Time to Sweat the Small Stuff

In most countries, forecasts of no water to drink by the summer would command banner front-page headlines. Not in Israel.

Already last summer, when Lake Kinneret was 1.5 meters higher than today, Amos Epstein — then director of Mekorot, Israel’s water company — warned of a crisis this coming summer that "no one will be able to define." According to a December Water Commission report, Israel will experience a 90-million-cubic-meter water deficit in 2001, even after cutting fresh water supplies to the agricultural sector by 50 percent (on top of a 40 percent cut in 2000). And that’s if Israel experiences normal rainfall, which it has not 11 out of the past 19 winters.

Some experts are predicting disruptions of the drinking water supply even if rainfall is normal this winter. (So far, less than half of the water that usually replenishes Kinneret by February has flowed into the lake.) Without average rainfall, the consensus is that many areas of the country will not have adequate drinking water for the summer.

Assuming that the deliveries of Turkish water, scheduled to begin later this year, go without a glitch — a large assumption — they will make only a small dent in Israel’s deficit. Completion of the desalinization plants for which tenders have already been issued is two to four years down the line.

In the meantime, the Kinneret is at its lowest level ever, and water experts are warning that overpumping from the coastal aquifer has already resulted in salt-saturated water seepage, which threatens to damage the aquifer’s water quality permanently.

The current situation reflects years of neglect. In 1990, the state comptroller blamed 25 years of government mismanagement for bringing about the destruction of the nation’s water supply and threatening serious damage to water quality. The response to that dire warning was virtually nonexistent. Lowering the red line of the Kinneret has come to substitute for government planning.

For much of the Barak government’s term, Israel did not even have a full-time water commissioner. In December, Uri Saguy, the chairman of Mekorot, complained, "The government will only do something when the tap runs dry."

Unfortunately, the failure of previous governments to confront the critical water problem typifies the approach to a host of similar threats to our quality of life. Asked to explain how the disastrous water situation developed, longtime water commissioner, Meir Ben-Meir, responded, "How do you explain the fact that mass transportation has never developed in this country, or that the public health system is collapsing, or that the traffic bottlenecks in Tel Aviv are not being dealt with? It’s the same thing."

Israel today has the most congested roads in the world, double the average number of cars per kilometer of the rest of the Western world, despite the fact that car ownership rates are only half that of other industrialized nations. Yet almost nothing has been done to develop mass transportation.

The educational system is another disaster area to which insufficient attention has been paid. Israel’s principal export today is brainpower. Yet Israeli schoolchildren rank only 28th out of 38 advanced nations on standardized mathematical tests. Verbal and physical violence have turned many schools into blackboard jungles, in which little learning can take place, for students and teachers alike.

The failure to address crucial national needs in any systematic fashion betokens a fixation with the present and loss of optimism about the future. Both the government and the population have become obsessed with the security situation to the exclusion of all else.

Politicians appointed to head the Environmental, Transportation or Agricultural Ministries can be counted on to complain that they did not receive more substantial ministries — i.e., ones more connected to issues of war and peace. If interviewed by the media, they are far more likely to talk about the latest negotiations with the Palestinians or political maneuverings than the tasks of their ministry.

A recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency item suggests another aspect of this lack of concern with the future. The reporter noted that Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs are increasingly finding that if they want to make megabucks they must move their companies to America, where the investment dollars are to be found. Israel may be fine for research and development, but the real financial work must be done abroad. It occurred to me that our elites have given up on the future because they expect their children to join the thriving Israeli diaspora in New York, Los Angeles or Silicon Valley.

The next government will act within narrow parameters in foreign policy and security. There are no magic solutions to the intifada or the rejection of our existence by the Palestinians.

There is, however, much that can be done to greatly improve the quality of our lives and our prospects for the future in such areas of resources, education, transportation and health care. Prime Minister Sharon would be well-advised to focus his attention on these areas to give Israel’s citizens the sense once again that we have a future.

Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad. He lives in Israel.