Friday, March 28, 2008

Water, waste and wilderness.

It’s water crisis time in Israel again. Spring is here, the turtle dove sings, almond trees blossom, and the winter that’s just passed brought a mere 65% of average rainfall.

This is the fifth consecutive winter to yield below average rainfall in Israel. Some are pointing the finger at global climate change, which is projected to reduce rainfall in Israel by 30% in the coming decades and to cause critical water shortages worldwide. It’s too early to be sure of the connection sure, but the trend is alarming.

As water crises go, this is a bad one. As we look forward to six months of cloudless skies, the Kinneret, Israel’s main water source is 60 cm below where it was this time last year. It's already close to the lowest “red line.” When it falls below that level, pumping any more water from the Kinneret risks seriously polluting it.

Why are we in this situation? After all, Israeli water engineers have been ingenious in maximizing our access to the water sources available. Yesterday I was hiking through Nahal Amud in the Galilee with a group from Hazon and the Heschel Centre, (see next post) and found myself standing in a stone-filled limestone wadi directly on top of the National Water Carrier.

The National Water Carrier is a five feet in diameter concrete pipeline that conveys a third of Israel’s drinkable water from the Kinneret to the centres of the country’s population, and the thirsty Negev beyond. Built in the 50’s and 60’s it was a triumph of Zionist pioneering ingenuity. During its construction, half of Israel’s cement output went into building the pipeline wall. It’s a man made miracle, as awe inspiring in its way as the wadi we were hiking through. Beneath our feet lay the artery which, by pumping precious life-blood to the heart and extremities of Israel has made possible the building of the country.

Today too, Israeli technology enables us to make the most of our limited water resources. Two major desalination plants opened in the past decade and now provide almost a sixth of the country’s water.

But here’s the problem: That’s exactly the amount by which water consumption has grown in Israel over the same period. We now use 796 million cubic meters of water per year, 136 million more than in 2000. As living standards have risen, the gains from new technology have been wiped out by the greater extravagance of our water use.

That’s why technology, though wonderfully helpful, is unlikely to solve this problem alone. We’ll always find ways to consume the blessings that technology yields. To avert future water crises, we’ll have to get into the habit of consuming less.

It can be done. In the face of the water shortage of the early 90’s public campaigns to conserve and reduce water usage cut consumption by 15%.

Everyone knows what to do: take shorter showers, use a bucket and not a hosepipe to wash your car, use the mini-flush lever on your toilet, don’t leave the tap on when you wash the dishes, water the garden at night not at mid day etc etc. All very doable. But when last the crisis passed, water usage bounced back to previous levels and then beyond.

Recently I had the chance to visit the bare and frugal apartment of one of Israel's leading poskim halakhic decisors) and ask him whether there was any halakhic basis for requiring people to save water.

He looked at me as if I'd just asked him which way was up and answered,

"Of course. We should always consume only as much as we need of the blessings that God puts in in the world." (He proved this from Mishnah Berurah, Orach Haim 242:4, which says that people should limit their consumption during the week so that Shabbat will be extra special by comparison.)

Most of us cannot live as simply as this rabbi. But we can share his gratitude for the blessing of water and learn to use it with an appreciation of its preciousness.

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