In Israel, it is said that the country’s mood is measured by the level of Lake Tiberias. In 2019, after five years of drought, Israelis therefore watched with concern the body of water located 211 meters below sea level, not far from the northern border with Jordan. At the time, the “black line” – critical zone – threatened to be crossed: it would then no longer have been possible to pump water from the lake without damaging the ecosystem. Since then, two rainy winters have reversed the game, but scientists believe that serial droughts are likely to increase in the future – one of the consequences of climate change.
The Israeli government therefore launched in 2018 a project that it claims is unique in the world: to refloat Lake Tiberias, with desalinated water drawn from the Mediterranean. Five years of work and a billion shekels (267 million euros) later, the floodgates opened on December 27, 2022, on the northern heights of the lake, in the middle of fields where sheep graze and moo cows.
“Everything went as planned, a Swiss clock! », rejoices Lior Gutman, spokesperson for the Israeli water company Mekorot, planted in front of an enclosure with two huge pipes. Below, a man-made river bed joins the natural desiccated watercourse Tsalmon, which empties into the lake. At the end of December 2022, the test lasted five hours, in front of a handful of officials and journalists, but since then the floodgates have been closed: this year, Lake Tiberias is afloat.
“It’s a revolution, with very practical benefits, but also with symbolic significance”, enthuses Eran Feitelson, professor of geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The project, he explains, reverses the historical meaning of water in Israel. Until the mid-2000s, the country covered its needs by pumping from Lake Tiberias; the water was redistributed to the rest of the territory via the national aqueduct, built in the early 1960s and which goes down to the Negev desert. In 2005, the Hebrew State inaugurated its first desalination plants; today, more than 80% of the country’s drinking water comes from its five sites on the shores of the Mediterranean and two more are under construction. In agriculture, Israel has become a champion of wastewater recovery.
The new project to bail out Lake Tiberias therefore completes the reversal of the logic: now it is the country’s former reservoir that is supplied via the aqueduct and the water flows from south to north. The water company relied heavily on the existing infrastructure, with some adaptations, including “some engineering work to reverse the flow and construction of a new pipe to reach the Tsalmon stream”explains Guy Reshef, who heads the Israeli hydrological service.