Israel: The best-known lake in the Gospels is drying up

Lake Tiberias where, according to the Gospels, Jesus walked on the water: Israel is trying to fill it with desalinated sea water.

In Israel the situation of Lake Tiberias grows ever more critical, the lake upon which (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus walked. It is drying up due to a five-year drought in Israel, the worst in a hundred years: its tributaries, one of which is the Jordan River, carry less and less water and what remains is increasingly salty, stagnant and full of cyanobacteria (better known as blue algae, though they are not really algae). If the lake were to dry up, this would create logistic and environmental problems for Israel and Jordan which also uses part of the waters of the lake.

Lake Tiberias has a surface area of 166 square kilometres, slightly more than Lake Como and a little less than Lago Maggiore. It is also known as Lake Kinneret or the Sea of Galilee and is unusual in that it is more than 200 metres below sea level: no other fresh-water lake is so far below sea level and, as a matter of fact, the air around the lake is very humid and almost unbreathable if one is not accustomed to it.

Israel uses the lake as a source of water but it is also an important tourist and religious pilgrimage destination. Besides being the place where Jesus is said to have walked on the water, it is also the place where, according to the Gospels, Jesus chose some of his disciples and multiplied the loaves and fish. It is also the place where, according to the Gospels, Jesus appeared after his resurrection and spoke to Peter at the moment when he it is believed he entrusted the leadership of the Church to Peter saying “feed my sheep.”

For many years, Lake Tiberias has been Israel’s main source of drinking water. However, for several decades now, the country has been desalinating sea water and has been able to reduce the quantity of water it takes from the lake: at one point it was extracting 400 million cubic metres a year but this year it will extract only 70 (Jordan is expected to tale a further 50). It is evident that Israel can do without the water from Lake Tiberias but there are other problems: many of the people living around the lake depend on fishing and tourism (both religious and secular) connected with the lake – one example is the city of Tiberias with its 40,000 inhabitants. There are also the obvious problems of the ecosystem and the very existence of all the plants and animals that owe their existence to the lake.

These are the reasons why Israel has decided to invest 250 million Euro to pump desalinated water from the Mediterranean to the lake, a distance of 50 kilometres. It is a difficult undertaking and it is the first time in history that a fresh-water lake has been refilled this way. Once all the pumps are installed, the level of the lake is expected to stabilise before the end of 2020. The work is part of an even greater plan of Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who aims at doubling the amount of desalinated water produced by Israel each year – around 600 million cubic metres. Apart from environmental questions, it is convenient for Israel to keep the lake full; if the sea-water desalination plant s were to be destroyed by an earthquake or occupied during war, the lake would be an essential reserve of water.