Water Woes

The public has to know the simple truth: The leaders of the agricultural sector over the years have been the main cause of the water crisis.

When MK David Magen (Center Party) submitted the parliamentary commission of inquiry's report on the water crisis, he hoped that this important matter would remain in the headlines for two or three days, and even lead to a shake-up of the whole system. But then the mad cow came along, immediately followed by the cruel car bomb attack in Megiddo, and the water crisis was shoved into a corner. The next time we deal with it will be in the middle of the summer, when the level of Lake Kinneret is very low again.

Magen said that he would not name the people responsible for the water management failure because he was "looking for water, not blood." The truth of the matter is that he doesn't what to get embroiled in law suits; because the moment he names names, he will have to prove every claim and accusation and that is difficult.

Similarly, the Magen Commission preferred to speak of the "management failure," "multiple authorities" and the "disruption of the decision-making process" in general terms only. But the truth is that when it comes to the water issue, we aren't "all guilty." There is one main guilty party.

Furthermore, it isn't professional to present the public with recommendations that include all the options without first doing an economic analysis of cost efficiency. The commission recommended increasing the desalination of seawater and salty groundwater, the purification of more waste water and water conservation. So what's left? The principal issue remains: pointing the accusing finger at the main cause of the problem - the public officials in the agricultural sector.

The Magen Commission evaded this issue. On the one hand, the commission rejected the claim that "wasteful agriculture" was the cause of the water crisis; while at the same time, it wrote: "There is no doubt that some of the leaders of the agricultural sector made mistakes that harmed farmers and farming when they prevented changes to the water allocations system and the system for pricing water for agriculture."

Coming from a political commission, some of whose members represent the agricultural sector - for example, MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz), who heads the agricultural lobby in the Knesset - this is apparently the most the report could say. The public, however, has to know the simple truth: The leaders of the agricultural sector over the years have been the main cause of the water crisis.

Ever since the establishment of the state, it has been the agricultural lobby that has set the price of water for both household and farm use. Today, this is done by the Knesset Finance Committee, which has heavy representation from the agricultural lobby. Until a decade ago, the situation was much simpler. Pesach Gruper (who represented the farmers) and Edna Solodar (who represented the kibbutzim) would sit down together as "the water committee" and set the water prices. Thus the cat was allowed to guard the cream, resulting in city dwellers and industrialists paying the full cost of water production, while the farmers were heavily subsidized.

To this day, as a result of this heavy subsidization, the farmers are growing crops that are not worthwhile and have no place in a desert country, while the water is being distributed according to political allocations.

As the water economy deteriorated, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon realized that there was no other option but to change the rules of the game. He appointed a commission headed by Gedalya Gal and Yonatan Bashi that recommended putting the price of water to agriculture on par with that paid by the local authorities. This would mean raising the price of water for agriculture from its current NIS 0.82 per cubic meter to NIS 1.48 per cubic meter. The moment water subsidies are suspended (and replaced with land subsidies), the massive wasting of water for agriculture will cease and the water crisis will also finally end.

The government made a decision in keeping with this spirit in April of this year, but the decision had two problematic clauses. It was determined that the price of water should be raised over a period of four years and that the reforms would need the approval of the Knesset Finance Committee. It was also decided that this year, the price of water for agriculture will be raised to NIS 1.22 per cubic meter.

So what has happened since then? The price of water for agriculture has not been raised; the Finance Committee has not approved the reforms and is about to approve an increase in the cost of water for household and industrial use by a whopping 15 percent.

This being the case, why did we need the Magen Commission; and why did the government need to decide on reforms? After all, anyone who drafts reforms for four years in the Israeli reality does not intend to implement them, because during that period the minister of agriculture will be replaced, as will the prime minister, and the agricultural lobby will continue to make sure the reforms are not implemented.

In other words, water for agriculture will continue to be subsidized, and squandered, until there is no more water in the taps. Only then, in the throes of a severe crisis, will everything that needs to be done be done.