Water Supply in Israel



One of Yerushalayim’s most scenic spots was created by a blunder that came about during Israel’s unending search for new supplies of potable water.



Dr. Dov Sitton of Be’er Sheva’s Ben Gurion University begins an article about Israel’s constant struggle to find new water resources by citing a verse from Yeshayohu (35:7), “And the scorched land will become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Only by emulating this verse can Israel continue to provide its growing population with food, water and jobs.

Sitton writes that scarcity of water is a dominant factor in Eretz Yisroel and most of the Middle East, where summers are dry and even winter rains are sometimes scarce. 60% of Eretz Yisroel is classed as arid and much of the rest is semi-arid. Until the beginning of the 20th century, agriculture in Israel relied almost exclusively on rain and was limited mostly to the wetter north and coastal areas. Springs were used in the north, and along the coast, norias, huge waterwheels with buckets attached around them, hauled water from shallow wells and poured it into watering channels. This is how the famous Yaffo oranges were watered in the dry summer months.

At the end of the 19th century and particularly during the British Mandate (1918-1948), Jewish immigrants with hydrological skills began introducing modern technologies, including the utilization of aquifers, vast seas of water trapped in the sands and gravel of the coastal region and deep beneath the rocky hills of central Israel.

The Coastal Aquifer and the Mountain Aquifer today provide Israel with more water than the Kinneret. The Coastal Aquifer, which extends along the coast, is unfortunately exposed to pollution from towns, factories, farms and garbage dumps sited right above it and modern time over-pumping has led to sea water seeping in, leading to the closing of many of its wells.

The first large scale project began in 1935 when Mekorot, Eretz Yisroel’s newly established water company, drilled three wells in the Galilee’s Jezreel Valley and connected their water to settlements with concrete pipes. This, and earlier projects on a smaller scale, gave the lie to the British claim that the land could not sustain a much larger population.

Israel’s first large-scale water supply system, the Yarkon-Negev pipeline, was built soon after the establishment of Israel to transport water from the Yarkon River near Tel Aviv to the Negev, over a distance of 80 miles. A master plan dating from 1955 was adopted by the government and served as the blueprint for the vast National Water Carrier, which was completed and functioning by 1964.



The National Water Carrier transfers water from the Kinneret in the north to the highly populated areas of central Israel and the arid south. If you’re wondering why the water level in the Kinneret is always hovering at the red line, keep in mind that the National Water Carrier can drain up to 19 million gallons of water each hour, totaling 60 million cubic feet of water a day.

To build it, over 4,000 workers dug up 250 million cubic feet of earth, quarried 60 million cubic feet of rock, poured 17 million cubic feet of concrete, and laid 15,000 concrete and steel pipes. By the early 1990s, 20% of its water was supplying half of Israel’s drinking water.

The most visible part of the system is the huge Sapir Pumping Station carved out of a hillside, which one passes at the northern end of the lake when driving north from Teveriah. Here, four pumps lift the water hundreds of feet up to 150 feet above sea level to begin the journey to its consumers. A “Salty Carrier” was also built to collect water from salt springs that would otherwise drain into the Kinneret and dump it into the Dead Sea.

Israel’s draining of the Kinneret meant it was diverting water from the southern Jordan River, which flows from the lake next to Jordan, and kindled Arab resentment. In 1964, an Arab League summit meeting took place in Cairo primarily to discuss the threat posed by Israel’s diversion of water, and concluded that “The establishment of Israel is the basic threat that the Arab nation in its entirety has agreed to forestall. And since the existence of Israel is a danger that threatens the Arab nation, the diversion of the Jordan waters by it multiplies the dangers to Arab existence.”

The Arab countries therefore decided to cut the National Water Carrier by 33% by diverting the headwaters of the northern Jordan River to the Yarmouk River. In 1965, Israeli tanks and artillery destroyed Syrian bulldozers working on the scheme, one of the factors leading to the Six Day War. Capturing the Golan Heights placed many of Jordan’s sources in Israeli hands and removed Syria from the Kinneret’s shores.

