Municipal Water Leader
Interview

The Central Role of the Israel Water Authority

Israel is an arid nation whose population has quintupled over the last 60 years. This has necessitated bold and creative water resources policies, including the aggressive use of water recycling and desalination. Because water policy touches all aspects of Israeli national life, the Israeli Parliament in 2007 established an independent governmental body, the Israel Water Authority, that is designed to give a seat at the decisionmaking table to representatives from all relevant ministries. 

In this interview, the Israel Water Authority’s director general and chairman of the council, Giora Shaham, tells Municipal Water Authority about the distinctive features of Israel’s water policy and the role the Water Authority plays in setting it. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Giora Shaham: I’m a water engineer. I studied water engineering in the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. My second degree was in water resources analysis, studying multiobjective problems concerning water issues and environmental issues. In my professional life, I started as a water engineer with the Lake Kinneret Authority and then became a private consultant specializing in water resources analysis, focusing on systemic problems rather than on detailed design. 

A map of the National Water Carrier, Israel’s largest water project.

I prepared a sustainability study for, and then managed the construction of, a big project in northern Israel to resolve environmental problems caused by the drying of the swampy Hula Valley, which had occurred at the beginning of the 1950s. At the beginning of the 1990s, about 40 years after the valley was dried, we planned and constructed a wetland to filter the water from the northern streams and sources of the Jordan River, preventing pollution from reaching the Sea of Galilee. 

About 15 years ago, I was a consultant for what was then the Water Commission, today the Israel Water Authority. I dealt with the country’s major water systems and was one of the active members of the committee that formulated the reform of the current authority’s structure in the water sector. In addition to my work in Israel, I worked as a consultant performing system analysis in China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Serbia. 

In June 2017, I was nominated by the government to serve as director general of the Water Authority. It is a 5-year term position. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the Israel Water Authority, its history, and its current responsibilities. 

Giora Shaham: Until 2007, the Water Commission in Israel was under one ministry. It used to be under the Ministry of Agriculture, then it was transferred to the Ministry of National Infrastructures (today called the Ministry of Energy). But there were a lot of ministries in the Israeli administration responsible for some fragment of the water sector. For example, water pollution was the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, water supply to the municipalities in the urban sector was the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior, all the investments needed to improve the water system were under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance, and water supply for agriculture fell to the Ministry of Agriculture. In 2006, a major legislative reform established the Water Authority, which is a single professional organ that sets policy and bylaws, governed by a council that includes high-ranking representatives from all relevant ministries (Agriculture, Energy, Environment, Finance, and Interior) together with two public representatives. I am the director general of the Water Authority as well as the chairman of the council. It is a one-table, professional, independent decisionmaking body. 

The Israeli water sector is essentially a closed market, which means that its water rates need to cover all the investment, maintenance costs, and energy costs that are needed to supply potable water, whether for domestic, industrial, or agricultural use. There is one rate for domestic use, one for industrial use, and one for agricultural use, but added up, those rates need to cover the full cost of providing potable water. The situation is different for recycled water, because we need to clear the market and support farmers in taking the effluent from the sewage treatment plants to use it to irrigate. That means we support the infrastructure through governmental budget subsidies and loans. 

The principle of covering all the costs of infrastructure, real estate, and water supply encourages water conservation. We manage the water under the principle of firmness and uniformity of service. As a rule, all water users in a given sector pay the same price regardless of location. However, in order to support the basic needs of the domestic sector, we actually have a two-block tariff system. The rate for water up to 3.5 cubic meters (924 gallons) per person per month—which is the normal amount for domestic use—is about US$2.10 per cubic meter. Past 3.5 cubic meters per person per month, the rates rise to about US$3.50 per cubic meter. Those two rates cover all the costs for development, maintenance, energy, etc. 

Municipal Water Leader: Is the Water Authority in charge of coming up with a national water policy? 

Giora Shaham: Yes. Water law in Israel is quite distinctive. The first sentence of Israel’s water law says, “The country’s water resources are public property controlled by the state and are designated for the needs of the residents and development of the country.” Water resources, for the purpose of this law, include springs, streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, either surface or groundwater, natural or artificial. All the water belongs to the state, and the state is the regulator. Water that is pumped from the sea also belongs to the state. 

Municipal Water Leader: In addition to developing policy, does the water authority operate infrastructure? 

Giora Shaham: The Water Authority is a regulator. Operations are done by Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, which is responsible for about 70 percent of domestic water supply. It supplies water to municipalities. Inside the municipalities, the responsibility for water distribution, storage, and sewage collection and treatment falls to public water companies. Mekorot is also responsible for about 50 percent of water supply for agricultural use; the rest falls to local water associations and water suppliers, which usually belong to the farmers. In northern Israel, there is no effluent to supply to agriculture, but in central Israel and the south, farmers use the effluent from sewage treatment plants to irrigate. About 85–86 percent of treated wastewater is used for agriculture. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are some of the main elements of the water policy that the Water Authority has developed? 

