Editorial: Watered Down

A shortsighted focus on present contingencies pawns our future.

In 2002, Israel found itself in the throes of a terrible dry spell. The acute shortage of water impelled the Knesset to establish a parliamentary inquiry commission to pinpoint where our national water policy had gone awry.
The Magen Commission’s bottom line was that “for 30 years Israel’s water management has been continuously plunged in ever-deepening crisis. This is the distressing and startling product of incessant malfunction by successive governments, all of which consistently ignored the writing on the wall for all too many years.”
Last week, nearly identical phraseology was used to convey the bottom line of the latest inquiry into our national water policy – this time a state commission named for its chairman, Prof. Dan Bein.
Like its predecessor, the Bein Commission – appointed during the Olmert administration – blamed lack of planning by successive governments for the sad state of our water economy.
“The water crisis is no force majeure,” ruled the Bein Commission. “It resulted from governmental brinkmanship, from years of thoughtless pumping from natural reservoirs, which also compromised water quality... Government reactions were inconsistent and were frequently amended. Decisions went unimplemented, either in full or in part, due to budgetary considerations.”
The specter of water-rationing that had loomed after years of drought – until this winter’s slightly improved precipitation – might kick-start more proactive initiatives than the commission’s scholarly and well-founded admonitions. It’s safe to assume that its chides will join those of its forerunners and gather dust on forgotten shelves. The Bein Commission’s findings have already disappeared from the headlines, a fact that accentuates our proclivity to ignore danger until it becomes too menacing to downplay.
Decisions for decades now have been ad hoc, without overall master plans that both the Magen and Bein commissions deemed vital. Those plans that were drafted weren’t fully carried out, and, where partial implementation existed, it was rarely followed up and evaluated.
Over the years, immediate predicaments recurrently overshadowed projected needs. Not all procrastination and trust that things will somehow work out can be excused by the fact that we are a nation uniquely plagued by existential threats, unequaled in the international community. Water is so basic a commodity that its supply must figure into our national survival calculations, yet here too much was plainly left to chance.
The flagrant carelessness of 2002 is a case in point. The drought of 2000-01’s winter spawned numerous doomsday scenarios and a great deal of professed resolve to combat water-shortage.
The National Water Authority warned the government that by decade’s end, Israel would lack 400 million cubic meters of H2O annually. It was decided to establish desalination plants to supply exactly that amount. But the next winter – 2002 – was very wet and the urgency was washed away. As a result, only 130 million cubic meters of water were subsequently desalinated, and Israel was unprepared for the prolonged drought that ensued.
2002’s rain convinced the government to limit its goals to 230 million cubic meters, yet even this reduced objective wasn’t met – chiefly because the Treasury was agora-wise and shekel-foolish. What can be put off, ran the thinking, needn’t be attended to and paid for now. In the short-haul this can surely spare us valuable outlays, which might then be earmarked elsewhere.
But this shortsighted focus on present contingencies pawns our future. It potentially jeopardizes our independence. No army and no economy can function without an adequate, secure and dependable water supply.
YET ALREADY we see complacency creeping back after 2009-10’s quasi-goodwinter, despite the scare of six parched winters before it. Moreover,the Bein Commission’s conclusions themselves are watered-down enough toafford pretexts for officialdom’s parsimoniousness. The commissionspeculates, for instance, that too many desalination plants may beconstructed, thereby encouraging Israel’s neighbors to demand we cedenatural resources.
Such ruminative guesswork mustn’t be exploited to discourage antidotesto drought, though we agree with the commission that persistentconservation and routine pipeline maintenance mustn’t be neglected.
May our biggest worry – theoretical now, anyway – be excessivedesalination. Better an embarrassment of riches than dehydration. Mostof all, myopic thrift must be avoided. A flood of words but a dearth ofdeeds today will cause thirst tomorrow.