Braverman: You cannot disconnect citizens from their water

Knesset Economic Affairs panel expresses concern over companies cutting off water to customers in debt.

woman drinks water 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
woman drinks water 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Because water is the basis of life, water taps should not be disconnected simply due to a customer’s inability to pay bills, Knesset members agreed during a committee meeting discussion on Wednesday morning.
It will never be a viable option to disconnect citizens who are unable to pay their water bills from the life sustaining resource, stressed MK Avishay Braverman (Labor) at his Economic Affairs committee meeting. Braverman expressed concern that since the Water Corporations Law was enacted in 2001 – in which the government decided that regional companies would be in charge of water and sewerage services – there have not been any regulations submitted to the committee on the subject of water rights and disconnection rules. However, every year, tens of thousands of citizens are disconnected from their water each year, Braverman said.
“Citizens that are not capable of paying their water bills will not remain without water – period,” he asserted. “Water is not a normal product; it is a basic right.”
Opening up the discussion that ensued, Water Authority Commissioner Alexander Kushnir explained that his authority can ensure a supply of water for the 10 years.
Regarding prices, he mentioned that for the first time in a decade, this coming January there will be a 2 percent reduction in water tariffs followed by a similar reduction the following year.
Kushnir praised an initiative led by Braverman, which under the Arrangements Law was able to extend the eligibility of low income groups to breaks on their water bills.
Addressing the rules of water rights, Kushnir explained that the Water Authority has a precedent-setting process of granting immunity from water tap shutdowns to those in the underprivileged strata – constituting about 700,000 households and about onethird of the citizens of Israel.
Hila Gil, director of the engineering branch of the Water Authority, added that the system is designed to demonstrate that turning off water supplies is not a means of collecting debts, but rather a means of securing payments from those who are able to pay.
Presenting Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz’s point of view, the ministry’s director-general David Lefler stressed that the rules surrounding water rights need to determine that it is forbidden to disconnect people from water, and instead engage in a process of collection. Echoing Lefler’s statements, MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) said that in his mind, it is a question of ethical principle as to whether to cut off water supplies. Hoffman’s position remained staunchly against doing so.
MK Stav Shaffir (Labor) said although she received many public inquiries on the subject of water disconnection, she has found no one with which to address the issue at the local water corporations. Therefore, she concluded, the responsibility for setting water rates should be returned to the Knesset.
Also calling for water rate determinations to return to the Knesset, Union of Local Authorities director-general Shlomo Dolberg said that social workers should be responsible for determining whose water should be disconnected and whose should remain on.
MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor) meanwhile called for a minimum quota of water to provided to families, even those in debt, and he called upon the Water Authority to expand the population that is eligible for discounts on their water bills.
“There is a detachment here between the government and citizens, during a week in which we discuss disconnection of water,” Shmuli said. “It was revealed that the water expenses of the prime minister are NIS 87,000 each year – 57 times the usage of an average family.”
Calling water “a commodity of existence,” Shmuli stressed that decisions about water allocations should be made strictly in a public body with the consultation of welfare authorities.
“The taps at the prime minister’s house are open, and the public pays,” he said.
In response to these arguments, Hana Sichel, an attorney for the Mayanot Hadarom water corporation and the representative for the Water Corporations Forum at the Knesset meeting, said that establishing rules against water disconnection will only exacerbate the problem. If corporations are unable to disconnect people, then the customers will continue to accumulate debts. The idea of collection proceedings proposed by some of the MKs would only inflate expenses and would place further burdens of cost on the customers, she added.
“Regarding those people who lack the money to pay for water, there is also nothing to confiscate from them,” Sichel said.
To this comment, MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) argued that these are the very people whose water must not be taken.
At the end of the meeting, Braverman concluded that in order to return water pricing supervision to the Knesset or to prohibit water disconnection, amendments to the existing laws would be required. In order for this to be possible, the government needs to submit the amendments, and Braverman therefore called upon Knesset members of the coalition to work in this direction.
Emphasizing the fact that both she and her husband work, Esther Tzadok – a mother of 13 in Jerusalem – explained to committee members that she has had her water disconnected five times, with the most recent time occurring last week.
“I don’t understand what is the debate is about,” Tzadok said. “This debate is about water. It’s not about raw materials, it’s not about cottage cheese or something like that. It’s water – it’s to live or to die.”