The Bottom Line Suddenly Awash in Water

The bountiful rains that have fallen recently have clouded the faces of those in the water business - the Mekorot water utility officials, the farmers organizations and National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky - with concern.

The bountiful rains that have fallen recently have clouded the faces of those in the water business - the Mekorot water utility officials, the farmers organizations and National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky - with concern.

They look out each morning at the heavy rain clouds and their hearts are full of bad tidings. The news sounds even more serious: Look, the treacherous Lake Kinneret is getting fuller at a furious pace; and soon, the Deganya Dam will have to be opened and hundreds of millions of cubic meters of perfectly good drinking water will flow into the Dead Sea.

How then will they be able to argue the case for the establishment of the numerous desalination facilities? After all, not too long ago, in the winter of 1995 - and also in 1993 and 1992 - the Water Commission was forced to open the dam to prevent flooding in Ein Gev.

The above could be a preface to the next chapter in the annals of utter Israeli stupidity: On the one hand, hundreds of millions of cubic meters will soon flow into the Dead Sea (even though they could be pumped into the coastal aquifer throughout the summer period); in addition, no one is taking the trouble to catch the hundreds of millions of cubic meters that flow unhindered into the Mediterranean Sea every time heavy rains wash the cities' streets; furthermore, no one is doing anything about purifying the 250 million cubic meters of untreated waste water that continue to pour into the sea - yet, at the same time, plans are afoot to set up a large number of desalination plants that is "doing" that photographs well in the press.

This is how things go in a country in which vested interests and populism take control of the economy. The vested interests are those of the agricultural lobby, which wants to carry on behaving as if we are living in Norway, and not in a semi-desert country. The aim of the agricultural lobby is to go on consuming water at a price of NIS 1.04 per cubic meter, while the marginal cost is NIS 1.7 per cubic meter.

Households pay even more than the marginal cost - NIS 2.01; while industry pays NIS 1.96 per cubic meter (excluding the scandalous additions charged by the local authorities); but the injustice and the ensuing waste don't bother the farmers at all.

All the devotees of desalination have to finally understand that the moment the price of any product is lower than its marginal price, a shortage is created. Therefore, the fact that the farmers pay only NIS 1.04 per cubic gives rise to an artificial shortage, which has caused another mistake - the establishment of desalination plants. They should also understand that the moment the desalination plants begin operating, the (urban) water price will increase markedly, to some NIS 3 per cubic meter, because the price has to fall in line with the marginal cost.

In other words, the damage to the citizen (excluding the farmers, who'll be able to escape this cruel fate thanks to their strong lobby) will be enormous.

Till now, the treasury has approved (unwillingly) the establishment of a number of desalination plants with the capacity to produce some 175-205 million cubic meters a year - a big enough mistake in itself. So Paritzky should at least change course and, together with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, realize that there is no need for additional facilities. By, at the very least, putting the brakes on the issuing of the tender for another desalination plant for a further 80 million cubic meters of water a year, they can save some NIS 240 million a year for the people of Israel.

In such a manner, the two ministers can prevent the establishment of yet another huge white elephant during a period in which there is no money to pay salaries at the local authorities.