No longer useful as fishing docks, the stilted platforms elevated above the beaches of Israel’s Kinneret are rusted monuments to the receding water level, just one indicator of the drought parching the Middle East.
Israel is no stranger to harsh climates and dry seasons, but the repeated shortfalls in rainfall during the rainy seasons of the past five years have failed to replenish the critical water reserves that support Israel’s environment, agricultural production, population, and ultimate stability. Massive efforts in desalination have stemmed the thirst, but if the drought persists even world-class technology will be unable to prevent the cost of a lasting drought. That cost is obvious in the dry stream beds that were gushing less than a decade ago and the expanding beaches enclosing the Kinneret, which has already seen its dire warning signs.
The Red Lines
“The shortage of natural water is the worst that has been measured in about 100 years and is bringing water sources in the north to an unprecedented low point,” Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz said last spring.
He wasn’t exaggerating. Today, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is nearly twenty feet below the upper red line and only centimeters from the black line. If it reaches the black line, it will cause irreparable ecological damage as the salinity concentration reaches a new high. This is the lowest the sea has been since the 1920s.
The drought has exacerbated the deteriorating condition of the already overtaxed Jordan River, a source of physical and spiritual life that has become little more than a grimy sludge near the lower waters.
Below ground, Israel’s two massive groundwater reservoirs, the Coastal Aquifer and the Mountain Aquifer, are below or nearing their red lines. If reached, there is a risk of saltier water penetrating the aquifer from deeper geological levels making the aquifer unfit for drinking or agriculture use, according to the latest monthly report from Hydrological Service in the Water Authority. Last year, the Water Authority pumped 17,000 tons of salt out of the Sea of Galilee to ensure that the salinity point didn’t reach a dangerous level.
Even Israel’s non-freshwaters are suffering. In the south, the Dead Sea is shrinking at an average of one meter of depth a year posing a threat to the tourist industry and the life of the Dead Sea itself.
Divine Punishment or Climate Change?
Israel has a long history with droughts. No sooner did Abraham arrive in the land than a drought forced him to leave for Egypt where the abundant flow of the Nile sustained life even in the absence of adequate rain. But a five-year drought with no sign of abatement has everyone alarmed. A sixth year of drought could be catastrophic.
Why is this happening? The short answer is simple: insufficient rainfall. Life in the promised land depends on adequate rainfall. According to the Torah, even before the people of Israel settled in the land, Moses warned them about the fragile ecosystem’s dependency on precipitation:
For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt [which derives its water supply from the Nile River] … But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven. (Deuteronomy 11:10-11)
Moses assured the people of Israel that if they heeded God’s commandments and served him sincerely, the LORD would provide adequate rainfall. If they did not, “He will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you” (Deuteronomy 11:17). This warning about a divinely-imposed state of drought is recited twice a day in the Shema, one of the daily prayers recited by observant Jews all over the world. Under current climate conditions, the old Scripture warnings carry an ominous weight.
Theologians and scientists can argue about whether to blame the sins of the nation or climate change for the drought conditions, but the insufficient rains and erratic weather patterns may be indicative of the future if climate change projections are correct. At this point, it will take a miracle of biblical proportions, sustained over many years, to reverse the damage already created by the drought.
A Desert Oasis
The drought is sucking up Israel’s deepest reservoirs, but compared to other countries facing drought in the region, Israel is an oasis.
In Syria, some experts say the added stress from the drought on society and infrastructure helped kindle the social unrest that led to war. In the Gaza Strip, 97 percent of the water is contaminated by sewage or salt contributing to the deteriorating health and infrastructure crisis. In Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are drying up, and desertification is trimming away good farmland by as much as 50 percent this year.
The Miracle Technology
Unlike its neighbors, Israel has managed to sustain all its sectors over the past five years despite drought conditions by public water conservation campaigns and cutting-edge technology that literally turns the bitter waters sweet. Early on in the history of the Jewish state, Israel recognized the problem created by scarce water supplies and the higher demand for water created by a growing, modern population. Israel prepared for the inevitable water crisis by developing desalination systems and perfecting drip irrigation. Israel also invested in water recycling technology. Through these efforts, Israel has become a global leader in water management and now exports its technology to Africa, India, and even California.
