25/03/2010 16:52

Landau’s remedy for the water crisis: Give his ministry additional authority.

A day after the publication of the Bein report on Israel’s ongoing water crisis, National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau held a press conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday, to speak about the report’s findings and present a new bill that plans to transfer authority over Israel’s water system more firmly into the hands of Landau and his successors.

“There is no doubt that the water system is facing an unprecedented crisis as a result of long years of neglect and the fact that there is no guiding hand and no policy that directed decisions of the water sector and those who run it,” said Landau. “If I don’t treat the problem and I don’t implement the recommendations, we will find ourselves before an additional investigative commission in the future.”

Landau said the findings of the Bein committee matched his own analysis of the situation in full. “There is not much that is new in the report and I couldn’t have written the report more accurately myself,” he said.

The report, which was commissioned by the Knesset State Control Committee in August 2008 in order to identify the causes of the crisis and make recommendations as to how to overcome it, was presented to the committee and to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch on Wednesday.

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. The committee did not single out any government official, past or present, for censure in the report.

The report states that the main reasons for the water crisis are: failure by consecutive governments to formulate long-term goals for the system, insufficient warning from the professional bodies, inconsistent and slow handling by the National Water Authority, lack of operative transparency, lack of enforcement against polluters and shortage of public education.

The report determines that 15.2 billion cubic meters are lacking in Israel’s water reservoirs – an amount that, according to the report, even a succession of rainy years would not fill.

“As long as more water is drawn out of the reservoirs than is added to them naturally, their condition will worsen. Therefore it is necessary to take emergency actions now and in the foreseeable future and promote consistent action toward creating alternative sources of water,” reads the report.

The report’s primary recommendation is for the government to urgently decide on strategic goals and for the Water Authority to create a master plan to fulfill them.

Landau’s bill aims to transfer budgetary and authoritative control over the National Water Authority to the minister of national infrastructures.

“The Water Authority is one of the most able and professional bodies in the country, but every professional agency requires an overseeing body to provide it with goals by which to operate. Today the reality is that the national infrastructures minister carries the ministerial responsibility to correct the wrongs stated in the report, but lacks the authority and tools to do so,” said Landau.

The bill, a revision of the 1959 water law, proposes that the National Water Authority’s budget be approved by both the finance minister and the national infrastructures minister, instead of just the finance minister as called for in the existing law, and that the national infrastructures minister should drive policy, approve plans and authorize water prices.

The bill suggests that the changes be scheduled to go into effect in the beginning of 2012, in order to allow time for the ministry to prepare itself sufficiently.

“I’m operating under the assumption that the person who will have to take on the new authorities will be the next minister of national infrastructure,” said Landau, who added that he thought the best solution was for the state to have a single infrastructure czar who would manage all aspects of the country’s infrastructure including energy, transportation, water and gas.

Landau called out to his fellow cabinet members to rise above political considerations and focus on utility. “I urge my colleagues in the government to see themselves as the next national infrastructures minister. Don’t vote according to political expedience but according to the merit of the plan,” he said.

Landau took the opportunity to criticize Finance Ministry officials and the system, which, according to Landau, places too many decision-making powers in their hands. “The situation came about because of concerns over corruption. We earned the reputation for being corrupt, but it is essential that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It has come to the stage where the ministers stand off to the side while all the decisions are made by unelected economists, who lack the long-term perspective and are driven solely only by the desire to stick to the existing budget confines for the year.”

Landau will present the bill to the government when he reports on the status of the nation’s water system in Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Landau’s office also announced a new NIS 750 million sewage treatment plan for the periphery. The plan proposes to assist regional and local authorities in the north and the south upgrade and modernize their sewage systems. The plan offers grants and loans to struggling and distant local authorities to help them match the levels of sewage treatment existing in the center.

Since housing and industrial expansion plans require adequate sewage infrastructure to receive authorization, it is expected that the upgrades will enable expansion of existing towns and the formation of new ones.