The Bottom Line / The watering of the lambs
Membership in the desalination fan club has recently been growing by leaps and bounds. Economists have spoken in favor of desalination, with some adding that this is a worthwile infrastructure investment.
Membership in the desalination fan club has recently been growing by leaps and bounds. Economists have spoken in favor of desalination, with some adding that this is a worthwile infrastructure investment; journalists and commentators have been unstinting in their praise of it; and former finance minister Silvan Shalom continues to boast of his role in spurring the cabinet's decision on desalination - along with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, of course.
We have already tried many times in this column to explain that there is no need for desalination plants since there is no real lack of water. The solution to the water problem lies in raising the price that farmers pay for water to the level paid by ordinary households (as was done with electricity). Today, farmers pay NIS 0.89 for a cubic meter of water, while the local authorities pay NIS 1.38 (and charge the end user even more).
The unrealistically low price of water for agriculture causes enormous waste. But if the price of water for farmers were gradually doubled (like the Gal-Bassy Committee recommended), farmers would switch to water-saving crops, the use of purified waste water for agriculture would increase and the water shortages would disappear.
The biggest fans of desalination are the farmers' associations, which want the state to desalinate water at a price of NIS 3 per cubic meter so that they can continue getting their water for NIS 0.89. This would increase the subsidy they enjoy - and the consequent waste as well.
Supporters of desalination in the urban sector simply do not understand the basic laws of economics. They do not understand that once desalination begins they will have to pay the marginal cost of the water, namely, NIS 3 per cubic meter. Therefore, they ought to take a moment to glance at the treasury's new economic program. There, they will discover that because the government will begin purchasing desalinated water at a price of NIS 3 per cubic meter at the end of 2004, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recommends raising the price of fresh water by NIS 0.65 per cubic meter for both farmers and urban consumers. But this is where politics comes into play: Ariel Sharon, who refused to implement the Gal-Bassy Committee's recommendations, will also seek a creative solution this time around. For instance, instead of raising water prices by NIS 0.65 for both farmers and households, he will propose raising the price by NIS 1.30 for households and not at all for farmers. After all, what does water for drinking, cooking or showering matter compared to water for the sheep and the crops on Sharon's Sycamore Ranch?
The correct economic and social solution to the water problem is to cancel the white elephants known as desalination plants and raise the price of water for agriculture. There are five ministers from Shinui in the cabinet who ought to be advocating this line. But why should I expect anything of Shinui? After its MKs voted in the Knesset in favor of extending annual army reserve duty, and after they voted (with the ultra-Orthodox parties!) in favor of continuing to have two chief rabbis, it is fair to assume that they will also vote for raising the price of water solely for the urban sector - because Ariel Sharon will direct one stern glance at Shinui Chairman Yosef Lapid and all the soldiers of Shinui will fall into line and vote. After all, nothing is more important that one's seat at the cabinet table.