09/11/2010 21:16

We are witnessing an incomprehensible ongoing failure to conserve existing resources.

At a season in which Jews everywhere pray fervently for rain in Israel, meteorologists bear bad tidings.

By their learned prognostications, we are in for a very parched year – not that the previous winter, a relatively good one after six dry years in a row, was extraordinarily wet.

According to the gloomy forecasts, winter will get off to an exceptionally late start and, at least in its initial stages, will produce even less precipitation than each of the six bad annual droughts this decade. Considering that our water reserves are already precariously in the red, this is very sad news with which to open a new year.

No sooner were the dire forecasts broadcast than the Israel Water Authority touted its inevitable remedy – making the populace pay.

We live in an arid region, where droughts are part of the natural cycle. Yet successive governments have proved themselves shortsightedly agora-wise and shekel-foolish.

What can be put off, ran the thinking, needn’t be attended to and paid for now. In the short haul, this can spare valuable outlays to be diverted elsewhere. But this blinkered focus on present contingencies pawns our future.

The Magen Commission in 2002, the recent Bein Commission, as well as State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss early this year, all cited incessant malfunction by a series of governments that consistently ignored the writing on the wall for too many years. For decades, decisions were ad hoc, without overall master plans. Those plans that were drafted weren’t fully carried out, and, where there was partial implementation, it was rarely followed up and evaluated.

The flagrant carelessness of 2002 is a case in point. The drought of 2000-01’s winter spawned numerous doomsday scenarios and professed resolve to combat our water shortage. It was decided to build desalination plants.

However, the next winter, 2002, was quite wet and the urgency was washed away. As a result, only 130 million cubic meters of water were subsequently desalinated, instead of 400 million. Israel was unprepared for the prolonged drought that ensued.

WILL CHARGING more for water now make us consume less? Only up to a point. Israelis are used to overpaying.

A nation which subsists on overdrafts can learn to ignore mounting expenditures.

Lindenstrauss strongly censured the notion of inflicting on the citizenry penalties for the government’s gross past miscalculations and of sticking us with the bill for future infrastructure rather than appropriately budgeting for essential projects.

Typically, the Water Authority is predicting calamity unless further price hikes are applied. Yet we anyway pay exorbitant taxes – at least partly earmarked to bankroll large-scale national development schemes, desalination plants among them. There’s no justification to doubletax us and charge again for the same projects, this time via the price of the most elementary and vital commodity of all.

Water prices were already heftily raised this past year.

The availability and affordability of a commodity so indispensable mustn’t become an unsanctioned revenue- generating tool for any government agency, and certainly not a means to cover up officialdom’s egregious failures.

Facile price hikes don’t encourage the public sector to clean up its act. Local authorities in particular are hardly innocent. Their negligence accounts for a whopping 165 million cubic meters lost annually because of substandard municipal equipment or leakages from corroded pipelines.

Moreover, many cities have lately taken to hiring private firms to collect water payments, a fact which has led to overcharging of sometimes monstrous proportions.

Residents of one low-income apartment block on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Hahagana were charged thousands of shekels per apartment for “communal use,” which, on further examination, never existed. Similar infractions are reported elsewhere. This breeds wholesale lack of trust and creates clear disincentives for prudent water use.

We are witnessing an incomprehensible ongoing failure to conserve existing resources. Paying incrementally more for higher consumption is one way to educate the public that squandering is costly. But across-the-board increases, inherently regressive (hitting the super-rich with their private swimming pools and the neediest families in identical measure), achieve the precise opposite.

To our inevitable collective detriment, they impart the wrong message, telling consumers that waste isn’t penalized and that responsibility isn’t rewarded.

We cannot afford such folly in our dehydrated region.