When Coverage of a Water Crisis Vanishes
‘Unless there is a real and apparent danger … reporters will find it hard to convince editors to dedicate time and space for water stories.’
One of the most frustrating things in journalists’ work is to assume that they have managed to raise public awareness of an important issue only to discover that same issue has vanished from the public domain into almost complete oblivion. In many ways this is the story of what’s happened with the water crisis in Israel, which started in 1999 after a year with severe drought and gradually disappeared two years ago, after two good winters.
The disappearance of the basic problem is, of course, illusionary: The danger of water shortage still lurks, and it will show up again when the next cycle of drought hits the region. And when it does, it could create a real threat to water quality and intensify the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians who will have to share the meager resource.
Israel uses three major water sources—the Sea of Galilee, which is known in Israel as Lake Kinneret, and two other sources that involve a coastal and mountain aquifer. Those two aquifers are the only water sources available to the Palestinian population in the territories occupied by Israel.
When the last drought hit, water levels in all sources dropped sharply, and there was a danger of imminent water shortages. There was also a genuine threat to water quality since the drop in water level intensified the process of saline water contaminating freshwater by moving into it from the sea and from deeper geological layers.
Water Issues Surface
For quite a long time, reporting on water issues gained a central place in the local media, after years of neglect. The When Coverage of a Water Crisis Vanishes ‘Unless there is a real and apparent danger … reporters will find it hard to convince editors to dedicate time and space for water stories.’ news was alarmist in many cases and echoed concerns about the imminent catastrophe that some water experts and environment organizations were predicting. But there were also important aspects of the water crisis tackled and discussed in the media, especially in the written media.
There have been two major characteristics of water coverage in recent years. The first involved the dramatization of the extent and consequences of the drought and future water shortages. The second thread of this story—which did not interest many in the media or the public—involved the discovery of old water problems that had occurred after the previous serious drought.
Journalists reported what politicians and the ministers of environment said as they warned that Israel—in the wake of the drought—would be left without available drinking water. Pictures of the shrinking Lake Kinneret accompanied the lead headlines of written media and television news. Evident in the coverage, too, was a sense of humor, familiar in a society so familiar with existential threats. One of my editors was skeptical about the enduring threat posed by the drought. When I told him that experts said the situation in the coastal aquifer was especially bad, he commented that they couldn’t be sure because, after all, they did not actually visit the place.
As part of this crisis coverage, the problem of water quality finally received some serious attention. Cases of devastating water contamination by armament factories were published for the first time, and with publication of this information came public demand to treat the pollution. For the first time in Israel’s history, the water commissioner had to explain on the national radio program what the government was planning to do with the pollution caused by the defense industry. Until then, this topic, which involved the entire defense industry, had been treated like a sacred cow because of its importance to national security.
While the spotlight was turned on water issues, economists and media commentators also started to emphasize the topic of the price agricultural interests paid for water. This, too, was a subject few people were willing to touch before this time, because the farmers have a strong political lobby. Some economists even denied the claim that Israel is facing a severe water shortage and argued that raising the water price for agriculture will force the farmers to use it more efficiently and will prevent any water shortage. At the same time, many water experts supported a plan to construct several huge desalinization facilities that would transform saltwater into water that could be used in farming and in homes. But many of these same economists, along with the Ministry of Finance, claimed there was no need to spend this large amount of money on a desalinization program if there was a way to change water demand.
In time, politicians, water experts, and the news organizations had to take more seriously the implications of the water crisis on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In Palestinian villages and towns, the water shortage was a daily reality and was leading to problems with sanitation and health. Political forces and environmental organizations issued a clear demand to the Israeli government to allocate more water to Palestinians. Policymakers responded (up to a certain point) by admitting that the water issue did require action and then by making some important decisions to act. In a special meeting during the summer of 2000, the government decided to build the first big desalinization facility in Israel that could produce 50 million cubic meters in one year. Then in a more dramatic move the next year, the government raised the country’s capability in desalinization production so it will reach 300 million cubic meters annually by the year 2010. There were also commitments made to rehabilitate the water sources that were polluted by the defense industry. Other important government decisions involving water followed, including changes in the agricultural subsidies system.
