The Shekel Drops / Water, Hypocrisy and Politics

It has been the worst uninterrupted period of aridity for 80 years. Yet does anybody really care?

"Israel is still drying up," shrieks the Water Authority, and it's right. The last winter did not end the drought, which has now lasted five years. It has been the worst uninterrupted period of aridity for 80 years. Yet does anybody really care?

The shore of Lake Kinneret in 2008.
Yaron Kaminsky

Certainly Knesset members don't care. They also see no need to apologize for fighting tooth and nail against the "drought levy," despite the deteriorating condition of Lake Kinneret and the underground aquifers.

They were fighting a popular battle and knew it. They knew the public doesn't like to fork over money. They therefore claimed without batting an eye that the drought levy wouldn't really reduce water consumption: All it would accomplish is to oppress the poor and weak and they, the elected representatives, are the champions of the poor and weak. Unquestionably, the fact that some of these elected representatives live in single-family homes with lush gardens that require a great deal of watering didn't affect their reasoning.

Yet it transpires that the "drought levy" had actually done a terrific job. It hugely reduced water use in the urban sector. Household consumption plunged by 20%, saving 45 million cubic meters of water in a year, which is as much as a desalination plant would have produced in a year.

Note that the drought levy was only in effect from July to December 2009: By January 2010 the Knesset members had killed it.

Another thing that had been crystal clear all along was that most of the burden was borne not by les miserables, but by the rich, the homeowners with houses and swimming pools in the back yard. These are people who use up oceans of water and therefore, they paid most of the added cost of the drought levy. The residents of Jerusalem, not a city noted for its lush gardens and pools, for example, paid hardly any extra shekel after the levy's institution.

Though many Knesset members agitated against the drought levy, we shall mention just a few: Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ), who used his clout on the Knesset Finance Committee to quash the levy; Ronit Tirosh (Kadima ), who called for a "consumer rebellion;" and Miri Regev (Likud ), who said a uniform, low price should apply to all, irrespective of what it cost to produce the water. A sort of hyper-populist economics, that.

Following the abolishment of the drought levy in January 2010, the mood in the public changed, and people started squandering water again. They figured the crisis had passed and stepped up consumption. Thus the populism of our Knesset members prevented Israel from saving 100 million cubic meters of water in 2010. But they face no bill for the waste.

What color is your blood?

There's another irritating aspect to this story: Some citizens in Israel were exempt from the burden all along. There was a group that paid almost nothing during the levy days: the moshavim and kibbutzim. Not for water used to irrigate crops and orchards: they didn't pay extra for water they used in the home and garden. Why were they allowed to continue to waste water while the city-dwellers cut back?

Because their blood is redder. Because the agriculture lobby in the Knesset is the strongest in the land, and because it won them a "delay." Originally, the moshavim and kibbutzim were supposed to start paying the levy in January 2010, but then it was canceled anyway and they paid nothing. Astonishingly, Finance Ministry officials went along with this.

The "greens" also owe an explanation. During the public battle over the levy, they stayed mum. They did nothing, though it is unarguably "green" to economize on natural resources. But supporting the levy was unpopular and they elected for popularity. Now, very late in the day, the "greens" are coming out against desalination, claiming that desalinated water lacks essential minerals, is bad for the health, and that the plants guzzle electricity which will worsen particle emissions. They even argue that the big desalination plants will take up precious space on the beaches and that the produced water will be expensive, forcing the general public to pay more.

All true. But they should have been saying these things long ago. We've been saying the same things for years, when the right solution for Israel's lack of water would have been abolishing the water subsidy for farmers. But it wasn't popular.

This week the Finance Ministry people vowed that the moshavim and kibbutzim residents would start paying for their home use just as urban households do, from January 2011. Maybe. Also, this month an agreement was signed that the subsidy on water for farming would gradually be reduced, leading less water to be wasted. But when I hear that the agreement is supposed to be executed over seven years, I turn skeptical. The agriculture lobby remains powerful and our elected representatives haven't suddenly sprouted halos. The outcome is crystal clear: "Israel is still drying up," the Water Authority will continue to shriek.