Water for Israel: Future Challenges and Opportunities

“It worries me when I hear people saying that Israel has solved its water problems.”
- KKL-JNF Chief Scientist, Dr. Doron Markel
KKL-JNF’s new Chief Scientist Dr. Doron Markel discusses his perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing Israel in the years to come in, an interview with the Neuland Magazine - a publication of JNF-KKL Germany and KKL Switzerland.

“It worries me when I hear people saying that Israel has solved its water problems. You would never hear that from a farmer in the Negev or even in the Galilee where there is a lot more rain. What is true is that thanks to good planning and the construction of desalination plants, we have solved the problem of domestic water supply to the center of the country. As a result, the demand for water from the Kinneret [the Sea of Galilee] has decreased by some 70%. However, the Arava Valley, the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights regions are still dependent on their very limited local natural water supplies, which provide an adequate amount of drinking water but not enough for agriculture.”

“I must emphasize that it is very important that we continue to safeguard the quality and quantity of the water in the Kinneret. This magnificent lake has served the country faithfully for decades and we are ensuring that it will be able to continue to supply us with water in case of a future emergency.”

When speaking about the Kinneret, Doron Markel knows what he is talking about, and not just because he grew up in Kibbutz Afikim just a few kilometers south of the lake. KKL-JNF’s new Chief Scientist served as Head of the Lake Kinneret Watershed Monitoring and Management Department at the Israeli Water Authority for over 15 years. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Jerusalem. His thesis was on “The Reflooding of the Hula wetland in Northern Israel and the Influence of that Action on Lake Kinneret”.

Markel said with a smile that he feels fortunate and privileged to be working for KKL-JNF. “On the 25th of April 1994, I was standing on-site when the huge tap was opened near Kfar Blum and water began to flow into the Hula Lake in the Hula Valley. On that same day, I began work on my doctorate, which was made possible thanks to a student grant from KKL-JNF. Today as KKL-JNF Chief Scientist, I am in the position of being able to approve grants for other students. I feel that a circle has closed.”


Was the reflooding of the Hula a success?

“The Hula restoration plan is a big success. It did much to enhance the welfare of the region. While the draining of the swamps seemed justified in the 1950s, the project presented more problems than solutions. The restoration caused the soil to stabilize and enable the conduct of very successful agriculture. KKL-JNF also created a wonderful ecological park complete with migrating birds and native plant species, many of which were thought to have become extinct. As a result, a huge eco-tourism market has developed. However, the restoration also presented challenges that needed to be addressed. Within a few years, we found that the lake contained too much sulfur and was damaging the aquatic vegetation in the new created wetland. In fact, the sulfur concentration was so high that one could smell the rotten-egg odor for miles around. I suggested lowering the depth of the restored Agamon Hula (Hula Lake) from one meter to 20 centimeters to facilitate effective oxidation of the sulfur content of the water. The tactic worked and the contamination of the Agamon water stopped. The Hula Wetland has remained odorless at that level ever since. Another hindsight was that the blocking of the peat drainage to Lake Kinneret reduced nitrogen load downstream and weakened the lake’s "good algae". It led to the new operation of the Agmon, where during the winter it nowadays drains to Lake Kinneret, improving the nitrogen/phosphorus ratio and healing the Kinneret’s algal problem.”


Is there a project under consideration to rehabilitate the Jordan River and increase its flow into the Dead Sea?

“There are those people who call on the water authority to open the Degania Dam to allow water to flow into the Jordan River and ultimately into the Dead Sea to rehabilitate both the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. It’s clear to all that the Dead Sea is in terrible condition. What those people do not know is that even if the dam was wide open nothing would flow out, because the level of the Kinneret is too low and the water budget of the lake is deteriorated. At present, the Israeli Water Authority is pumping some 10-20 million cubic meters of water into the Lower Jordan River each year simply to keep it alive. In years of good rain, that figure may increase to 30 or even 40 million cubic meters. However, almost none of this water ever reaches the Dead Sea. Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian farmers along the way draw most of the water for their fields. The Dead Sea requires a massive annual inflow of at least 700 million cubic meters of water for any change to even start taking place. The solution for the Dead Sea will not come from the North but rather from the South.


Are you referring to the Red Sea-Dead Sea Pipeline?

The Red Sea-Dead Sea Project is currently the only feasible solution we have for improving the terrible state of the Dead Sea but that is not the huge plan’s only benefit. The project will also provide fresh water, hydroelectric power and recreational sites along its route. We must take into consideration the welfare of our neighbors who have no running water at all. If we want to live peacefully in this region, we should help them have enough water in their homes. Let us remember that one of the most important and stabilizing parts of the peace agreement with Jordan is water. Since the signing of the peace agreement with King Hussein in 1994, Israel has been supplying the kingdom of Jordan with 50 million cubic meters of water annually. The implementation of the Red Sea-Dead Sea project will bring the two sides even closer. According to the plan, Israel will receive water from the proposed desalination plant in Aqaba for use in the south of the country and Jordan will receive a larger allocation from the Kinneret. I know all this because between 2008 and 2013 I have represented Israel in the Red Sea-Dead Sea Feasibility Study led by the World Bank. It could be a win-win-win situation for all parties including the Palestinian Authority. There are private companies that are interested in investing and it is not entirely clear to me why there is no implementation yet.”


How is the work of KKL-JNF received around the world?

KKL-JNF is highly respected internationally in all those fields in which we excel, such as afforestation, water management, and ecology. I am invited to conferences all over the world to deliver papers on our work and research. I just returned from Cuba, where I was the first Israeli to address an international conference on climate change there. People listen in amazement when I reveal that together with the Heschel Center for Sustainability, KKL-JNF plans to help an entire regional council to produce enough renewable green energy to be able to disconnect itself completely from the national electricity grid.


Are you involved in the 2040 Project that was presented recently by KKL-JNF World Chairman Danny Atar?

I am very involved and very excited by this project. As the Chief Scientist how could I not be? The project focuses on creating hi-tech centers in the Galilee and the Negev [Israel’s peripheral regions] in order to drive the economic prosperity of these regions. KKL-JNF knows that a strong periphery will lead to an even stronger Israel. I am leading the academic aspect, which includes bolstering the various academic institutions in these areas, providing scholarships, and investment in research, hi-tech centers, and start-up companies. We plan to set up 10 more KKL-JNF Houses for Excellence in the north and south of the country, following the success of the first KKL-JNF House for Excellence that was launched in Upper Nazareth in 2018. KKL-JNF Houses for Excellence offer high school students free enrichment programs to prepare them for future hi-tech careers. I believe that Project 2040 ranks amongst the most important missions that KKL-JNF has embarked upon since its inception.”