The First Negev Pipeline – 70 Years On

Making the Wilderness Flourish - Building Infrastructure for the National Water Carrier

 The concept that, more than any other, symbolizes the desert's importance and especially that of the Negev, in the history of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel, is one that was suggested by David Ben Gurion – that of making the wilderness flourish. When faced with the surprise expressed by a high school student at Ben Gurion's decision to move to the Negev, Ben Gurion said: "Helping to transform the wilderness into a flourishing area of settlement is, in my opinion, no less important than being the Prime Minister".

The monumental task of transforming the Negev wilderness began with a single water pipeline. , Some 70 years after its laying, we will  relate its story here.

 

In the summer of 1946, Israel was embroiled in the race for self-determination and the definition of its final borders. The British parliament had voted in favor of the Morrison-Grady Partition Plan which left the Negev desert outside of the future Jewish State. The Jewish Agency, which at that time was active in purchasing and preparing land for settlements, developed the 11-point plan. The aim was to foil the British government's intentions regarding the Negev by creating a reality that would ensure that the Negev would be included in the Jewish State.

 

So it was, that at the end of the Day of Atonement, on the night between the 5th and 6th of October 1946, 11 new settlements were established in the Negev. Their establishment reawakened the dream of irrigating the desert, a dream expressed seven years before by Simcha Blass, Mekorot's first chief engineer. Blass initiated the idea of bringing water to the Negev from Ashdod, from the Yarkon River and from the north of the country. "Fantasy" was the word used by his friend, Dr. Arthur Rupin. In his story "Water in Strife and Action" Blass wrote: "By chance I met Dr. A. Rupin at one of the settlements. He approached me and said: 'Mr. Blass, maybe you can suggest a "fantasy" for irrigating the Negev?' The clever economist, divorced from delusions and day-dreaming, craved fantasy.

 

In those days, the parts of Blass's plan indeed seemed imaginary. But this time, Blass had the results of water research carried out in the northern Negev by the Israeli geologist, Leo Pickard, according to whom: the northern Negev was rich in water. Blass selected the Gever-Am and Nir-Am area of the northern Negev as a potentially water rich area. Just one month after the establishment of the 11 settlements, in November 1946, an agreement was signed between the Jewish Agency's "Irrigation Office", Mekorot, Solel Boneh and Herut for the supply of water to the Negev. Mekorot was chosen to execute the project and Solel Boneh was charged with constructing the reservoirs and pools connected to the venture. Herut constructed and welded the pipes.

 

Before work began on what was, in those days, a massive project, a short pipeline was laid between the older settlements of Nir-Am and Be'erot Yitzhak. It was laid to test the British Authority's reaction, to test pipe laying techniques and to provide those involved in the project some practical experience. The pipe was laid over the course of one night with the aid of labor taken from all of the Negev settlements, and by morning, the work was completed. The success of laying this first segment instilled a sense of security and the conviction that it would be possible to successfully complete all stages of the project.

 

However, in reality, the teams faced many difficulties in bringing the plan to fruition. For example, some of the Bedouin and Arab settlements refused to allow sections of the pipeline to run through their lands and sabotaged the pipes. Units recruited from the Palmach and repair teams from across the Negev stepped up the guarding of the pipeline 24 hours a day.

 

On January 1st, 1947, two water pipelines were laid to new Jewish settlements: the Western and the Eastern pipelines, with a combined length of 220 Km, which originated from one point – Nir-Am in the Sha'ar Negev region. In April of the same year, Mekorot began to feed water through the pipelines to the Negev – the water of life that strengthened the Jewish hold on the Negev and made it possible for small, isolated settlements to exist. The pipelines supplied drinking water to the settlements and made it possible for each farm to irrigate 20 to 30 dunams (5 – 7.5 acres) of land. Mekorot drilled some 15 wells in the Gever-Am and Nir-Am region and established pools and pumping stations. The project also supplied water to the Bedouin and Arab settlements located along the pipeline's route.

 

In June 1947, the UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) commission of inquiry visited the Negev and were impressed by the new pipelines and the ability of Jewish settlers to make agriculture a reality in the region. One of the UN commission members, who visited the Negev in August 1947, told his Israeli guide: "This water pipe will give you the Negev". The conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry had a great influence on the UN's partition plan which placed the majority of the Negev within the borders of the Jewish State. Water was a decisive factor in determining the State's future area and borders.

 

During the War of Independence, the Arabs tried to prevent the supply of water to the Negev in an attempt to "dry out" the settlements. They sabotaged pipelines, uprooted entire sections of pipes and attacked the Palmach units that were defending the water pipeline. But the settlers' spirits never failed them and they even extended and deepened their hold on the land.

 

The pipes used for the pipeline, some 6000 tons of them, were purchased from London after the end of the Second World War. During the war, they had been used to put out fires caused by German bombing raids during the "Blitz" and cost a great deal of money. At the time, cynics said that the cost of water supplied through the pipes would be as high as that of champagne. However, Ben Gurion, who was known as an austere and ascetic leader, didn't see this, in any way, as a luxury. A short while after the pipeline's opening he said: "Without this pipeline we wouldn't be able to hold on to the Negev and I don't know if we would even be able to dream about defending the Negev".

 

The Pipeline to the National Water System

 

If, at the beginning of settlement activity, the 6" British pipeline was capable of supply all water needs, following the establishment of the State a massive settlement expansion program, led by David Ben Gurion, was initiated. With huge waves of immigration and policies for the dispersion of the population across the country, the Negev began to need ever increasing quantities of water. Mekorot, which had from the very beginning rallied to provide Israel's water needs, together with its unique vision for future developments, already in 1952 began laying the Yarkon-Negev pipeline that started at the Rosh HaEyin Springs and ended in the south at Mivtachim in the Eshkol region. This time, the pipe was 66" in diameter and its installation in two sections -   the western and the eastern - was completed in 1957. Later on, additional, secondary pipelines branched off from the main system.

 

The Yarkon-Negev project was Israel's largest water project prior to the construction of the National Water Carrier. Over the years, as agriculture developed and grew in the Negev, so did the demand for water grow as well. In 1964, the Yarkon-Negev pipeline was connected to the National Water Carrier following its completion that same year.

 

The National Water Carrier is the largest of Mekorot's water projects and brings water from the Sea of Galilee through a system of channels, siphons, reservoirs, tunnels and pumps, to Rosh HaEyin. An additional 70" pipeline was laid parallel and to the west of the existing pipeline to the Zohar Station in the Lachish region. The connection of both Yarkon-Negev pipelines to the Zohar Stations signaled the completion of the National Water System which supplies water from water sources in the north and the center of Israel, across the length and breadth of Israel.

 

Thus, from one small pipeline developed an impressive water system, one that embodies the vision of Jewish settlement in Israel, a system that encompasses national, strategic and historic interests and that has challenged Mekorot, since its establishment, to provide the water of life that makes the existence and development of the state and its citizens possible.