Viewpoint / And Not a Drop to Drink

Several stormy days and a few additional centimeters of water in the shrinking Lake Kinneret might create the impression that the water crisis is behind us.

But the forecasters warn that this winter will not be especially rainy. By its end, Israel's reservoirs still will remain dangerously low. By summer, the water crisis will return to the headlines in a big way. The real reason for the water shortage is common knowledge: the appalling waste of potable water by farmers.

For decades, successive governments allowed the agricultural sector to specialize, with acute irresponsibility, in water-guzzling crops, as though we were living in Norway rather than in a desert environment. Throughout, the farmers got potable water at subsidized prices - currently, about half the price paid in the cities - because of their strong lobby in the Knesset and in the government. At this unrealistic price, it paid for the farmers to grow oranges, for example, and to export them to Europe, despite the fact that calculated realistically, the water inside the orange cost the country more than the compensation received from export. When the crisis came to a head a little over a year ago, then-agriculture minister Shalom Simhon appointed Gedalia Gal of Moshav Kfar Vitkin and Yonatan Basie of Kibbutz Sde Eliahu to study the subject.

Although Gal and Basie are both dedicated farmers, they are also concerned about the welfare of the country. Within a month they submitted a succinct two-page report to Simhon. It was a revolution. They determined that subsidizing agriculture by charging a low price for water is an economic absurdity, because of the built-in shortage of water, and that therefore, the price of water charged to farmers should be raised, and made equal to that paid by the municipalities. Agriculture should be subsidized through grants for working the land, said the two.

Simhon adopted the report. Some of the farmers' organizations reared up and roared, but Simhon pushed on with the revolution. His reform overcame all obstacles, even receiving government approval. And then, a few months ago, when it was time to start implementation, it happened. The truth was revealed: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is opposed. Forget the agricultural lobby, and the government vote. Sharon supersedes all.

Is his opposition related to the fact that his family has a farm in Kfar Maloul and a ranch in the Negev? Or does he simply lack any understanding of the significance of the waste of water?

In any case, the attorney general forbade him from interfering on issues of land and water, but here too he found a way out in the form of Avigdor Yitzhaki, the director general of his bureau. Yitzhaki immediately appointed another committee, whose real job is to block the reform. Simhon, frightened by Sharon's opposition, was quick to retreat. He didn't think for a moment that he has political power too. Instead of fighting Sharon, he made every effort to prevent the departure of the Labor Party from Sharon's government. The only thing missing was for Sharon to put a leash on him.

The effective cost of water for farmers presently stands at 89 agorot per cubic meter, while the price for the municipalities is NIS 1.83 - more than double - and that's even before the municipality piles all kinds of costs and profits on the price of water to the consumer.

Under the reform, the price of water for agriculture was supposed to increase significantly on October 1, 2002, and to continue to rise gradually until in October 2005 it would have been equal to the urban price. Had that taken place, within a few years the waste of precious water for agriculture would have stopped, agriculture would have gone over to crops suitable to a desert climate, and the water crisis would have been averted.

But because of Sharon's veto and Simhon's silence, the crisis is already en route. And when we open the faucet next summer and nothing comes out, we'll remember that the person mainly responsible is now serving as prime minister.