Winter Storm Restores Israel's Water Deficit

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - It rarely snows in Jerusalem, but when it does, normal routines fall by the wayside. On Tuesday, with some 20 centimeters (about 8 inches) of snow on the ground and more forecast to fall, many Jerusalemites snuggled back into bed, while others braved the wintry weather, heading to central drop points in search of their morning newspapers.

Schools closed, public transportation halted, and many people stayed home from work.

But beyond the fun of an unexpected day off, Israeli authorities were delighted at the desperately needed precipitation that the winter storms are bringing.

For the last 10 years, Israeli winters -- the only time Israel receives rain -- have yielded below-average rainfalls, even as the demand for water increased. Last summer, officials warned that Israelis might be drawing mud from the tap.

Some experts have said that water -not land - is the most valuable commodity in the Middle East.

Shmuel Rahamim, Deputy Director for Operational Meteorology at the Israel Meteorological Service, said this winter has been unusually wet.

"It is much more than we expected," Rahamim said in a telephone interview. "It's an extreme phenomenon...[that comes] very seldom for us. We don't have an explanation for what happened this winter."

According to Rahamim, Israel received many "synoptic" systems from the West, especially cyclone systems, which carried with them a lot of rain from the Mediterranean.

For the last 10 years, Israel has received systems from the south, which do not bring much rain, he said.

In 1992, Israel had a particularly wet winter. Rains in the desert revived seeds that specialists said had lain dormant for 100 years.

This year, the precipitation could be 20 to 30 percent above the average annual rainfall, Rahamim said.

When Israelis want to measure rainfall, they look at the level of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest source of drinking water. The Sea of Galilee, known here as the Kinneret, was five meters (more than 16 feet) below its normal level at the beginning of the season.

It could rise as much as three meters by the end of the rainy season, after the snows from Mount Hermon melt, Rahamim said.

Compounding the effects of the recent drought, Lebanon this year diverted an upstream tributary that once fed the Sea of Galilee, nearly causing an international incident. Israel threatened to bomb the dam if Lebanon went through with the project.

Amos Epstein, General Manager of Mekorot- Israel's national water carrier - said he is very pleased by all the rain.

"This is a day that I am happy and all the last days I am happy," Epstein said in an interview in Hebrew on Israel radio.

"The last time something like this fell was exactly 10 years ago. The last 10 years there was a process of a growing overdraft of water or deficit of water. We are still in a big deficit.

"We are saying at this moment at least the quantity this year [will supply] the need for this year, the annual need but we will still have a deficit," Epstein said.

According to Epstein, the Kinneret is still three meters short of its full level, which it last reached in 1992.

"I don't believe we can close the gap from 10 years of overdraft, but I believe we are in the process of repair," he said.

Epstein also said that praying for rain was "good." A prayer for rain is part of the daily Jewish prayers at certain seasons. "We believe we need to pray, to pray for a blessing from heaven."

On Tuesday, snow continued to fall in the hills of Jerusalem and in northern Israel in the Golan Heights as well as in the Palestinian areas of Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Palestinian children in those areas were also enjoying a day off from school, according to radio reports.

The winter storm sweeping the area was forecast to last for at least 48 hours.

In Jerusalem, milk delivery trucks were out as were a few motorists and pedestrians but most Jerusalemites were enjoyed the sight of the snow from their windows.

City officials, who last night were telling Jerusalemites that they should go to work on Tuesday, were asking people to stay home and off the roads. The main intercity Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was closed along the ascent to Jerusalem in the morning.

For Israelis, the snow and inclement weather provided a welcome diversion from thoughts of the impending war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the formation of a new government, which one radio broadcaster noted "are not in the headlines today.""