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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mideast Water Series: Nergev Ancient Spring

Air Date: Week of

In a tiny, moist pocket of Israel's Negev Desert, a few miles from the Sinai Peninsula, there's a spring that bubbles out above a cliff and trickles down into a deep green pool in the Valley of Zin. Israelis call it Ein Afdat (Ain-aff-DAHT), an ancient spring that provided respite to many Arab nomads may have even cooled Moses and the Israelites two thousand years ago. This spring is one of the only natural sources of fresh water in the Negev, which covers more than half of the state of Israel. Yet, today, the Negev Desert is dotted with green. Israel captures the water of the Jordan River, along with aquifers lying beneath Israel and the West Bank, and pipes them into the desert. Israel's control of these waters has long played a part in regional tensions. The founders of modern Israel believed it essential to harness Middle East waters to reconnect the Jewish immigrants with the land. And like the Arab farmers in old Palestine, Israelis now produce citrus and other crops for export. But 50 years later other demands especially from urban Israel may be carving into that Zionist vision.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Trickling water. Voices in the background)

CURWOOD: In a tiny moist pocket of Israel's Negev Desert, a few miles from the Sinai Peninsula, there's a spring that bubbles out above a cliff and trickles down into a deep green pool in the valley of Zin. Israelis call it Ein Afdat, an ancient spring that provided respite to many an Arab nomad long before the creation of modern Israel, and may have even cooled Moses and the Israelites 2000 years ago.

(Trickling continues)

CURWOOD: This spring is one of the only natural sources of fresh water in the Negev, which covers more than half of the state of Israel. Yet today the Negev desert is dotted with green. Israel pumps water in from the Jordan river and from aquifers lying beneath Israel and the West Bank. The founders of modern Israel believed it essential to harness Middle East waters to reconnect the Jewish immigrants with the land. But 50 years later, other demands, especially from urban Israel, may be carving into that Zionist vision. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan examines the limit of this green expansion as our series Troubled Waters continues.

DE MALACH: Yes, I remember. We arrived in 1943. Forty-three was a crucial year for the Jewish people because to Israel arrived the first knowledge of what was going on in Europe.

TOLAN: He fled Mussolini in the middle of World War II and landed in the desert. But Youal de Malach and a few other Negev pioneers had a vision.

DE MALACH: In those days, with after the war, many survivors will arrive. And it was a must to find a place for them. We were very young and green and enthusiastic, and we thought in a few years all the desert will be green.

(A water sprinkler system)

TOLAN: They didn't turn everything green. But 54 years later Mr. de Malach and his wife live in a lush manmade oasis in Kibbutz Revevim. Walking through the kibbutz at night it feels like you're in a European village. Quiet paths, lush lawns, domed street lights, a way of life imported, not including the towering palms. The amount of water at their disposal is high by anyone's standards: nearly 700 liters per day per person, or about 180 gallons just for household use. The kibbutz's fields consume 7 times that amount, nearly half of it fresh water.

DE MALACH: We have to use our water for decoration and for gardening and for, to have we want them to live in parks. If this is not a park, people will not continue to live here. Because it's not easy to live in a desert.

(Sprinklers continue)

TOLAN: Greening the Negev is an important symbol of the Zionist quest to claim the land. David Ben Gurion, the founder of modern Israel, said the Negev will be the test of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. This effort will determine the fate of the state and the place of our people in the history of mankind. Israeli agriculture both in the Negev and elsewhere in Israel became a symbol of a new sovereign nation.

(Engines revving up)

TOLAN: But modern Israel is increasingly urban, and now many Israelis say Zionist dream or not, agriculture can't continue using 80% of the country's fresh water supply, especially when it represents only 3% of its economy.

BEN SHAUL: I think that the time is going to come, and Israel is going to understand that we cannot afford to grow cotton or any other such sort of garbage. These are water eating crops.

TOLAN: Devora Ben Shaul, born in Waxahatchee, Texas, has lived in Israel since 1959. She's an environmentalist and a writer living in the Galilee.

BEN SHAUL: Yeah, sure, we're attached to them, because these are dollar crops. But in the long run, they're not productive for us. We can't afford to grow oranges when oranges are so cheap from Spain or other Middle Eastern areas. We have to concentrate on using water for the things that it's worth using water for. There is this whole thing about making the desert bloom. Deserts are not support to be green, I'm sorry. Deserts are deserts. I know it's heretical to say it. But there is nowhere in the world where you have a dictum that says you've got to turn arid desert into green pastures.

