Water experts are walking around these days with downcast eyes, as if in mourning. One of them was interviewed recently on the radio and said in a broken voice that he had not expected Lake Kinneret to fill up so fast. He had figured it would take two or three rainy years at best, and now one rainy season has ruined his scenario.
Officials at the Mekorot water company are considering declaring a special fast day and there is a gloomy atmosphere at the faculty of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa that researches water sources. Water Commissioner Shimon Tal is even considering convening a special session with all the experts in order to discuss the question of how, despite all the prophecies of doom, despite all the fear-mongering, despite all the statements that soon the Kinneret would be dry and we would be left without one drop of water - the recalcitrant lake is continuing to fill up at a fast pace and there is a real danger that when the snow melts on Mt. Hermon, the lake may even be completely full.
One of the water professors suggested nipping the problem in the bud; that instead of talking about the Kinneret, they should start talking about the coastal and mountain aquifers, in the hope that their poor condition would be enough to provide sufficiently frightening news. Because if the public stops worrying and stops panicking, there is a real risk that the water experts will stop appearing in the media twice a day and there is a possibility that someone will come to his senses and realize that there is no need to build desalination plants for 400 million cubic meters of water a year - and worst of all, someone might even cut the budgets for water research, and what would the experts do then?
But Israel is not bereft of hope. In order to evade this danger, Tal recently decided - under pressure from the farmers - to increase the annual allocations of fresh water for agriculture from 550 million cubic meters to 625 million cubic meters, and that would not be the ceiling. If Tal continues to raise the allocations, the aquifers and the Kinneret would empty out very quickly and thus bring back the beloved practice of frightening the public.
Because the truth is that we do not have a water problem here at all. The whole problem with the water stems from the waste of abundant water by the farmers, who receive water at an unrealistic price that is lower than the production cost and less than half of what municipal authorities pay for the same water. While the farmers pay NIS 0.89 per cubic meter, the municipalities are paying NIS 1.83 - more than double.
The previous minister of agriculture, Shalom Simhon, and all the senior officials in his office, including Tal, understood that was the real problem, and in 2002 they led the government to decide on reforms in the water economy, including a rise in the price of water for agriculture until it is on a par with that paid by the municipalities. The moment the price is realistic, the consumption of fresh water by agriculture will drop because farmers will not grow water-guzzling crops, but rather crops that are more appropriate for a semi-desert country like Israel.
Similarly, there will be no more need for the political water allocations determined by the Agriculture Ministry, which give people in the "inner circle" more water while dehydrating those who are further away - thus harming agricultural production and the entire economy.
Despite the government's approval of the reforms, however, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told officials in the Finance and Agriculture Ministries: "There won't be any water reform, so forget about it." Thus Sharon violated an unequivocal order by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein not to interfere in land and water matters because of a clear conflict of interests, since Sharon and his family own the Sycamore Ranch, which uses vast quantities of pumped water (at an annual cost of NIS 600,000), and an agricultural estate in Kfar Malal that would be extremely valuable if rezoned for residential or industrial construction.
While drafting the economic salvation plan, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fearlessly decided not to include the implementation of the water reforms. Why trigger a confrontation with Sharon? A different plan was inserted into the economic program, one that is wrong from the outset, calling for a NIS 0.25 hike in the price of water for both agricultural and domestic use. When the economic plan was presented to Sharon, he listened to all the harsh decrees against the wage-earners, the women, the unemployed and the pensioners - without batting an eyelash. Only when water was mentioned did he begin to grumble and say, "agriculture must be protected." Here again Sharon gave no thought to Rubinstein's order, and Rubinstein (who wants to be a Supreme Court justice) did nothing. Fear has paralyzed him.
Later on MK Yisrael Katz (Likud) entered the picture. He is the second representative of agriculture in the government and he agreed to a modest NIS 0.15 increase in water prices. Outrageous. Instead of water becoming more expensive for just the farmers, it will be more expensive for households, too. Thus the prime minister succeeded in ignoring Rubinstein, improving the situation for his ranch and laughing at 97 percent of Israel's citizens who will now pay more for the water they use - and will continue to vote for him.
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