Our first water bill was a complete mystery. With the help of a dictionary, I managed to translate it, but knowing what the words meant didn’t help. On one page the amount we used was classified according to “Apartment” (16) and “Main” (305). Below that, it listed the sum of all the water we used in the two month billing period: 17.167. It was broken down as Private: 16 m3), Joint: 1.167 m3. I understood that “Apartment” equaled “Private,” but “Main” (305) certainly did not equal “Joint.” But at least now I knew what measurement I was dealing with–m3 are cubic meters.
After a few questions, I learned that “Joint” was our share of water used for the grass & trees in the courtyard and washing the stairs and hallways.
But on the next page of the bill, I found a different story. Although the total amount we used was the same, it was divided differently. Price 1: 13.81, Price 2: 3.36. The only things I understood about the bill were that the tax was 17% and that I had to pay 147.15 NIS within three weeks.
I’m not the only new oleh (immigrant) to find my bill confusing. When my ulpan teacher asked the class if we would like her to explain our utility bills, everyone in the class said, “Yes!”
That’s when I found out that pricing is one part of the country’s program to manage the water supply.
We are a desert country. The lack of rain in the land of Israel is an ancient problem. The Bible describes it dozens of times. The book of Genesis describes how Abraham lived here only a short time before a drought caused him to move temporarily to Egypt. In Deuteronomy, God threatens to withhold rain as a punishment if the Israelites did not obey his laws. Elijah the prophet declared a drought in Kings I that lasted three years.
The passage of millennia did not solve problem. Lack of drinking water caused the Crusaders to lose the Holy Land to the armies of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. The Christians took what should have been a good defensive position at the top of a hill. They neglected to check one thing in advance. They had no water source. It was summer. Although Muslim history declares the battle of the Horns of Hattin a great victory, they did not have to fight very hard. The Crusaders were defeated by the heat, sun, and dehydration.
During the mandate period, the British were so worried about water, they commissioned a special study of the situation. The report concluded that the land would never be able to support more than 1,000,000 people. The aquifers were too small and the rainfall was too unreliable.
Today, rain is still unreliable. The level in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), the main source of fresh water for over 50 years, is frequently so low, an emergency is declared. So much water has been pumped from the coastal aquifer, sea water has infiltrated. What remains is undrinkable. Yet Israel now has enough water to support a population of 8,000,000. If you include Gaza, as the British did, more than ten million people, live in a land that the British said could not support a tenth of that number. Additionally, Israel has a thriving agricultural economy and exports water to Jordan.
How is all this possible?
The first measure was a national emphasis of saving water. Every child in Gan learns the slogan “Kol tipa khashuv” (Every drop is important). A friend told me that on a family visit to Niagara Falls, the adults stood amazed at the power of all the water. Their five year old stared at the falls only a moment before declaring ”Azeh bizbuz mayim!” (What a waste of water).
After our aliyah, we soon learned how to wash our hands and take showers: Turn on water, get wet, turn off water, apply soap, turn on water, rinse, turn off water, dry. I even learned to wash dishes in a water-saving manner, with the help of Maya’s blog post, “How to wash dishes like an Israeli.”
The pricing of water plays a large part in water-saving. You can use as much as you want, as long as you are willing to pay for it. The key is the graduated cost. As my ulpan teacher explained, each person is assumed to need a certain amount of water per month, for which you pay “Price 1.” Given the evidence of my bill, I assume my personal allotment is about 6.9 m3/month (a little more than 1800 gallons). To make sure that each dwelling unit is charged appropriately, the water company requires a copy of the official ID of every resident. One of the first things new parents do is send notice of the birth of a baby to the water company.
If you exceed the basic allotted amount, as almost everyone does, larger amounts of usage are charged a higher price. At this time, Price 1 is 6.546 NIS/m3 and Price 2 is 10.536 NIS/m3. If you use more than you are allotted at this second level, there is a third level of pricing. In her explanation of the water bill, my teacher only said Price 3 was extremely high. Although we still don’t know how much “extremely high” is, we hope we never are so profligate with water that we find out.
Another way Israel lessens its dependence on rain is by recycling. As I learned when I toured the Shafdan water reclamation plant, Israel reclaims 85% of its wastewater. Spain, the country with the second highest reclamation record, recycles about 19%. At Shafdan, the tour guide said their output meets drinking water standards. However, the water from Shafdan remains separate from the drinking water stream. Drinking water flows throughout the country in white pipes; reclaimed water flows in pink or purple pipes.
Reclaimed water is used only for agriculture and gardens. To eliminate any danger from effluent contamination, it is not used for crops that water touches directly, such as strawberries and cucumbers. Rather, the pink and purple drip irrigation pipes carry water to fruit trees and other crops that do not touch the ground.
The third factor that has increased the country’s supply is desalination. We have five desalination plants which together supply 55% of our drinking water. Israel is the world leader in desalination technology. IDE, our largest builder of desalination plants, has installed plants in forty countries, including several in China. The Israeli-designed Carlsbad Desalination Plant near San Diego produces 190,000 m3 of water daily, supplying 10% of that city’s needs. And here in Israel, five desalination plants discharge about 600 million m3 per year.
Fresh water production is so important, each plant observes strict security procedures. On a recent tour of the Sorek desalination plant in Ashkelon, we were instructed not to take any photographs. And in case we forgot that instruction, signs in several languages remind visitors that no photography is allowed.
Thus, our reliance on the limited rainfall is nil. Because of these factors, we have enough water to meet the needs of the whole country. Additionally, Israel supplies Jordan with one hundred million cubic meters of water yearly.
But despite our abundant supply, newspapers still regularly report the Kinneret level. Every two months our bill reminds us that we live in a desert country, where water is so precious we must pay for every drop. And, God forbid, if we use more than is deemed appropriate, we’ll pay “Price 3” for those excess drops.