Probe Finds Successive Gov'ts to Blame for Water Crises

Israeli governments throughout its history have continually failed to properly manage the country's water resources, resulting in a severe lack of water and a real threat to water quality, according to the report of the state commission of inquiry into the water crisis.

The report was published yesterday and presented by the inquiry commission's chairman, retired judge Dan Bein, to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and to the Knesset State Control Committee.

Rather than charge any one official with responsibility for the failures, the report says the failures were system-wide and continued over a long period, and most of those involved are no longer at their posts.

Members of the commission include current Water Authority head Uri Shani, and Profs. Yoram Avnimelech and Yoav Kislev.

The report notes that Shani was appointed in the midst of the crisis and had to deal simultaneously with a water shortage and the reform in the water economy that created the authority (replacing the Water Commission). Bein said it would not have been fair if the commission blames a single individual.

The commission's findings echo those of previous reports: The water economy in Israel is not in its present poor state because of lack of rainfall or technology, but rather because because of failure in management for decades.

According to the report, for years the main problem has been the policy of "walking on the edge" in terms of overpumping of natural water sources. The ministers of agriculture and infrastructure, who were responsible for this policy, prefered the needs of agriculture but did not reduce urban consumption, the report states.

Water commissioners did not oppose this policy strongly, and some even supported it for ideological reasons to develop rural settlement, the commission found. Prof. Avnimelech noted that today the situation is different, in that agriculture now utilizes far less water from natural sources.

The commission also said a good deal of the blame for delays of years in desalination lay with the Finance Ministry, which "did not allocate resources even to prepare a master plan for saving water," Bein said. The treasury also did not work to promote alternatives like waste purification, or look seriously enough into the idea of importing water, the report says.

Bein warned that problems of water quality could bring on the next big crisis. "It's not only about the Kinneret, it's also about the aquifer," he said. "There's not enough enforcement and suitable use is not made of legal tools to prevent pollution."

According to the report, there is currently no real monitoring of water for domestic use, and there is a concern over "the gap in quality between drinking water at the point where the last sample is taken and the water that reaches homes."

The commission said the public perceived the recently-imposed surcharge as a way to enrich the treasury.

Bein said the commission accepted the principle of "determining water tariffs that reflect the cost of producing it," but also said that "a tariff must be set that suits basic needs, and should even be subsidized." He added that the commission believes the Water Authority should have the power to set the tariffs.

The commission said the failures in water policy reflect the general system of governance in Israel, with a lack of goals and priorities. The report recommended that the Water Authority Council be headed by a public figure rather than by the Water Authority head. It said desalination should be moved ahead, but there should be limitations because of environmental concerns.

Bein said water policy should be transparent, and strategic long-term goals should be set.

The Finance Ministry said: "If mistakes were made in the management of the water economy by various government officials, in recent years the ministry is working energetically to promote many projects, including the establishment of the Water Authority, water and sewage corporations, and expediting the construction of desalination facilities. Thanks to this activity desalination facilities will provide 40 percent of household water consumption and 90 percent in another four years."