The media did more than just report on debates and chronicle government decisions. New information on the influence of power groups, like farmers, was published, and research led to new data on water contamination. The leading tabloid in Israel, Yedioth Ahronot, dedicated its front page lead story to a water survey that found heavy contamination in the Tel Aviv area groundwater. It was one of the first times that the newspaper gave an environmental issue such a prominent position.
One important example of reporting was the exposure of close personal ties between the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and one of the former water commissioners. This enabled the commissioner to influence water policy even after he’d completed this job. The media also presented arguments in favor of specific policies. In Haaretz, at least two or three lead editorials reflected the view that Israel must consider geopolitical, social and environmental aspects in dealing with its water crisis and not focus only on questions of water demand or price.
One of their more crucial contributions was the education about these issues that many people could find in the written and electronic media. Basic facts about the source and quality of drinking water were published. When a Haaretz reporter in the occupied Palestinian territories, Amira Hass, visited towns and villages, people in Israel learned for the first time about the desperate shortage of water. Other reporters struggled hard with officials from the Ministry of Health and forced it to publish the full results of surveys of water quality.
The Press Turns Its Eye Away
As the water levels rose during the wet winters from 2002 to 2004—refilling Lake Kinneret—the level of media reporting about water issues went down. Interviews with water experts now were out of fashion, and few reporters exhibited much interest in new ideas about water conservation. And few were keeping a watchful eye on all of what the government had promised when it instituted its new water policies—and, in the absence of press scrutiny, there was a worrisome erosion in the process of implementing the steps the government had decided to take.
First came the slowing, and then shrinking, of the plan to build desalinization facilities. Today only one, in southern Israel, is under construction. Another one is scheduled to be built in a year or two, but the future of other promised sites is not clear. The Ministry of Finance is using the fact that water resources are quite full again to delay the construction of more desalinization facilities. Nor is there pressure today— from the public or from the press—to stop water subsidies for farmers or to allocate more water for Palestinians. And the plans to rehabilitate groundwater, polluted by the defense industry, remain mostly at the research stage, and funds for water treatment are still not allocated. When it comes to long-term plans, the water commissioner wrote a comprehensive master plan taking the country up to the year 2010, but the government did not bother to examine it, let alone approve it.
The troubling question is why news organizations let the water issue vanish from their pages and broadcasts and thus made it easier for politicians to abandon implementation of a muchneeded, long-term water policy. It could be argued fairly that the media could not maintain its higher level of coverage once the drought was over, but there are many critical issues that remain. Certainly, the media could follow the water story with some consistency, albeit with more limited coverage.
The basic reason they do not has to do with the nature of today’s news reporting. It is almost impossible for reporters to closely follow such longterm stories that involve science (in this case, hydrology and environmental issues) and also the government’s bureaucratic processes. But this situation is made even worse in Israel, where civil and environmental issues are pushed aside because geopolitical and security tensions are so intense and have such dramatic and daily effects. Unless there is a real and apparent danger—such as was experienced during our years of drought—reporters will find it hard to convince editors to dedicate time and space for water stories.
Another reason for the media neglect of the water crisis is a sociologic and cultural one. Policymaking in Israel is largely based on an endless chain of reactions to emergency situations instead of careful and balanced planning. Because the state was created with the reality of having a constant need to improvise, deal with security pressures and with its large number of immigrants, things start to work here only when the heat is on. When circumstances improve—as in the case of water—the root problem is ignored and, in time, forgotten.
News organizations in Israel should play an ongoing and consistent role in creating the civil, social and environmental agendas that will have a central place in our nation’s future, even if the geopolitical situation does not improve. The water crisis is sad proof that so far the media have not played such a role as either a strong civil guardian or a reliable watchdog.
Zafrir Rinat is the environment reporter for the newspaper, Haaretz, in Tel Aviv, Israel.