Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Charging for water in Mandate Palestine

The American Journal of Legal History recently published my article, "Horizontal and vertical influences in colonial legal transplantation: water by-laws in British Palestine". Due to space constraints of the publisher, I was not able to include in the article some sources that I think are interesting from an environmental-legal perspective. Here are two of them, both penned by engineers serving as head of the water department of the of the Jerusalem Municipality in support of the city's policy of requiring water metering (while most Palestine local authorities also allowed charging flat rates). I think they call to mind current debates about water pricing in various places around the world, explicitly raising issues of efficiency, equity, conservation, and public health:

A. In 1927 Jerusalem's Water Engineer, Andrew (Andor) Koch, was hired by the Tel Aviv Municipality to consult on its system of water supply. In his report to the Tel Aviv Municipal Council (Report on the Tel Aviv Municipal Water Supply, 25th Dec. 1927, Tel Aviv Municipal Archives file 835/04-1029B), Koch explained why he supported metering over flat charges:

I wish to mention that throughout the whole world, now the metered system, as the only correct means for charging Consumers is gaining ground.- There used to be a conception before that water is not a saleable good, but a public property, obtained from nature and therefore the selling of same per volume as any other merchandise, is not justified.- A more close study and moreover the practical results of such an assumption have clearly shown however that earlier or later the free use of water is leading to unnecessary, even expensive (especially concerning the disposal of waste water) waste on the one hand, and inevitably, to the undue exhaustion of the  available sources of supply on the other hand.

Water tower in Tel Aviv, built 1924

B. In 1945 Zvi Leibovitz wrote a memo to the Town Clerk (Memo by ZL, 18/10/45, Jerusalem Municipal Archives file A/14/13):

As regards the merits of the various methods of charging water rates, I would briefly point out the following:

1. The nature and source of supply may generally dictate the policy which is to be followed in the distribution and collection of revenue from water – whether by meter or otherwise (flat rate).

2. It is my considered opinion that in a country such as Palestine, where water could not be obtained from nature in unlimited quantities, - and in Jerusalem particularly where the water supply involves costly pumping – that the best and most suitable system, if not the only one possible, is a fully metered supply.

3. I do not admit that the metering leads to unsanitary conditions. High consumption per capita in itself is not a [?] for the existence of improved sanitary conditions and a satisfactory water service. What really matters is that the water should be beneficially used, the higher the consumption of beneficially used water, the better the health + conditions. Water losses or wanton and careless waste due to negligence in repairing bad and defective plumbing (such as it is generally observed under flat rate system), do not help.

4. Under the meter system and if equitable water charges are adopted (I have particularly in mind a reasonable minimum charge), the poor sections of the population would not have any reason to economize the use of water to the detriment of personal hygiene, health or sanitation. It is a known fact that the use of meters tends to distribute more equitably the financial burden and more often than not, the consumer will find himself saving money under the meter system in comparison with the flat rate.

It is of interest to note that, as far as I am aware, now water authority, once having introduced the metered supply, has ever returned to the flat rate.

5. In brief, the benefit derived from metering [is as] follows:

a) Waste and misuse is easily checked during day and night. Meters registering 24 hours are far superior to any inspection by staff.

b) The  reduction in the average daily consumption per head is considerable due to the conservation of water which would otherwise be liable to waste or loss.

c) Costly extensions of W[ater] S[upply] schemes, to cope with the continuously increasing consumption , could be deferred for several years + thus to release the inhabitants from unduly high financial burdens.

d) The charge of water per mappears to be more equitable and more evenly distributed.

The abstract of the article:

Local by-laws were the primary tool for local governments in British-ruled Palestine to exercise their authority, and water was the paradigmatic subject for local legislation. Looking at the diffusion of legal norms in local by-laws in the 1930s and 1940s, the article examines the dynamics of lawmaking in a context characterized both by imperial rule and intercommunal conflict. The article asks two major questions: to what extent did the by-laws adopt legal norms and forms across communal boundaries? And was the legislation passed by local governments as the product of local preferences and initiative, or did it rather reflect the desires of the British rulers? Understanding the processes of legal transplantation at the local level can help shed light on a number of issues. For the history of Mandate Palestine, it can refine our understanding of the degree to which the Arab and Jewish communities, engaged in sustained conflict, nonetheless interacted in the fields of urban infrastructure and local lawmaking. For imperial environmental history, it provides an opportunity to test theories about water policy as an expression of top-down power. For the legal history of empire, it highlights a level of lawmaking, located somewhere between imperial imposition and indigenous resistance, that has largely been neglected. And for understanding of legal transplantation or diffusion, it offers a fine-grained case study in the way in which legal norms might move—and transform—across jurisdictional, communal, and cultural lines.

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