BASKIN: It may be blasphemy but it's the truth. I lived on a kibbutz in the desert for a while picking cucumbers out of the sand. You'd think to yourself, this is amazing, how did they do it? But when you look behind the whole picture and you see it's no magic, you have to question whether or not this is what we should be doing.

TOLAN: Gershon Baskin is co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

BASKIN: I have a little garden to myself and right here in our office we have a little organic garden where we're growing cauliflower and parsley and some other things. I'm sentimental about the land but I'm realistic about what Israel is and what Israel, what places we should have in the world economy. I want us to build supercomputers and communication technology and lead the world in medical technology. And not be known for our sweet oranges.

TOLAN: Mr. Baskin represents a younger generation of Israelis who are no longer so captured by the Zionist vision of greening the desert.

BASKIN: There's no mysticism to make the desert bloom. All you need is water and chemicals, and anyone can do it.

TOLAN: Israelis have justified using all that fresh water because they've been isolated politically and economically from the Arab world. For food security they've wanted to grow all their own produce. But the days of agricultural self-sufficiency are gone, Mr. Baskin says, and the priority now should be in supplying water to a growing population, Israeli and Palestinian. In another generation, perhaps 15 million people will inhabit this land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, nearly twice the population today. And even the generation that grew up with the Zionist dream is beginning to see the implications of that growth. Meir ben Meir is Israel's water commissioner.

BEN MEIR: We in Israel already know that somewhere between the first and the second decade of the coming century, fresh water will not be enough in order to be used on agriculture. Meaning that fresh water will be consumed for one purpose only: for domestic purposes. Agriculture will have to be dependent almost thoroughly on treated sewage.

(Flowing sewage)

TOLAN: Sewage like this, which starts out raw, coming by pipe from the biggest town in the Negev.

ARON: The sewage from the city of Beersheba is come to this sewage treatment plant. Here we have the distribution pit. The raw sewage, raw raw sewage, is entering here, and then it is distributed into 2 settling ponds. We have another...

TOLAN: Gidon Aron wrote his doctoral dissertation on the bird habitat of natural sewage plants like this one, where human wastewater is pumped through a series of earthen ponds. Through natural filtration and photosynthesis it's converted to water for the fields. Israel already uses a lot of wastewater on its crops. A treated wastewater pipeline comes into the Negev from Tel Aviv. And Professor Aron says this kind of Israeli ingenuity can save agriculture.

ARON: And here we come with another solution by which we can solve the problem of efficient reuse of the effluent. A big problem to my opinion will be managing to convince all of them that this is the solution and we have to go in this direction.

(Traffic sounds; fade to flowing sewage)

TOLAN: Israelis have sharply increased their agricultural production over the years through these wastewater pipelines and through drip irrigation. Now, Dr. Aron and his colleagues have developed subsurface drip irrigation. It isn't healthy to use wastewater on crops like tomatoes or cucumbers, but now farmers with enough money can lay in the drip hoses and apply the recycled water directly to the roots. But farms are still heavily dependent on sweet water in Israel. They still suck up four fifths of the country's fresh water supply. That's because water is still cheap, subsidized by the government. And so farmers still produce cotton, citrus, and other water-guzzling crops for export. Some critics say Israel's biggest export is water. All this indicates that despite the changes forecast for the farm, the agricultural lobby in Israel remains strong.

ZAZLAVSKY: They kicked me out from the position of water commissioner, how do you call, the small time politicians did it.

TOLAN: Former water commissioner Dan Zazlavsky says he ran head-on into the agricultural lobby when he tried to introduce conservation measures back in 1991.

ZESLOVSKY: In one year, despite the fact that the population increased tremendously, that this was the first big wave of Russian immigration, there was a considerable reduction in water use. We showed in several towns that we could reduce the water use by 20%. There was a national feeling: let's save it. Let's not waste it. And it worked.

TOLAN: But Zazlavvsky says an emerging ethic of conservation was a threat to the farm lobby. Signs of shortage, he says, would have meant that agriculture might have had to cut back.

