2000-07-28: Sounding the alarm
Donald H. Harrison
San Diego (special) -- Israel will run out of water by the year 2012 unless there is a crash program to build reservoirs and desalinization plants while persuading Israelis in the meantime to conserve as much fresh water as possible.
Spreading the alarm was Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations as well as president of the American branch of the Jewish National Fund. The JNF is one of the conference's 54 constituent groups.
JNF thus far has raised approximately $20 million of $100 million needed to build 100 reservoirs in the Negev Desert, at an estimated cost of $1 million per reservoir, Lauder told an audience July 18 at Congregation Beth Am.
These reservoirs will catch rain water that annually flows from nearby mountains across the desert floor and into the Mediterranean Sea without ever being used, Lauder said. They would be able to store 6 percent of Israel's annual water needs.
Lauder said the reservoirs will extend only by three years to 2015 the time when Israel will run out of water at current usage rates. But, he said, the added three years will give the JNF and Israel time to embark on what Lauder believes is the optimal solution to Israel's water problems: a $4.5 billion program to construct desalination plants and pipelines.
"The $100 million buys you the time to raise the money," Lauder explained. "I think the only way you can raise the $4.5 billion is to go to the World Bank, go to the International Monetary Fund, all the different organizations, and put together a business plan with the Jordanians, Palestinians, Saudi Arabians whoever."
"Desalinization could solve all of Israel's water problems and Israel could have enough water to sell to other countries in the Middle East," he asserted. "These countries need as much as they can get as quickly as they can get it."
Lauder pictured huge pipelines leading from desalinization plants to customers in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. "We would have three funnels of water, one going to the Palestinians, one to the Jordanians and one to the Israelis, and every day it would be changed from one to the other," Lauder said. Therefore if Arab terrorists attempted to sabotage the water supply, they would "have a one in three chance of killing Israelis, and a two in three chance of killing others."
Even though it currently costs more money to produce a gallon of desalinated water from the ocean than it does to import fresh water from other sources, Lauder said investing in desalinization makes good economic sense.
"Let's assume that the water comes out at 30 cents a cubic meter," he said. "And say that desalinization is 60 cents, double. The construction cost is $4.5 billion, and let us say there is another $5 billion in costs -- so it comes to $9.5 billion. That is a lot of money, but it is really not that much compared to the life and death of a country."
Lauder, a cosmetics heir whose personal foundation has built numerous Jewish schools and camps throughout Eastern Europe to revitalize Jewish life, said he refuses to permit Israel to perish from thirst. "We can't let that happen," he said. "I have decided to take (a desalinization plan) on myself to do it."
Lauder said Israel currently draws fresh water from underground aquifers and the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) and is able to recycle about 60 percent of the water it uses.
However, as Israel's population has doubled over the years, with more than one million immigrants having arrived from the former Soviet Union, the Kineret has been drawn down to a dangerous level. "There is a red line that they shouldn't go below, but they went down below it; and then they drew another red line, and they went below that," Lauder said. "Once you go below the line, the water gets more and more saline."
Lauder said before the death of Syria's President Hafez el-Assad, he had hoped Israel would reach a peace agreement with that country so that a water pipeline might be constructed from Turkey to Israel via Syria and Lebanon. One of Syria's demands in relation to water was that it have some water rights to the Sea of Galilee. "They are willing to sell those water rights but it is a shame to let one of your major enemies control enough of your water to affect the country," Lauder said.
The JNF president said he was skeptical about the practicability of another often-heard suggestion, that fresh water from Turkey's abundant lakes and rivers be towed in giant balloons down the Mediterranean coast to Israel.
Getting Israelis to conserve more water will be no easy task, Lauder said sadly: "We ran a series of ads about water conservation. We might as well have written it in Chinese for all the reaction we got to it. If they took some water conservation, it would have been a 10 percent savings; it would give them another five years."
