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The Water Commission recently published the findings of a pollution review of underground aquifers in the Tel Aviv area. Over the course of the three-year project, a large and increasing amount of pollution was discovered - pollution that has already led to the closing of several water-drilling facilities.

The exposure of the pollution problem is praiseworthy. But what stands out in the findings of the Water Commission and other government ministries is the large gap between the pollution problems and how they are handled. There are some extremely serious pollution sources, about which quite a lot is known but very little has been done.

One striking example is the pollution caused by fuel from an air force base in the Ashdod area. The Water Commission examined the pollution problems there 17 years ago, after local residents complained about finding jet fuel in their drinking water.

The Commission defined the problem as extreme, even by international standards. But this pollution has never been taken care of and the Water Commission recently reported that it wants to restore the aquifer by bringing in companies that specialize in such problems. It is in contact with the Defense Ministry about carrying out a survey.

In the Ramat Hasharon area, there is widespread pollution of the aquifer that was caused, among other things, by the Ta'as (military industry) plants in the area. Here, too, the Environment Ministry and the Water Commission were not very responsive and the problem was only addressed after Ramat Hasharon residents filed a legal appeal for action to be taken.

Eventually, a budget was allotted for a comprehensive survey of the pollution problems in the area and ways to take care of them.

In the Rotem area of the Negev, the authorities knew there was a problem with leakage of waste water from industrial plants into the aquifer. Nevertheless, for many years, none of the required enforcement measures were carried out and the salinity of the aquifer rose steeply. Now the Water Commission is compelled to build desalination plants in the area to make the water usable.

With the pollution in Tel Aviv, there has been a remarkable combination of foot-dragging, lack of coordination among the authorities and wasted resources. The Environment Ministry and the Water Commission conducted parallel risk-assessment efforts without coordinating with each other.

The Water Commission claimed the Environment Ministry allowed engineering work to be done in the polluted area, which exacerbated the spreading of the pollutants. The Water Commission also said it was unable to perform drilling explorations in the area because the equipment it ordered did not work properly.

The government established two commissions to study the circumstances behind the pollution, including a public commission of inquiry headed by retired judge Yaakov Shimoni. However, this commission ceased to meet when the working contracts for its members were not finalized.

Responsibility for the water pollution problem belongs primarily to those on the ministerial level and the ministry directors-general. It is not the responsibility of the professional echelons, which in most cases have the scarcest means at their disposal to track the problems and deal with the pollutants. One result of this paucity of resources is the delay in publicizing information, because there is no budget for printing the reports.

If the government wants to supply its citizens with good-quality water, it must recognize that there are currently numerous sources of pollution and that the costs of cleaning them up (from research to rehabilitation to the construction of purification facilities) could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is a vital part of the country's infrastructure - one that is just as important as the roads, the industrial areas and the security systems, on which large amounts of money are spent each year.

The government must invest large sums in tackling the water pollution problem, but industry must do so, as well. One idea raised by environmental organizations is to enact a law similar to one that exists in the United States, which obligates industry to invest money in cleaning up sites that it has polluted.

A mechanism similar to one that already operates in Israel - "The Quarry Restoration Fund" (Keren Leshikum Mahtzevot) - could possibly be used. This fund receives large sums of money from mining and quarrying companies (it presently has several hundred million shekels) and part of this money is already being used for extensive restoration projects.