Water works

The water corporations are broadly unpopular, and with good reason.

hand washing 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
hand washing 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is due today to deliberate a bill to do away with the regional water corporations that over the past dozen years gradually replaced municipalities in the provision of water and sewage services.
These corporations have made water significantly more expensive and our water bills more arbitrary and unreliable.
This is not just the prevalent impression but is well-substantiated by studies that the state comptroller, Knesset committees of inquiry, consumer groups and academic institutions conducted.
The dissolution of the corporations is proposed by 13 MKs, headed by Knesset Interior Committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud). She already sponsored such a bill in the previous Knesset, where it failed due to stiff opposition from then-finance minister Yuval Steinitz.
His successor Yair Lapid is more amenable to phasing the corporations out. National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom likewise favors a return to the status quo ante, in which the municipalities were in charge of water provision and billing.
The legislation’s sponsors form an across-the-board coalition that bridges the Left-Right divide and spans all the way from Bayit Yehudi and Shas to Labor, Meretz and Hadash.
The water corporations are broadly unpopular, and with good reason.
Not only are we paying more than ever for our H2O, but it is becoming increasingly evident that we sometimes pay not only for what we consume, that there are serious doubts about how our water use is measured and that the amounts are often determined capriciously and without plausible explanation.
Such problems were exceedingly rare under the old system.
Ever since the introduction of the semi-privatized water corporations over the past decade (at different times in different localities) householders’ water bills skyrocketed.
This far exceeded what was mandated by higher water tariffs and the imposition of value-added tax on water.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Israel is no longer dependent on rain water. Desalination has ended sporadic shortages, a fact that ought to reduce prices. But rather than increase efficiency, the water corporations’ advent merely established another bureaucracy, which keeps hiring more and more employees, expanding overhead and looking for ways to cover costs at the expense of ordinary households.
There now are 55 such corporations, which in itself contributes to gross waste, according to the state comptroller (who estimates that 13 corporations would suffice nationwide).
The corporations are monopolies that are ill-regulated, despite the original aim to streamline operations by removing water services from municipal control. The suspicion was that cities diverted water fee revenue to sundry purposes rather than toward improving infrastructure.
Instead of remedying this problem, new administrative latifundia mushroomed. These necessarily aspire to perpetuate themselves and to enable politicians to reward cronies with sinecures and clout.
Concomitantly, the central government was liberated from the burden of having to subsidize water for farming, industry, hospitals, etc. These are now directly subsidized by the corporations, which pass on the cost to households.
Besides raising prices, this raises weighty ethical issues.
Why, for example, must average families subsidize entire sectors of the economy via what they pay for the most vital and most indispensable commodity? This is regressive taxation.
But topping the litany of irritants is the fact that local water corporations are far from responsive when confronted with queries. The Israel Consumers’ Council notes that throughout the country complaints are greeted with discourtesy, distrust and disinclination to even check suspicion of error.
These difficulties may be inbuilt as water corporations are loath to investigate their alleged lackadaisical practices, if not worse.
Dubious bills for improbable water use inevitably become disincentives to conservation. When reduced consumption does not lower bills, the message is that it does not matter how responsibly we behave. Nobody wants to pay for what is not consumed. Bills must reflect reality, be credible and above board.
Since the corporations had failed to clean up their act, it may be time to disband them.