Adding to Israel's water supply problems is the fact that "Israel's rivers are polluted," Lauder said. "A few years ago you had an accident where Australians (who came to compete in the Maccabi Games) fell off the bridge in the water (of the Yarmuk River). They didn't drown; they died because they drank the water that they fell into.
"Israel has a major environmental problem, and interestingly enough,
JNF is the only organization working on it."
"I went to Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, and I realized that they were hungering for leadership and no one else was paying attention and I realized that I could make a difference," Lauder responded to my question about the origins of the educational program.
"Even if we changed the life of only one person, as they say 'he who saves one life saves the world.' I saw kids from all over. I remember being at the Heroes Synagogue, next door to the Dohany Synagogue, in Budapest and seeing some sixth grade children there, and I thought 'this is our future.'"
Today, 7,500 Jewish children are enrolled in Jewish schools in 15 Central and Eastern European countries. I told Lauder that I once had written an article for HERITAGE about the Lauder school in Budapest, Hungary -- and how people who had a fear of listing themselves as Jews because of bitter experiences in that country under the nazis and the Communists, were queuing up to put their names on the list for enrollments.
Lauder said that of his many activities, the Foundation which bears his name is perhaps closest to his heart.
He said the United States should keep the pressure on the European Union to maintain sanctions against Austria for as long as Haider's party is in power. "We should put the pressure on and not let up for a second," the former ambassador asserted. Even though such pressure might be resented by the Europeans, "they listen."
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As president of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, Lauder becomes involved in Jewish affairs all over the globe and is in frequent demand as a speaker at the gatherings of the 54 constituent organizations.
Two days prior to his appearance at San Diego's Congregation Beth Am, he was presented the "Henrietta Szold Award" by Hadassah, which held its national convention in Los Angeles. Although there was no time to publicize a visit to San Diego, Lauder and Sol Lizerbram, JNF's regional president in San Diego, decided Lauder should make a day-long visit to meet with some of the agency's supporters there.
He told the gathering at Congregation Beth Am that the reason 10 of 13 Iranian Jews who were convicted of spying for Israel were imprisoned rather than executed was because of the work done on their behalf by Israel, the United States and many other countries, especially Russia.
The spying charges amounted to no more than the Jews studying Hebrew and learning about the Jewish religion, Lauder said. However, he said in Iran "heretics" who teach religions other than the state religion of Islam are liable to capital punishment. He credited the new Russian President Vladimir Putin for influencing the Iranian government to spare the lives of the 10 defendants. Three other Jewish defendants were acquitted.
Additionally, Lauder gave Putin high marks for placing a priority on the arrest and prosecution of eight young people who earlier this month desecrated a Jewish cemetery in northern Russia. "This sent a message all across Russia that no longer will anti-Semitism be allowed. I think this will have a major effect on the Jews living in Russia."
The Camp David talks among Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and American President Bill Clinton were in progress during Lauder's Beth Am appearance, and the American Jewish leader confessed himself especially worried about the fate of Jerusalem.
Saying he considered Jerusalem to be not just the capital of Israel, but also that of the Jewish people, Lauder declared: "No prime minister, no president, no elected official has the right to give away our Jerusalem. ... No more so than someone has the right to say that from now on you can see half the Torah, not the whole Torah."
Concerning rumors then emanating from Camp David that a deal might be struck to permit Palestinians to control certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Lauder said implementation of such an idea would mean "you have no borders, because theoretically people could come into Eastern Jerusalem and then go right into Western Jerusalem and other areas of Israel.
"What happens if a (Palestinian) family comes to someone's house (in Israel) and says 'this is my house' and starts making demonstrations outside or 'this is my farm'? What is world opinion going to do? How do you stop terrorism?"
Lauder said he expected the answer to Palestinian refugees' demands for a "right of return" to their native land would be found in some form of restitution.
As president of the JNF, he said a particularly important Camp David issue for him was how Palestinians and Israelis will share water that already is too scarce.