ZAZLAVSKY: There will be no lack of drinking water or industrial water. But agriculture is very questionable. Maybe I was a good technician but politically I was not very smart, and I was eventually kicked out. As soon as I [got] kicked out the main line was there's no lack of water, you can use as much as you need. Relax, there's no problem.

TOLAN: This short-term political victory, Zazlavsky charges, is already doing damage. Most of all to Israel's underground water reserves.

ZAZLAVSKY: We have been pumping about 150 million cubic meters more than the average annual recharge. This means that there's no way but to start desalinating right away. Or doing something. The alternative is terrible. Unless the policy with water changes, the farming is doomed.

TOLAN: The lack of a conservation ethic can be seen now all over Israel. Greenery lines the boulevards in many Israeli towns. Gardens abound, evoking not only the Zionist dream but European roots. My hotel in Haifa featured 2 high-powered shower heads. Across the country, it's hard to detect an urgency to conserve.

(Traffic sounds; milling people, honking horns)

MAN: I say that there is enough water in Tel Aviv. Everywhere there is enough water. For agriculture, to drink, to wash.

TOLAN: Salt floats on the wind at the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. It's a warm night on the Mediterranean. Old men play dominoes, hustlers deal a game of 3-card Monty. Families push babies in strollers.

WOMAN: They have too much water, for the car and for the house and for the garden (laughs). They use too much water. They don't save.

MAN: No, they don't try to save. Everybody don't care about it. They know but they don't care.

MAN 2: We are not limited with water, but if you use a lot of water you're throwing away a lot of money.

(Milling voices continue)

TOLAN: In Jordan water conservation is the top priority of the US aid program, because water supplies there are so tight. In Israel there are no such programs. The US simply writes a check to Israel each year. Feeling little pressure on this issue, the Israelis have pursued a hard line in regional water negotiations. They're holding firm against Palestinian claims for water lying beneath the West Bank. They've been forced into only modest concessions with Jordan. And Minister of Infrastructure Ariel Sharon recently announced Israel's intention to build a dam on the Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967. Israel's strategy appears to be to hold on to what it has, use wastewater on the farms, shift fresh water to the cities, and augment supplies through new dams and eventually desalinization. Serious conservation is not on the agenda. Under this strategy, household use would remain the same, now about 3 times more per capita than the Palestinians. And agriculture, says former Israeli water negotiator Uri Shamir, would remain an important part of the Zionist dream.

SHAMIR: Agriculture is not strictly an economic activity. It's a way of life, it's a way of populating the land, of settling it. And furthermore, our society has essentially a pact with the agricultural community, which was the first to settle the land. And it is not possible nor desirable for us to say well, thank you very much, you have done your job, you can now move on.

(A car door slams. Footfalls.)

TOLAN: Yet there are changes coming to the kibbutz, the heart of Zionist agriculture.

DINSEN: This lock is about as old as I am.

TOLAN: Seymour Dinsen, farm manager for Kibbutz Revivim, opens a gate and walks to the pipeline that brings fresh water all the way to this place a few miles from the Egyptian border.

DINSEN: You could have snow falling in the Golan Heights on the Syrian border. It melts, flows into the Knerrret, the Sea of Galilee, and eventually is pumped here to Rivavim, which is in the middle of the desert, the middle of the Negev Desert 270 miles away.

TOLAN: The fresh water that arrives in Kibbutz Revivim is still used to water crops. Seymour knows that may change. Already the kibbutz is using brackish groundwater for its strawberries and tomatoes.

DINSEN: And water, like everything else, is very, very political. There's less and less public support for farmers, things, water is becoming more and more expensive, and there are crops that are that just aren't worth growing any more.

TOLAN: Farming will become more focused here, emphasizing research to grow crops like melons, strawberries, and grapes in salty water. But agriculture's economic importance in the kibbutz is in decline. The biggest money maker in Revivim is a factory that produces molded plastic parts for GM cars. That doesn't mean the dream of greening the desert is dead. Kibbutz Rivavim will continue to grow crops and soon they'll have new neighbors. Today Israeli planners, confident in their water future, are letting ambitious new plans in the desert. The Negev will be the source of Israel's next big wave of growth. Small factories, fish ponds, citrus groves, and whole new communities will sprout up, relying heavily on recycled water. All this will help realize David Ben Gurion's vision: to bloom the desolate land and convert the spacious Negev into a source of force and power. A blessing to the state of Israel. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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