Giora Shaham: We have two major responsibilities: First, we work to supply the long-term needs of all the regions of Israel by planning and developing programs. There are a few regions that are not connected to the national system—the valley upstream of the Sea of Galilee and some small areas of eastern Israel—but about 80 percent of the country is connected to the National Water Carrier, a pipe that takes water from the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel to Beersheba in the south. We are now connecting our desalination facilities to this big pipe. We now have five major desalination plants along the shores of the Mediterranean in northwestern Israel, producing about 600 million cubic meters (486,428 acre-feet) of water a year. They are connected to the National Carrier, which conveys the water to the rest of Israel. Two other plants are in the tendering process. Our other major responsibility is the regulation of the water sector, including economic regulation, standards of service, licensing, and water allocation. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the development of water recycling in Israel. 

Giora Shaham: About 60 years ago, nobody paid attention to sewage and simply let it flow into the streams, the lakes, and the sea. Then, as the dimensions of the health and environmental problems this caused became clear, the construction of sewage treatment plants was quickly initiated to protect the streams and aquifers. As the population and its water needs grew, however, we realized that if it were treated well, this water could be used for agricultural purposes. We started to construct a local reuse system and to store the purified water in our reservoirs so that it could be used during the summer to irrigate olives, avocados, mangos, dates, and other trees. Nowadays, the Ministry of Health is involved in regulating and permitting and sets standards for using recycled effluent for irrigation. It is widely used to irrigate vegetables. As I mentioned, we reuse 86 percent of wastewater for irrigation, and we aim to reuse 100 percent.

Municipal Water Leader: Would you also tell us about the development of desalination and how government policy supported it?

Giora Shaham: Around the beginning of the new millennium, we realized that our natural water resources were not sufficient to meet the water needs of our growing population. Natural water levels were declining, and the overdrafting of our aquifers threatened to destroy them. There was no alternative but large-scale seawater desalination. 

We started on our first desalination plant in 2005, and now, as I mentioned, produce around 600 million cubic meters (486,428 acre-feet) of desalinated water. All the plants are connected to the national water system and supply water mainly to the domestic sector. Now we are planning to construct two more large desalination plants. In 3–4 years, we should be producing 900 million cubic meters (729,643 acre-feet) of desalinated water per year, which should cover 80–90 percent of Israel’s total domestic and industrial use.

I should mention that we are also responsible for supplying water to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We supply the West Bank with about 150 million cubic meters (121,607 acre-feet) per year and Gaza with about 20 million cubic meters (16,214 acre-feet) a year. Another consumer is the Kingdom of Jordan. As agreed in the peace treaty signed by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late King Hussein of Jordan in 1994, we supply Jordan with about 55 million cubic meters (44,589 acre-feet) a year. Jordan is suffering from a scarcity of water. Its water is not balanced, and it has a deficit of about a billion cubic meters (810,714 acre-feet) a year. Because of the civil war in Syria and the war in Iraq, there are about 2 million refugees living in Jordan. We are making many efforts to support Jordan’s water supply, and we should be able to increase it next year. Jordan has no direct connection to the sea and cannot desalinate water, so we have to support it.

Municipal Water Leader: What water conservation measures have you promoted or required in Israel?

Giora Shaham: Water conservation is a big issue here. About 60 years ago, Israel had a population of about 2 million. Now it is almost 10 million. In the West Bank, there were no more than 300,000–400,000 people; now there are about 3.5 million. The country is densely populated, and all the natural water bodies—including the coastal and mountain aquifers—are affected by pollution from industry, sewage, and so on. We’re making efforts to conserve the water in the Sea of Galilee and in the aquifers. We strictly regulate the quality of treated wastewater and require it to be nearly on the level of drinking water. We are trying to preserve areas that are sensitive to pollution, not allowing buildings and industrial facilities in those places. We are trying to restore water flowing in small streams. We also invest a lot of money in education on water conservation and sustainability. Finally, we are trying to capture the rainwater that falls on buildings along the coastline and redirect it to restore the aquifers.

Municipal Water Leader: How have changes in the climate affected Israel’s water resources, and what has the policy response to those changes been?

Giora Shaham: We are seeing changes in the climate. Within about 30 years, our average precipitation is expected to decline by about 20 percent. That projection is taken into consideration in our calculations of our water balance. Our desalination development is based on the assumption that droughts will be more severe and more frequent. Just 2 years ago, we suffered from 5 continuous years of drought that almost emptied all our natural reserves. That was the reason that we immediately started to construct another desalination plant. We are defending ourselves against climate change, taking all measures needed. We are quite worried about what will happen with our neighbors, including Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. 

Municipal Water Leader: What can Israel teach the world about water policy?

Giora Shaham: It is more that we can share our experience than that we can teach. I think the fact that the water sector in Israel is managed as a closed market is the key to our ability to manage it in a sustainable way. This is not the case in many places around the world. Especially in less-developed economies, where water is precious, politicians are afraid to touch water costs. That reflects the severe problems caused by water shortage and globally changing climates, which decrease the amount of water available for great parts of the human population. However, it is also a challenge in the most advanced countries, and we have learned that the key to tackling natural water shortages is effective water management. 

Giora Shaham is the director general of the Israel Water Authority. For more information about the Water Authority, visit www.water.gov.il.