Report Slams Lack of Action on Long-term Water Crisis

A state commission of inquiry into the water crisis yesterday urged the government not to cancel the "drought tax" unless other measures are put in its place to encourage saving water. It also urged that the money raised by a recent increase in water rates be invested in developing the country's water system.

The recommendations were part of the interim report that the commission released yesterday, saying that due to the severity of the crisis and the need to take action now, it did not want to wait until the final report was ready.

One problem the interim report emphasized was the frequency with which decisions about the water economy have been reversed in response to pressure by interested parties or what it termed "populist moods."

It also noted that the amount of water being desalinated today is less than half the quantity originally decided on by the government. But even once additional desalination plants are completed in 2013, it said, Israel will still be facing a water deficit of about two billion cubic meters.

The report rejected claims that the crisis is not that severe, and would be vastly ameliorated by a single rainy year. The problem, it said, "is not just the diminution of existing reserves, but long-term damage to the quality of the water."

The report criticized the Water Authority for implementing plans to save water very lackadaisically. For instance, it said, a plan to install water-saving devices in one million households free of charge has yet to be implemented. This is not only problematic in itself, but has had the additional negative effect of discouraging people from buying such devices on their own, as they thought they would soon be getting them for free.

The commission devoted a special section to the "drought tax" - a levy on household water usage above a certain level. The tax was passed this summer, but the cabinet and Knesset recently decided to freeze it for several months. In its place, they decided to raise all water tariffs by dozens of percent.

"In our view, the drought tax is an effective means of generating savings," said the commission chairman, retired judge Dan Bein. "The size of the levy shouldn't be excessive and the proper balance must be struck. But they're going to cancel it? So let them propose other savings mechanisms. Yet these mechanisms are also problematic. Let's assume they decide to forbid watering gardens. Who's going to enforce it? They would need thousands of inspectors."

He said the commission also believes the Water Authority should be given full power to raise rates as it sees fit to finance projects such as desalination plants, rather than letting the Knesset decide how much of an increase to approve.