Treasury slammed for mishandling water economy at hearing

Research institute: Attempts to build desalination plants have littered the wayside over the last 10 years.

water224-88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The Treasury's penny-pinching ways derailed desalination over the last decade, expert witnesses testified Wednesday to the National Investigation Committee - Regarding the Water Crisis in Israel. Attempts to build desalination plants have littered the wayside over the last 10 years because of the Treasury's meddling, The Technion Institute's Grand Water Research Institute (GWRI) director Prof. Raphael Semiat charged. "The conduct of the state and the Treasury regarding desalination has caused the systematic destruction of all of the green in the state because of a lack of water," Semiat declared. Mekorot tried and failed to build a plant in Ashdod, Semiat said, to illustrate his point. He pointed to Treasury efforts to privatize the company and other issues as the cause. That plant has since been revived by the Water Authority and is in the planning stages. Another company also failed to estimate costs correctly and had to give up building a plant several years ago. Israel is facing the most severe water crisis in its history. Natural sources are very low because of years of inadequate rainfall while desalination efforts are still significantly behind goals set four years ago. The investigation committee on water was formed three months ago by the Knesset State Control Committee, which had ordered an inquiry into the state's water management. Retired Judge Prof. Dan Bein heads the committee, whose two other members are Profs. Yoram Avnimelech and Yoav Kislev. The committee has been calling a series of witnesses over the past couple of months and will continue to gather evidence at least into January. "We have had an extra 7 million cubic meters of water available to sell to the state for awhile," but it never offered a good price, Gaon Agro Industries LTD. General Manager Benny Sarig told the committee. Gaon Agro holds a 22.1% stake in one of the three companies which owns and operates the Palmahim desalination plant. Sarig charged that the Treasury had torpedoed the negotiations. Tahal Company chief engineer Dan Hamburg blamed the state for failing to take the company up on its offer to create a master plan for the water economy. "We offered more than once and government officials said it was a nice idea, and then dismissed it," he said. The company had offered to create a plan based on comparing the significance of the available options, he said. Semiat also testified that a pilot project for desalinating treated waste water was still at least two years away from application and still uncertain, in his opinion. "Desalination of treated waste water is still uncertain. Mekorot has a pilot at the Shafdan, but they still need to overcome a number of problems, like removing bacteria and phosphates," he told the committee. Water Authority head Prof. Uri Shani told reporters during a water conference in Jordan on Monday that the tenders for expanding the two desalination plants (Ashkelon and Palmahim) would go out by the end of the week. More representatives of the relevant government bodies, environmental organizations and academics as well are scheduled to testify in January.