After many years of over-pumping, the Israeli water supply reached crisis proportions two years ago. Water commissioner Shimon Tal and then-agriculture minister Shalom Simhon understood the low, subsidized price of potable water used by farmers was the main reason for the waste and the crisis and proposed a reform to the government, which would raise the price of water for farmers until it became the equivalent of the price paid in the cities.

But the great lobbyist for the agricultural sector thought otherwise. Even though the reform was approved by the government, Ariel Sharon declared "there won't be any reform in the water supply. Forget about it." The treasury has since then made supreme efforts to nonetheless raise the price of water for farmers, but has been foiled over and over, because it always ends up opposite the great lobbyist.

This week the farmers published a large ad in Haaretz saying that the price of water should be even lower. Their argument says that the quality of the water used by farmers does not have to be as high as the quality of the water used in households, nor does the reliability of the supply have to be at the same level.

Anyone reading the ad might think that there are two separate water systems in the country - one going to the fields and the other to the drinking faucets - so different standards and prices can be set. But there is no second national water carrier, and there aren't two sets of pipes. The farmers get exactly the same water the citizenry drinks. To implement the farmers' proposal, another national water carrier would have to be built, as well as a parallel piping system, which would cause the price of water to the farmers to skyrocket. The farmers forgot to mention that small detail in their advertisement.

In any case, the cost of filtering water and the reliability of its supply are relatively marginal issues, costing only a few percent of the price of water, and cannot justify the present circumstances, in which the cost of water to the farmers is NIS 1.037 per cubic meter while it's twice that to households at NIS 2.011, soon to be raised to NIS 2.16.

The wasted water in agriculture is what caused the rise in the price of water, salination of the fresh water sources and the need for desalination plants. If farmers had been made to pay the real, unsubsidized price of water on time, they would have grown crops that are water-efficient and appropriate for an arid country like Israel, and they would have stopped the absurd export of water to Europe through fruits and vegetables. Then there wouldn't be a need for the expensive desalination process.

Under the current circumstances, the minute the desalination starts in 2004, the marginal costs of producing water will rise to NIS 3 per cubic meter and the cost to the home owners and industry will also rise to NIS 3. But the farmers will continue paying NIS 1.037. In their advertisement, the farmers also wrote that this writer "would fight until the government surrenders and accepts his personal viewpoint." Does anyone think this is really a personal whim?

Simhon supported raising the price of water to farmers. Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky wrote to the finance minister, "I insist that the price of water for the farmers should be raised, as per the government's decision." The latest State Comptroller's report explains that the cost of desalination will reach NIS 3 per cubic meter, and that cost represents the marginal increase of the cost of water for all users. Bank of Israel economists are finishing up a research paper that says, among other things, "the price of water for all uses, household, industrial and agricultural, should be NIS 3 per cubic meter, which is the marginal cost of water in the era of desalination." The finance minister and senior officials in his ministry are fighting for increasing the cost of water to farmers. The central bank governor, David Klein, told Haaretz this week: "The price of water should be the same for all users, industry, households and farmers." So, maybe this isn't a "personal viewpoint" but a justified social and economic need.