06/04/2011 22:07

Even the Knesset and the government are taking an unprecedented interest, albeit a belated one, in our water bills.
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Even the Knesset and the government are taking an unprecedented interest, albeit a belated one, in our water bills. Not only are we paying more than ever for our water, and not only are the prices due to rise yet again, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that we sometimes pay not only for what we actually consume, but that there are serious problems with how our water use is measured and that the amounts are at times determined arbitrarily and without plausible explanation.

Such problems were exceedingly rare under the old system in which municipalities were directly in charge of water billing. But since the advent of the semi-privatized water corporations over the past few years (at different times in different localities), householders’ water bills have skyrocketed. And this rise has far exceeded what was mandated by higher water tariffs and the imposition of VAT on water.

The problem seems to hinge on determining the quantities used. In too many cases serious question marks arise. So much so that National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau has instructed all water corporations to refrain from sending out bills in which there is a marked discrepancy from given consumers’ average bills. The cause for apparent exorbitant charges must first be examined, the minister has decreed.

Landau has also set up a professional commission to investigate in the coming month the entire issue of gauging water use.

Additionally he entrusted a legal team with formulating solutions by July 1 that would free households from having to pay ostensibly exceptional and anomalous charges.

Experience so far suggests that most local water corporations are far from responsive or cooperative when confronted with queries. The Israel Consumers Council notes that complaints are often greeted with distrust and disinclination to even check suspicion of error. The problem may be inbuilt as water corporations are often loath to investigate their own alleged unsatisfactory practices.

In some cities residents have received bimonthly bills totaling thousands of shekels each for what is mysteriously deemed “communal use” – even in cases involving private houses. Local corporations have cited possible pipeline leakages, even when charging householders for amounts that could have filled several swimming pools.

Residents of one apartment block in Tel Aviv’s Rehov Hahagana hired professionals to prove that no leaks existed. These low-income families had been billed for thousands of shekels per apartment.

It further emerges that, contrary to what the law explicitly stipulates, most water corporations don’t regularly inspect, repair or replace faulty meters. This is the subject of a class action law suit filed against Haifa, Ra’anana and Karmiel. Another pending litigation against Tel Aviv charges that its meters continue to register use even when all faucets are turned off or in vacant dwellings.

The Knesset Economics Committee has taken up the matter and vowed last week to make sure that “the citizenry pays only for water actually used,” as distinct from what false readings often determine.

Meanwhile, the government has announced a reduction in water rates for municipalities – to be bankrolled by the populace. In effect the local authorities’ own water will be subsidized by all of us. After water prices more than doubled in two years, we’ll now indirectly also pay more to help our cities pay less. This in all likelihood is geared to placate the municipalities which continuously agitate against the water corporations.

This marks the first time that the cost of a vital commodity is being exploited to appease one sector at the expense of another. The only criterion for pricing should be economic, and not a function of deals.

The public isn’t unwilling to continue austerity, despite the recently expressed opinion of former Water Authority chief Uri Shani that this past winter’s rains have significantly increased available reserves. The public is also willing to acquiesce to higher costs until the benefits of increased desalination become manifest in a few years.

But nobody wants to pay for what they’re not using. Bills must reflect reality, be credible and above board. Dubious bills for improbable water amounts inevitably become distinct disincentives to conservation. When reduced consumption doesn’t reduce bills, the message is that it doesn’t matter whether we behave responsibly or not.