25/03/2010 07:27

Nation on verge of water crisis due to pollution, lack of enforcement.

The National Investigation Committee – Regarding the Water Crisis in Israel did not recommend any sweeping changes to the way the government handles the country’s water resources in its final report released on Wednesday.

Instead, in a series of recommendations covering all aspects of the water economy, it urged the government to continue the reforms that have begun to be implemented over the past five years.

Following in a growing tradition of inquiry committees, the panel attributed the water crisis to human failures merely exacerbated by five years of drought. A parliamentary inquiry committee reached a similar conclusion in 2002. This is the first state committee of inquiry into the handling of water.

Committee head Prof. Dan Bein and his two colleagues, Profs. Yoram Avnimelech and Yoav Kislev, spent the past year and a half hearing testimony from 115 witnesses. They submitted their final report to the Knesset State Control Committee and to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch on Wednesday.

The State Control Committee had commissioned the committee to look into the failures that had led to the crisis. Committee Chairman MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said he would study the report closely and convene a number of sessions of his committee to discuss it soon. He urged the government to use the report as a guide for straightening out water policy.

The final document did not single out any government official, past or present, for censure. Bein said at a press conference in Tel Aviv later in the day that the purpose of the report was to achieve “justice” and that he felt the committee had lived up to its goal.

Bein warned that Israel was on the verge of a water quality crisis because of continuing pollution and a lack of enforcement.

Despite the uproar caused earlier this year over water prices and the drought levy, the committee backed both measures. Water prices have to reflect the total cost of its production, including transport and environmental costs, which necessitate a price increase, they wrote. However, the Water Authority’s mistake was in attempting to raise the prices by 40 percent all at once. The increase should be more gradual, they wrote. In fact, the National Infrastructures Ministry prevailed upon the Water Authority late last year to split the increase in three.

Bein said the setting of prices should remain in the hands of the professionals rather than politicians who were too influenced by populist pressures.

The drought levy could be a useful tool to encourage conservation as long as it is presented as such and not as a new tax for the Treasury’s coffers, the report said.

Regarding desalination, there was no doubt it was critical for ensuring the water supply, Bein and his colleagues wrote. However, they warned that Israel could not continue building desalination plants ad infinitum. The plants were environmentally unfriendly because of the massive amounts of polluting electricity they required. They also took up lots of scarce and valuable coastal real estate. The report also cautioned that if Israel desalinated water on a very large scale it could cause a diplomatic issue, as its neighbors might begin to press for Israel to give up access to natural water reservoirs.

The mountain aquifer, for instance, runs underneath the West Bank.

However, the committee did not by any means recommend reducing the goal of 750 million cubic meters per year by 2020 set by the government. In fact, they criticized past zigzags on desalination goals and failure to construct desalination plants as a major reason for the current crisis.

Conservation by members of the public should be a matter of course and not just a crisis management tool, the report urged. Water must always be considered a scarce resource and treated accordingly. Public awareness campaigns, educational campaigns and distributing water saving devices for faucets must be ongoing projects, according to the report.

The committee members did not criticize the allocation of water to the different sectors: households, agriculture, industry and nature. However, they did write that all sewage should be reclaimed for agriculture. At present, about 70% is used for farming. Using more treated wastewater for agriculture means freeing up more freshwater for other sectors. In that regard, the committee criticized past agriculture ministers and water commissioners for bowing to pressure from the agricultural lobby and continuing to allocate vast amounts of fresh water even as the drought worsened.

Contaminated wells should be treated forthwith to increase the water supply and prevent the spread of pollution, the report recommended.

At the press conference, Bein said the handling of the water economy was an example of a system-wide failure to make decisions. To correct the process, the government should give whatever funding the Water Authority needed to complete drawing up its master plan. The Water Authority cannot complete the process without significantly more money, according to the report.

A master plan was critical for managing water resources and making decisions, the authors wrote. So much so, that the committee made one of its few recommendations for institutional and structural change on this issue. Two out of three committee members suggested creating a council, similar in structure to the National Security Council, to draw up goals and coordinate between the government and the Water Authority on water policy. The council would submit strategic goals to the government for approval and would receive and critique the master plans from the Water Authority. Such a staff would provide the policy expertise on water issues that the ministers did not have time to acquire and take policy decisions out of the professionals’ hands who were supposed to implement it.

The other structural change the report’s authors urged was the creation of state prosecutors specifically for water issues. Or, alternatively, training existing prosecutors so that they were more familiar with the water regulations. Too few administrative orders and cleanup orders had been issued, they wrote, to force polluters to clean up contaminated water.

While the Water Law of 1959 was a good law for its time, it is in serious need of an overhaul, according to the report. Responsibilities are scattered across ministries and regulations scattered across the body of legislation. A new codex should be drawn up to replace the Water Law.

Conflicts over authority also hampered cleaning up contamination, the report noted. Turf wars between the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Water Authority must be resolved immediately.

The Hydrological Service should also be removed from the Water Authority’s control to ensure its professional impartiality in reporting precipitation and forecasting, according to the report.

Finally, the Water Council of the Water Authority should be slightly adjusted. The Water Authority head should not be the chairman of the council, since that represented a conflict of interests. The head should have a seat on the council but a public personage not employed by the authority should sit as its chairman. In addition, a representative of the Health Ministry should sit on the council since the ministry was responsible for water quality, Bein and his colleagues concluded.

Bein, Avnimelech and Kislev also called on the Water Authority to involve the public as much as possible and to implement policy in as transparent a manner as possible. The committee’s interim report focused on the lack of transparency and public involvement in the creation of the drought levy that it concluded led to the levy’s demise.

Reactions from the Water Authority and the Treasury were mild. The Water Authority said the “transformative revolution was at its peak,” and both pointed to the end of the water crisis by 2013 as a result of the desalination plants as proof that even if they had been on the wrong track in the past, they were on the right one now.

National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) has called a press conference for Thursday morning to respond to the report.