WITH Israelis gathering on the Mount of Olives to pray for long-overdue rain, the government is tapping its earthly powers to avert a looming water disaster. Semi-arid Israel, like many countries in the region, faces one of its worst droughts in this century. Plenty of drinking water is available, but unseasonably hot and dry weather could force cutbacks for agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of the fresh water used here.
Unless rain comes, Israel is threatening to close the spigot next week on 50,000 farmers who have exceeded annual water quotas. These steps could be taken if December is also dry:
Reduce next year's water quotas for farmers and increase the use of recycled water for irrigation, including treated waste water.
Curtail nonessential domestic and urban use, including street cleaning, lawn watering, and car washing.
Ration drinking water, a drastic step that is at least a year away.
Signs of drought are everywhere, but most ominous is Lake Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee. Small islands have begun to appear in the vanishing lake, now at its lowest level in 60 years. It provides 25 percent of the country's fresh water; most of the rest comes from underground aquifers. Many of these are overdrawn and further pumping risks their contamination.
Farmers, already highly water efficient, are worried about the quantity and quality of future supplies.
``We grow crops for food, not for industrial purposes,'' complained Negev farmer Ya'acov Ravitz. Although treated waste water was fine for nonfood crops like cotton and flowers, he says it would spell disaster for vegetable growers like himself. ``People have to eat.''
Newspapers now carry notices for prayer groups to meet at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and on the Mount of Olives to pray for rain.
``Tradition does tell us that when God is withholding this blessing, it is not a good sign. It means God is unhappy with something,'' says Rabbi David Ribner. ``If rain hasn't come, then each individual is expected to look at his or her own deeds and say, `Where haven't I dealt with people in an appropriate manner?'''
But he added: ``Jews are also practical people, and prayer does not preclude building new desalination plants or taking other actions.''
Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, a vocal proponent of desalinating seawater, couldn't agree more. He's pushing for a $500 million desalination plant to be incorporated into a new electric power plant at Ashkelon. But it wouldn't be ready until at least 1996, even if approved.
Finally, there is also talk of importing drinking water from Turkey. ``We are ready to buy water from Turkey or other countries - from whoever will import it to Israel,'' Mr. Eitan says.
Officials in both Ankara and Jerusalem are reluctant to enter into formal agreements for political reasons, and Israeli ports can't accommodate the supertankers needed to transport enough water to make it worthwhile.
``Desalination would be a far more reliable source and would definitely be our priority,'' says Nastali Yaniv, a spokesman for Eitan.