The powerhouse of Israeli technology is the desalination plants. Five of them built along the Mediterranean coast have been steadily filtering water, providing for over half of Israel’s water supply in recent years and compensating for the lack of rainfall. The desalination plants have held off the crisis for now, but if the drought continues, future predictions show that Israel’s growth rate and demand for water will soon eclipse their production.
“Israel Is Drying Up… Again”
Those words are the motto of a campaign the Israeli Water Authority reignited this summer—a familiar effort aimed at reminding Israelis that saving water at home is still important.
“Desalination isn’t enough,” says Israeli actress Renana Raz in an ad for water conservation. “After five years of drought, we’ve pumped everything that we can.”
The campaign lowers water allocations for farmers and municipalities while educating the public to use less water in daily routines, such as showering. Raz says Israel has pumped everything they can. That may be true for now, but in response to the continued drought forecast, the Israeli government also announced plans this year to construct two new desalination plants at the cost of approximately $400-500 million each.
What is different about this plan is that one of the plants will be built in the Galilee with the dedicated purpose of replenishing the Kinneret and streams that feed into the sea. Unfortunately, the construction of the new plants will take several years during which irreparable ecological damage could happen if the Sea of Galilee sinks below the black line.
“Tear Open the Gates of Heaven”
The renewed efforts and millions of dollars committed to new technology reveal the limits of such efforts when faced with prolonged drought. At this point, Israel needs a miracle. That may be why late last year the Israeli agricultural minister, Uri Ariel, issued a mass appeal for a spiritual approach.
"I call upon the entire public to take part in the prayers that will together tear open the gates of heaven," Ariel said, appealing for Israelis to join him at the Western Wall. He added, "And to bring umbrellas."
Ariel arranged for a massive prayer service to be held at the Kotel on the fast of Tevet 10 to pray for rain in the face of a dry winter forecast. Thousands answered the call and appealed to heaven. Prayers were led by the chief rabbis of Israel, the rabbi of the Western Wall, the Chairman of the Israel Farmers Association, and other influential leaders.
Hardly a week later, facing a dismally low rainfall forecast, the heavens did open up and poured down. It rained for days, filling streams and streets till they gushed, and it even raised the Sea of Galilee by one centimeter, a modest gain.
The rain fell as far south as the Negev where regions around the Dead Sea received flash flood warnings. Even the peaks of Mount Hermon received several inches of snow. The Jezreel Valley, northern Golan Heights, Upper Galilee, Netanya, and other regions saw enough rainfall in one week to equal the multiyear average making it one of the rainiest weeks on record in recent years.
But, Israel’s national water company Mekerot tempered the joy with the warning that even the answer to prayer in January was only a temporary respite and did not come close to closing the deficit needed to end the drought.
The rainy season has begun here in Israel. At the conclusion of the festival of Sukkot last October, worshippers in synagogues all over the world began the annual prayers for rainfall in the land of Israel. On Shemini Atzeret, we added the potent words to the daily prayers that describe God as the one “who makes the wind to blow and the rains to fall.” After Sukkot, the rainy season in Israel officially begins. Rains can be expected from Sukkot to Passover (October through April), but if the rains do not come in sufficient quantity, it can mean disaster for Israel. This year, the prayers for rainfall in the land of Israel take on a heightened urgency as the thirsty land struggles under a punishing drought that has now lasted for five years. We are grateful for the rains that have already fallen this year, and continue to ask God to send more as the winter begins.
The prophets predict that, in the final redemption, the Messiah will descend like rain: “his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth" (Hosea 6:3). In the Messianic Era, the Messiah will bring the rains:
Rejoice, O sons of Zion, and be glad in the LORD your God; for He has given you the Teacher of Righteousness. And He has poured down for you the rain, the early and latter rain as before. (Joel 2:23)