Because the country’s population is growing constantly and fresh water supply is static, Israel developed new technologies including the purification of sea, saline and sewage water, cloud seeding, and advanced methods of irrigation such as the Israeli invention of drip irrigation, which delivers water to individual plants.



Over the past decades, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has built over 250 reservoirs, which store over 5,000 million cubic feet of recycled water and floodwater, and provide over half the water used by Israeli agriculture. Due to this, it is said that JNF is Israel’s fourth aquifer. Although the reservoirs add blue to the dry countryside, it is inadvisable to jump into them without verifying their status, as many of them are filled with wastewater in the process of being cleaned. Thanks to them, over the past three decades, the amount of recycled water used in Israel has risen from 4% to over 85%, ranking it as the number one country to do so across the globe.

This gets us to the story of a valley just west of Yerushalayim, at the foot of the idyllic Beit Zayit village. Almost every year, winter rains transform the dry valley into a beautiful lake edged by idyllic pine plantations and vineyards as the result of a hydrological plan that ended in disaster. There are two versions of what the plan entailed and why it failed, one a true version of events, the other, a sophisticated myth of unknown origin.

According to a Maariv article of September 25, 1957, the lake was the result of a plan to pepper Israel with dams to catch the winter rains. The gathered water would provide water during Israel’s parched summer months.

“A few kilometers west from Yerushalayim, a million-and-a-half shekels are flowing in the bed of the Shorek River,” the article began. “Not as banknotes or checks, obviously, but as cement. If you look westwards towards Ein Kerem, you’ll see a giant dam for the collection of rainwater which represents a million-and-a-half shekel loss, yet yields not even a half-perutah of profit.”

This dam and dozens of others were part of the “Lakes Project.” The idea was to create dozens of dams in Israel’s wadis (dry valley beds which transform into torrents during winter) to store water for Israel’s hot summers. One of the first two places selected was the Beit Zayit valley west of Yerushalayim, where the Shorek Stream runs during wet years.

This was not long after 1948, when the Arabs had cut off the pipes bringing water to the city, leading to strict water rationing, and the government was anxious to have a water supply near the city. Topographically speaking, the Shorek Stream wadi was deep and wide enough to hold vast amounts of water if dammed at one end. Geologically speaking, the location was problematic as the substrate seemed porous in some places. But engineers were confident that this could be addressed.

The plans received municipal and regional authorizations and the dam was built. During the first winter, the dam reached full capacity twice. The next year the quantity of water was a little less. But during the first year it was already clear that the water was seeping at the rate of 5 to 6 inches daily through cracks and holes in the rock valley and would never last through the summer. Attempts to drill holes and pump concrete into the substrate failed.

It is well known that internet in general and the internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia, in particular, are not impeccable sources, to say the least. A case in point is the Wikipedia entry explaining why the Bait Zayit dam was built and why it was a failure.

“The dam and reservoir were built in the 50s to allow the rainwater flowing in the Shorek River to flow down to the Yarkon-Taninim Aquifer,” Wikipedia writes. Aquifers are underground bodies of water which supply two-thirds of Israel’s water needs. With the help of a diagram, Wikipedia explains that although rain and streams west of Yerushalayim generally flow towards the Mediterranean, water sinking underground in the Beit Zayit area flows east to aquifers and springs at the Dead Sea.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia itself references an article printed in the Teva Hadevarim magazine, where this explanation of the Bait Zayit Dam’s failure is thoroughly refuted.

Today, the Beit Zayit Dam is a place of recreation and picnics, but with a sinister side. Numerous signs warn people not to swim in its clear waters due to treacherous mud lurking beneath. Last year, a bochur who ignored the warning disappeared while swimming and was hauled out, drowned, after a few hours.

(Sources include: Dr. Dov Sitton, Development of Limited Water Resources: Historical and Technological Aspects, October 2000)

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