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How Israel survived the Mediterranean’s worst drought in 900 years


By Alina Dain Sharon

Israeli water experts say that a combination of water from rainfall, recycling of wastewater, desalination of seawater, and a large-scare water conservation campaign has made Israel nearly drought-proof. That assessment might be more regionally relevant than ever amid a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study, released earlier this month, showing that a drought from 1998-2012 in the eastern Mediterranean was the area’s worst drought in 900 years.

Today, more than half of the water supplied in Israel for all uses is self-generated, said Uri Schor, a spokesperson for the Israeli government’s Water Authority.

“That makes us a country that can pass a [severely dry] year and even a series of drought years without worrying too much,” Schor told

The Jewish state’s ability to create a sufficient water supply is particularly noteworthy in light of an assessment by Dr. Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at New York’s Columbia University, that “climate change on average will be making this particular region in the world dryer in the coming decades and over the next century.”

“That means we need to be much more careful with how we use and conserve water,” Cook told, citing his familiarity with Israeli water conservation methods such as desalination.

NASA’s latest research reconstructed drought history in Levant region—encompassing Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the disputed Palestinian territories—by studying tree rings. Dry years are indicated thin tree rings, while relatively wet years are indicated by thick rings.

Trees, Cook said, tend to “put on one ring of growth every year. We can look at the alternating patterns of wide and narrow rings and reconstruct drought variability and wetness for these previous centuries. And then we can look at the magnitude of those growths to tell us the magnitude of the drought or the magnitude of the wetness that would have occurred.”

Samples of tree rings collected from the Levant region were converted to an index and used to determine that the drought between 1998 and 2012 was about 20 percent worse than the previously driest period over a 900-year span. This was confirmed by comparing the gathered data with droughts reported in historical documents.

If “you look at the bible,” the Israeli Water Authority’s Schor explained, it is evident that Israel has always had a scarcity of water. But today’s scarcity, which has grown during the past 20-25 years and was especially severe over the past decade, was caused largely by a yearly decrease in rainfall as well as growths in population and quality of life that led to higher demand for water.

Click photo to download. Caption: The Sea of Galilee. Credit: Dan Lundberg via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Jack Gilron, head of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva, Israel, when it comes to natural water sources—like the Sea of Galilee, for instance—depletion is measured through red and black lines.

If an aquifer depletes below a red line, Gilron told, “it may cause damage…but it’s damage that’s considered reversible. If you then refill it, you counteract what was done. If you go below the black line…you will cause irreversible damage to the aquifer.”

The water in the Sea of Galilee—known as the Kinneret in Hebrew—has at times depleted to levels precariously close to these line limits.

Schor likes to compare the scarcity of water in Israel over the past two decades to a bank account. “We reached a certain point that we earned much less than what we spent,” he said.

Gilron explained that the winter of 2007-8 was especially dry, bringing only about two-thirds of the region’s expected rainfall, leading Israel to ramp up its “large-scale seawater desalination program even more quickly than it had planned.”

Desalination is the process of converting seawater into potable water. Among the nation’s five desalination plants, the world’s largest seawater desalination plant, Sorek, is located about 9 miles south of Tel Aviv and became operational in October 2013. It produces about 624,000 cubic meters (roughly 164 million gallons) of potable water a day. The plant was built by IDE Technologies, an Israeli water desalination company named by MIT Technology Review as one of the world’s 50 smartest companies for 2015, and the same company that co-designed the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, a California-based facility that is expected to provide the U.S. state with roughly 200 thousand cubic meters (50 million gallons) of drinking water daily.

The Sorek plant desalinates water using a process known as reverse osmosis, in which pumps create pressure that removes salt from seawater through a semi-permeable membrane. As the water passes across the


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