(photo credit: Courtesy)
In recent weeks, the Israeli investigative TV program Kolbotek has been airing a
series on the method used by the water companies to charge customers. The story
begins with faulty water meters: • One resident opens his faucet and the meters
of all the neighbors begin to spin.
• One building uses water privately
and the collective meter of the neighboring building turns.
buildings receive water bills that are more appropriate for a public swimming
But this in itself is not the story.
Plumbing and metering
systems are complex and confusing, and frequent mishaps are to be
The real ethical issue is the reaction to these
In billing disputes, water customers, like other utility
customers, are in effect guilty until proven innocent. If the measured water
consumption is excessive, the presumption is that there is a leak in the system,
and it is the responsibility of the residents to find and repair the leak, or to
prove to the utility that there has been a mistake.
In response, National
Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau ordered a committee to examine the findings
and recommend an appropriate response.
What is the source of the problem,
and what is the solution? An ideal billing system is one with maximum
accountability. Accountability means that each side has the incentive to fulfill
their responsibilities properly and pay for failure to do so.
system is good at making the consumer accountable: Individual water meters for
each living unit make each family watch its water use; and the collective charge
means that building residents will be on the alert for signs of a leak – one
that they are presumably in the best position to detect.
accountability is lacking for the utilities. Their job is to maintain the
monitoring system so that it works accurately and equitably. If it doesn’t, they
should lose. But they don’t; in fact, they actually benefit, since the mistakes
typically involve double counting, enabling the utilities to receive payment for
services they never rendered.
Private residents are the experts in
economizing on water use, but the utilities themselves are, or should be, the
experts in rectifying problems with the complex and frequently inaccurate
The average householder doesn’t know anything about
underground leaks, crossed meters and double counting. Whenever a reasonable
suspicion of a measurement problem or hidden leak arises, the water company
should have the responsibility to send its experts.
Having the residents
invite a regular plumber is a terribly ineffective solution; the average plumber
is not an expert in measuring systems, especially not in the complex interaction
among them, Kolbotek reported. If the utility was responsible for this, they
would have a small number of plumbers or engineers who would rapidly become
experts in this area.
It follows that the “guilty until proven innocent”
billing system perpetuates the current lack of accountability. Once there is a
reasonable suspicion of a problem affecting the whole system, the default
response should be for the residents to be given an exemption, or even a refund,
on undocumented excessive use.
Kolbotek suggested that there is a simple
plumbing solution to the metering errors. The average person could know about
this solution only through an investigative journalism program, but the water
utilities should know about it as part of their professional training. If they
don’t, then having to pay huge refunds would give them the incentive to find the
answer rapidly; certainly they, and not the consumers, are in the best position
to consider solutions.
An improved billing system would go a long way
toward introducing accountability and efficiency in public
email@example.com Asher Meir is research director at the
Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem
College of Technology (Machon Lev).