A Stench of Sewage

A tourist who comes to Israel and travels either northward or southward will quickly encounter an embarrassing phenomenon: The country simply stinks.

A tourist who comes to Israel and travels either northward or southward will quickly encounter an embarrassing phenomenon: The country simply stinks. Israel's sewage overflows its pipes, just as it does in third world countries. After decades of neglect, Israel's water and sewage system is on the verge of collapse; it is suffering from a chronic shortage of investment in its maintenance.

This enormous failure starts with our treatment of water. Some 620 million cubic meters a year flow to Israeli households. But due to leaky and burst pipes, about 10 percent of this figure - some 60 million cubic meters of fresh water - is lost on an annual basis.

It is impossible to completely prevent leaks, but suitable investments could reduce leakage to 30 million cubic meters a year. That would save NIS 90 million, since the price of desalinated water is NIS 3 per cubic meter. And this is not even to mention the poor quality of the water, which causes many to buy mineral water - a heavy expenditure for many households.

In the sewage system, the failures are even more serious. Some local authorities, despite having received generous grants to build plants for purifying waste water, have not maintained them. There are even facilities that have been completely abandoned and ceased to operate altogether. The result is the loss of some 100 million cubic meters each year that could be used for agriculture and industry. This is the equivalent of the output of the huge desalination plant in Ashkelon, which desalinates 100 million cubic meters a year, at a cost of NIS 300 million.

The untreated sewage, which flows through streams to the sea, has a devastating and irreversible effect on the environment. Sewage, and the poisonous metals that it contains, enter the aquifers and poison them, slowly but surely. About a month ago, the streams of the western Galilee - Kabri, Ga'aton and Kaziv - were found to have been polluted by sewage and poisonous metals, and pumping from these streams was thereby halted.

So why are mayors not jumping for joy at a proposed reform that would fix all these problems? Because the mayors have a different agenda: They see the water and sewage impost as an easy way to collect additional tax money from the public. They buy water from the Mekorot Water Company at a price of about NIS 2.5 per cubic meter, but sell it to the public at an average price of NIS 4.5 per cubic meter. Another NIS 1.5 is tacked on per cubic meter for sewage treatment.

The problem is that a large portion of this money - hundreds of millions of shekels a year - is not pumped back into the water and sewage systems. The mayors use this money to finance other operations, such as manpower, events, trips, building traffic circles and staging summer performances, so that the public will see that they are "good" mayors. After all, who sees the water and sewage pipes that burst underground? Who sees the idle treatment plants?

Moreover, collection rates for water and sewage bills are very low in some local authorities - a mere 50 percent - because it is not pleasant to collect money from one's friends and kin.

The water and sewage reform is intended to fix all these evils. It will remove water and sewage fees from the mayors' control. Under the proposal, 30 regional corporations would be formed, each of which would serve several local authorities in order to take advantage of economies of scale. Each corporation will be fully owned by the local authorities, but it will operate as a closed economy for the sole benefit of the water and sewage systems. One such corporation has already been established in Petah Tikva, and miracle of miracles, annual investment in the water and sewage systems has risen by NIS 5 million a year, to NIS 17 million!

Small-town mayors are supporting the reform, but those who head large cities are opposed. The mayors of Holon, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv want to continue doing as they please with the water and sewage imposts. If they wish, they could replace a pipe; if not - they could organize a performance in the park. They will manage their cities as they see fit; no one will teach them how to do so.

But water is a special commodity in Israel, both because of its short supply and strategic implications. The quality of the water in the coastal aquifer is a matter of nothing less than life and death. Therefore, it is impossible to sustain a situation in which precious water is wasted and sewage is destroying our groundwater. This is straight out of the third world.

But like every other issue, this, too, has turned into a political battle. The mayors of the large cities are pressuring Knesset members not to approve the reform, or at least, to remove it from the Economic Arrangements Bill - which would give it an elegant burial. Because the mayors wield great political power in party central committees, MKs do not know what to do. They know what is good for the country, but they also know that one day, they will stand for reelection in the central committee.

The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee is supposed to discuss the issue today, and a vote will take place on Thursday. The question is whether the committee chair, Raleb Majadele (Labor), who has thus far demonstrated responsibility, and the other committee members who are wavering, will withstand the political pressure and save the environment - and us.