Comment: Pay no heed to populist water fights

Comment Pay no heed to

irrigation water 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
irrigation water 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The fight over water prices and drought levies has heated up in recent weeks as we draw closer to the implementation of a complete overhaul of water prices and few drops have fallen from the sky. On one side: The Water Authority, the Finance Ministry, the National Infrastructures Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. On the other: Several MKs, the disabled lobby and the Union of Local Authorities (ULA). What are they arguing over? First, water prices. Though MKs are wont to spend hours bashing the drought levy, of more significance by far is the proposed reform of water prices. According to the reform that the Water Authority has spent the last three years putting together, starting January 1 water prices will rise on average 41 percent, representatives of the authority and the Treasury told the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Why? First, because water prices have not been adjusted since 1996 and have eroded by 20% in that time. Moreover, the price of water has never reflected the actual cost of providing water to the country's residents, Water Authority head Prof. Uri Shani pointed out. While rain falls from the sky for free - though in recent years there hasn't been anywhere near enough - it costs money to transport it all over the country and to make sure it is quality drinking water. Those costs have not been included up until now, Shani said. This is also the age of desalination, meaning water is not free anymore. It must be produced, and the government pays about NIS 2 for every cubic meter of the desalinated stuff. While the desalination plants are operated on a Buy-Operate-Transfer (BOT) process by private companies, those plants need to be hooked up to the National Water Carrier. Not only do they need to be hooked up, but since more water will be coming from the desalination plants along the coast in a few years than from Lake Kinneret, the whole flow of water will change from a north-south flow to an east to north and south flow. All of that costs billions of shekels so Mekorot, the national water company, can get the job done. Hence, the price hike. Why a precipitous hike all at once? Because, Shani told the committee, the water corporations are on the verge of financial collapse and they need the infusion of cash. The ULA, on the other hand, contends that the water corporations require the infrastructure levies which have been in place until now. The levies provided funds up front for water projects. The new system would spread the funding out over the duration of the building. On the other side, MKs like Miri Regev (Likud), Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni (UTJ) and others say it is inconceivable that a basic necessity like water should suddenly rise in price by nearly 50%. They also cast doubt on the necessity for the drought levy - which they refer to as the drought tax. They argue that the drought levy, which slaps an extra charge on water used by households beyond an amount calculated in accordance with the number of household members, is really an underhanded attempt by the Treasury to make up the shortfall in taxes caused by the recession. Regev, who was particularly strident on Wednesday, claims to have information that prices will actually increase 100% and demanded an itemized breakdown of the cost of water from Shani. She insinuated that the Water Authority was hiding that information from the public and needed additional layers of oversight, by both ministers and the Knesset. The disabled lobby's specific complaint is that the disabled community requires significantly larger quantities of water than the general populace and therefore should get an exemption from the levy. The lobby and Shani will sit down in the coming days to work something out. Here's what was left out of the discussion on Wednesday and is lacking from the general argument by the MKs. Regarding more oversight and more authority over the Water Authority, it brings to mind the phrase "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it." The whole reason the Water Authority came into existence was to consolidate control over the decision-making process regarding the water economy. A special parliamentary committee of inquiry into the water situation in 2002 came to the conclusion that part of the reason the water economy had been mismanaged for the previous 40 years was because responsibility for water had been spread out over too many government agencies and Knesset committees. There's something else that should not be forgotten - the drought levy is working. It has been the single biggest reducer of water consumption, bringing about a 15% drop in usage over the summer. What's more, after years of inaction and delay in building desalination plants, the Water Authority is hauling the country wholesale into the desalination age. Plants that should have been built 10 years ago, before the Water Authority's creation, are only being built now under the authority's supervision. One last thought: The water crisis is no less serious than the security situation. Water is indispensable to life and five years of drought have brought Israel's natural water resources to the brink of collapse. When the security services and the Defense Ministry say they need millions more shekels for defense, they get the money - taxpayers' money - to buy another plane or another missile. So why is it that when the water economy needs a cash infusion to meet costs, not even to make a profit, long Knesset sessions are spent throwing accusations around that the government is trying to gouge the public. The MKs have frequently claimed they are representing the public and its interests against the government. But is populism now to save a few shekels wise, if it leads to the drying up of Israel's water supplies?     Â