mighty river (chapter 47). Of course, this verse hints at deep secrets. On the other hand, the Abarbanel notes that the verse also has a simpler meaning: “You can interpret the verse according to its simple meaning, as Rashi and Rav Saadya Gaon explain, that there was always a shortage of water in Yerushalayim. At the time of the redemption, however, there will be blessing and the nature of the land will change for the better.”

During the time of the Second Bais Hamikdosh, Yerushalayim began to outgrow the local water sources. The Chashmonai king, Alexander Yanai (104-76 BCE), built the city’s first aqueduct, which carried in water from one of the many springs around Chevron about eight miles south of Yerushalayim. This aqueduct eventually broke down, as did subsequent aqueducts built by the Romans. Even an iron pipe installed by the Turks in 1902 did not last long. Farmers pierced it to water their fields and water carriers in the city sabotaged the threat to their livelihood. For the most part, Yerushalayim’s residents continued to rely on cisterns and springs.

During dry years, when cisterns began emptying at the end of summer, water carriers would fill sheep skins with fresh water at nearby springs and bring them into the city. This could be expensive.

“The skies have not yet rained and the land is parched,” David Yellin, recorded in 1897. “If the signs of approaching winter are still unnoticeable in the heavens and earth, the season is clearly evident in our pockets. In our city, time is measured by the price of food that has risen significantly. Added to this is the expense of water. The scant water on the muddy floor of our cisterns is gone and we must buy our water. This time we are lucky. The day we begin paying for water is delayed thanks to a blessed, rainy year. In other years, the water finishes by Tammuz and Av. “The water sold in town comes from the spring in the Silwan village east of the city and the many cisterns on the precints of Har Habayis. Those who live out of the city mostly drink water from large cisterns some wealthy people dig on their estates… Few people buy spring water brought from the springs of Lifta and Motza, as it is expensive. The water carriers are people of the two villages near the city, Lifta and Silwan, and some of our Yemenite brothers, who carry the water in waterskins on their shoulders or on donkeys, going around the houses to sell them.”

“Therefore, most of the water drunk now is the last of the cistern water, which has a bad effect on people’s health, causing the increased incidence of fever and malaria at this time in our city.” He added that according to medical opinion, the only solution was to dry swampy land and pipe in water from Chevron.

Why was there so much water in the “many cisterns on the precincts of Har Habayis”? The German Consul to Yerushalayim, Dr. Friedrich Rosen, explained that at that time, the waters of the Gichon spring were reserved for the Arab mosques at that location.

“There was no spring water at that time in Yerushalayim except a limited supply from the sealed Spring of Solomon to the area of the great mosques,” he notes. “The rest of the town had to collect the rain-water in big cisterns which formed part of their houses.”

The S’dei Chemed (Kelalim 6:26, 33) mentions in the name of the Shemesh U’mogein that not all poskim were happy at Jews buying water from this holy location.

“I heard that there are Jews who buy water in Yerushalayim from non-Jews who take it from wells in the courtyard of the Bais Hamikdosh,” he wrote. “They order the water drawers to bring water to them from this well whose waters are pure and clean.

It would seem that they are acting improperly. Even if there is no reason to be concerned about me’ilah (benefiting from sacred items)… there is still a non-compliancy with the mitzvah of sending impure people [out of the precincts of the Mikdosh], for instead of being careful to send impure people away… we are paying them to enter the Mikdosh… Also, the non-Jew may be commanded not to enter, and by causing him to enter one transgresses lifnei iver. Even if he would have entered anyway, by encouraging him and paying him one at least transgresses a rabbinicaldecree At any rate, everyone agrees that one does not escape from transgressing an issur d’rabbonon and the custom must be stopped.”

Cisterns Saved Yerushalayim

As the city grew, so did the number of its cisterns. Under Turkish law, building permits were conditional on providing cisterns to new buildings. The rounded roofs of these cisterns and their well-like openings are still highly visible in old Yerushalayim neighborhoods and local Jews sometimes use them for Tashlich. By the time the British took over Eretz Yisroel, the city was honeycombed with 7,300 cisterns that had a combined capacity of 98 million gallons!

Before long, the British permanently solved Yerushalayim’s water problems by first piping in water from nearby springs, and at the beginning of the 30s they solved the problem on an even larger scale by hooking up the city to springs in Rosh Ayin that lay 27 miles distant. By the time they were finished, three large pipelines were piping in millions of gallons of water to Yerushalayim and it seemed that the city’s cisterns were obsolete relics of the past. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the museum of forgotten artifacts.

In 1948, when the British were about to leave Eretz Yisroel, Dr. Tzvi Leibovich, the manager of Yerushalayim’s Water Department, realized that the city’s water could easily be cut off during a siege as all three pipelines ran through Arab regions. He conducted a secret survey and discovered that 2,000 of the city’s cisterns could hold 22 million gallons. In a secret operation, a huge volume of water was siphoned off the city’s water’s supply and sealed inside the cisterns. By May 15, 1948, the Arabs indeed cut off the city’s water and captured the main pumping station at Latrun. For the next 26 days until the Arab siege was lifted on June 11, 1948, the cisterns supplied the city’s 100,000 inhabitants with water via tanker trucks, donkeys, and horses.

Cisterns are making a comeback. Rainwater harvesting is a new version of the old technique of saving winter rains. In many schools throughout Israel, the Jewish National Fund has helped students set up arrays of large plastic tanks that collect rain during winter months and supply 95% of the schools’ needs for flushing, cleaning and irrigation. Perhaps Israel’s populace will adopt this great way of saving water and money – a proactive response to the threat of drought.

(Source for cisterns story: Heike-Zaun Goshen, Beyond the Wall – Chapters on Urban Jerusalem. Dan Battat Publications, 2006.)

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