Israeli water chief: ‘You must talk to neighbours to avoid climate change conflicts’

Oded Fixler, Deputy Director General of Israel's Water and Sewage Authority. [MattTempest/Flickr]

Israel is one of the world leaders in water desalination. But now it faces a new challenge – climate change. euractiv.com spoke with the Deputy Director General of Israel’s Water and Sewage Authority, Oded Fixler.

Fixler was interviewed by EURACTIV’s Matthew Tempest while he was in Brussels for the  “Water security and diplomacy in the Middle East: an opportunity for closer EU-Israel cooperation?” conference on 7 June.

Until recently, people thought of water as the ‘source of all life’. With climate change, they’re starting to realise it’s also the source of future conflicts. Is that something you are working on?

Water is the source of life, of course. Without water,  we would die, you need water. For drinking – that’s almost nothing. But you need water for other purposes. Water for sanitary uses, irrigation, industry. But not every need for water is of the highest priority.

Of course climate change, if it hurts regions, there will be chronic suffering (due to) water scarcity. As a matter of fact, the amount of water in the world has not changed. It’s the same amount of water, the same amount of precipitation. The intensity changes, and the location changes, so when one place has scarcity, in other places there is flooding.

So of course it can cause conflict between neighbouring countries – especially where these countries don’t have enough water, versus countries which have flooding.

And you were here in Brussels for a conference on water security and diplomacy in the Middle East?

The conference was about the water sector in Israel – how it manages to overcome this scarcity, what are the measure that Israel took and implemented to overcome it, what are the relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan, and the cooperation between the three in projects.

And what is the cooperation? And what is the conflict, because the Palestinian side accuse you of taking water from under the West Bank, taking water from the Jordan River…

The Palestinians and Israel reached an agreement 20 years ago. According to it, Israel had to supply 31 million cubic metres a year to the Palestinian Authorities (PA). It was written also in the agreement that the future needs of the Palestinians is 180-200 million cubic metres a year.

The Palestinians do not rely only on our supply. They are entitled to drill, in the eastern and western aquifer, and they have the capability to reach that 180-200 million.

The interim agreement was meant to be replaced by a peace treaty. It didn’t happen. But we now supply more than twice what we were obliged to, according to the interim agreement. Last year we supplied 66 million cubic metres to the PA, not 31.

And we were asked only yesterday to increase the supply during the Ramadan month, and we are doing so.

So on a technical, day-to-day basis, we are in touch and (in) communication with the Palestinian Water Authority on a daily basis. Of course. There are also political issues. And you can say “Israel is taking this, Israel is taking that.” Israel is not taking anything to which Israel is not entitled, according to the agreement.

In terms of technology, everyone knows Israel is a high-tech country, and was founded on the idea of ‘making the desert bloom’. What are you currently working on in terms of desalination, in terms of brackish water. Is any of that know-how, or technology, applicable in Africa and developing countries to help them with their water security?

First, it is not only technology and desalination, the first pillar is regulation. Because without that, it’s nothing. In many places in the world, farmers don’t pay for their consumption of water. If someone owns a piece of land, and drills a borehole, he can extract how much water he wants. If he sits on the upper stream of a river, he can divert the upper stream to irrigate his land. In Israel, no. According to our regulations, all the water belongs to the people. So nobody, because water is scarce, can extract water without permission.

And if you get permission,  you have to pay a levy. And the levy is not an  income for the government, not a tax, but a levy in order to level the cost, because in Israel there are many places that are near the water source, but in these places the extraction of water is very easy and cheap – 5 cents a cubic metre, almost nothing. But if you want to convey the water to the hills – Jerusalem is 820 metres above sea level – it’s a lot of energy. So unless everyone pays the exact cost, according to where the water is, we will not be able to “bloom the desert”.

In the domestic sector, everybody pays the same, regardless. And by that, the water cost is lower in Israel than in Europe, especially in Germany, where a cubic metre of water costs five euros.  And waste water collection is another three euros, so eight euros. In Israel, there are two grades of tariffs – the first is about 1.5 euros, including sewage collection and treatment, and the upper grade is about three euros. Far, far below European tariffs.

Is the implication of what you’re saying is that water conservation, whilst less sexy, is at least as important as high tech solutions?

It’s part of the “pillars”, where I said management and regulation is [the same] thing. You can only use the amount of water that is recharged to the aquifer of the lakes – you cannot use more.

Some years you can, but you have to give it back in the next year, or two years ahead.

Because of that, we developed non-conventional water resources. The first is total water reuse for agriculture. We replace the usage of fresh water for irrigation (with) reused water. The farmers are happy to receive this water, because they can depend on this allocation of water, because it comes from the domestic sector, whose consumption is the same year-to-year, bar droughts.

We are now reusing about 400 million cubic litres a year. The second thing is desalination – seawater and bracken. We are now desalinating about 650 million cubic metres a year. The consumption in Israel is about two billion a year, the natural recharging less than 1 billion cubic metres a year, and we have more than 1 billion cubic metres a year, more than 50%, non-conventional water.

And non-conventional water resources cost money. (They are) expensive. But people are paying for this because there is no other alternative. And because the regulation is fitted to the development of the infrastructure, including the desalination and the pipes, and the pumping stations for reused water, and the right allocation, we can overcome consecutive years of drought.

You mention drought. I’ve just come back from Ethiopia where there is particularly severe drought at the moment, linked to El Niño and climate change. I know from NATO, also here in Brussels, they now have climate change experts looking at water as a potential source of future conflict. To get back to my first question, is that something that worries Israel – that the climate can become an enemy as much as conventional political opponents?

Of course. You know that (for) Ethiopia and Sudan, 90% of the Nile River is used downstream, in Egypt. So Ethiopia can increase it pumping from the Nile, but Egypt says that they will not cut back this 90%, and that they will go to war with Ethiopia, with Sudan, if they do [increase].

So the thing is, you have to sit and talk with your neighbours. And we [Israel] have been sitting and talking for the last, let’s say 20 years, with the Palestinians and the Jordanians, and we are now starting the Red-Dead project. A  conveying system from the Red Sea, to the Dead Sea. It’s meant for a few reasons: first, we want to start decrease the deterioration of the water level in the Dead Sea.

The second thing (is that) we want to supply more water to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, because we recognise the scarcity, we recognise the possibility of climate change.

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Transcript:
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Water reuse …

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