Draining the Sea of Galilee

In a fourth season of drought, the biblical lake is being pumped to satisfy Israel's demand for fresh water. Bit by bit, the price of pampering farmers is being paid, writes Tobias Buck.

Amos Onn has lived on the banks of the biblical Sea of Galilee since 1956, when he came from Jerusalem to start a new life at Kibbutz Ein Gev.

He was there when the lake flooded the neat, simple houses of the collective in northern Israel more than 40 years ago, paddling around in a kayak to rescue those stuck in their homes. Over the years, he has watched the kibbutz flourish thanks to the lake’s waters: first it brought fish and provided the water for Ein Gev’s vegetable and fruit plantations; then it lured more and more tourists to the kibbutz‘s sprawling holiday resort and famed fish restaurant.

"The sea level of Lake Kinneret is like the mood of Israel," Onn says, referring to the lake by its Hebrew name. "If the water is high, people are happy,"

This summer both the water level and the mood of the people living by the lake are plunging to record lows. The country has suffered four successive seasons of drought, with rainfall no more than half the annual average.

At the same time, Israel’s thirst for fresh water means the country continues to pump vast amounts of water from the lake to meet the needs of farmers, gardeners and ordinary citizens as far away as the Negev desert in the south.

The result is visible everywhere on the lake, which is falling by one to two centimetres a day. On many beaches, the sea has retreated by as much as 150 metres, forcing swimmers to pick their way across an ever-expanding stretch of pebbles.

The small port at Kibbutz Ein Gev has the unhealthy appearance of a pit, with the boats nestling four metres below the boarding planks. Soon, says Onn, the port will become so shallow that boats will not be able to enter at all.

"To be honest, I don’t know what to do," says Moshe Francis, the manager of the kibbutz’s shipping operations. "We can’t leave our boats out on the lake at night because the insurance company will not allow it." The boats will most probably be docked in another port soon, he adds, meaning they can no longer bring visitors from the tourist hub of Tiberias on the other side of the lake.

Sitting in one of Tiberias’ lakeside bars, which now tower absurdly high above the water line, is Yaakov Fadida, a fisherman and the chairman of the Kinneret Fishermen Association.

"They are raping the Kinneret," fumes Fadida, who complains that the lake’s fish stocks are falling sharply as shoreline breeding grounds disappear. "Five years ago, when I threw out the first net, I would get 100 kilogrammes of fish. Now I have to work the whole night, and often still have less than that."

The drying-out of the Sea of Galilee has caused alarm far beyond the region. The lake supplies fresh water to the taps of two in five Israelis, but soon the pumps will have to fall silent. The water level already has fallen below the upper and lower red lines denoting levels below which the lake was previously thought to be at serious risk.

Israel’s water authority has said that pumping can continue until the level reaches the even lower black line – but even this is expected to be breached later this year.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), says the authorities are risking the long-term health of Israel’s biggest lake, which eventually could succumb to over-salination. "The lower red line indicates the level at which the sustainability of the lake is threatened. We are certainly very alarmed by the authorities’ willingness to go to the black line. This development could well be irreversible."

To Bromberg and other environmentalists, the fate of the Sea of Galilee is symptomatic of the country’s failed approach to water management. Israel, he says, is devoting far too much of the precious resource to agriculture.

Farmers, he adds, are using subsidised water to grow bananas, flowers and other produce that is simply not suited to Israel’s desert climate.

According to a recent report for FoEME, farmers use 40% of the country’s fresh water. With much of their produce sold abroad, this equates to exporting water from the dry Middle East to rain-soaked northern Europe.

Indeed, even as the Kibbutz Ein Gev struggles with the plunging shore line, it is loath to uproot the long rows of banana trees that stretch from the lake up to the foothills of the Golan Heights. Rather than put pressure on Israel’s farmers, says Onn, the government should hurry up and build more seawater desalination plants.

"Israel has to be an agricultural country," he says, echoing the national consensus. In the meantime, the price of pampering Israel’s farmers is being paid, centimetre by centimetre, by the shrinking Sea of Galilee.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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