How clear is our water?

What’s really in the drinking water? As International Water Day approaches, the ‘Post’ asks the Arava Institute’s Dr. Clive Lipchin where Israel stands on water sanitation and access.

Clive lipchin 311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Clive lipchin 311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Three years before he set sail to chronicle his tour of the Holy Land in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain adopted his pen name, referencing his years of living on the water, navigating riverboats.
An old nautical term, boatmen used to shout  “mark twain” when the river crossed over the mark from dangerously shallow to safer waters.
His Mideast travel tale is littered with references to wells, springs, streams and the conditions of the drinking water across the land; 145 years later, there are hundreds of thousands of kilometers of new pipes traversing parts of the Holy Land where Twain once traveled. Where does this water come from? Is it really safe? Who has access to it? The answers to these questions have far-reaching implications for the environment, human health, wildlife and regional politics.
With International Water Day approaching on March 22, underscoring critical issues of water management, access and sanitation, Dr. Clive Lipchin, an expert on regional water management and policy, calls water the most pressing environmental and political issue today in the region.
Lipchin immigrated from South Africa with his family as a child. In the 1990s when applied to universities, there was no department of environmental studies in any Israeli or regional institute. No university even granted undergraduate, master’s or doctorate degrees in environmental studies. At best, a few universities offered environment classes through geography departments. Lipchin headed to the US, to the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, where he stayed through his PhD. His dissertation focused on public perceptions of and the effects of this perception on water scarcity in Israel.
When the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies was founded in 1996, on the heels of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, it would become the first and remains the only accredited multidisciplinary environmental studies program in Israel or the region for undergraduate and graduate studies. Lipchin, 40, signed on as a faculty member and today is director of research.
“It is important to understand the science of hydrology, but managing water resources is about people. Water is a basic fundamental resource for survival and so critical to everything for human needs. The question is how to provide enough water in a way that does not exploit nature or people,” he says.
On a recent afternoon in Jerusalem, after pulling a plastic bag out of a water fountain, Lipchin sat down with The Jerusalem Post to explain what’s in the water, where it comes from, where it goes and what all of this has to do with the future of Middle East peace.
Before we get into broader, philosophical questions about water and politics, can you help us understand the basics of drinking water? First of all, should people drink tap or bottled mineral water?
If you put tap or bottled water in front of me, I’d take the tap water. Tap water quality in Israel meets international drinking standards such as that of the World Health Organization. The Israel Water and Sewerage Authority is constantly testing the quality of our drinking water. You will not get sick from drinking tap water anywhere in the country, but it might be the case that drinking water becomes polluted by pipes that are old, if there is rust in the pipes, or if the pipes are plastic – roots of plants and soil can penetrate plastic. If you live in an old building, there is that risk. Pipes in Israel are mostly made of plastic, and if they are old they do need to be upgraded, to be safe and ensure there isn’t contamination or leakage.
Recent reports warn about bisphenols from plastic that leach into water and over time behave like hormones and disrupt the endocrine system, leading potentially to disease. Can you be sure there are no bisphenols from the plastic linings in national water tanks or pipes or taps and their attachments leaking into the water?
The Water Authority probably doesn’t test yet for bisphenols. Mostly they test for bacteria, heavy metals and organics, like E. coli, that could kill you if you ingested a high concentration of contaminated water. I think as we know more and learn about plastic and how it degrades, the way we manage the transport and bottling of water will change. Plastic is formed of chains of hydrocarbons – the same chemical constituents as fuel for a car. It’s very malleable and that is why it is such a ubiquitous product. The downside is the many chemicals used to make it. Even manufacturers probably don’t even know all of the substances used to make plastic. Scientists need to study this so standards can be upgraded.
Are chemicals added to drinking water to kill bacteria and fungus safe to ingest over long periods of time?
Water is treated with chlorine. There is a real debate about chlorine, like about fluoride, and I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point in science to definitively say if it’s good or bad for you. There are not yet conclusive scientific studies. Some say you shouldn’t. Regardless, the concentrations of chlorine or fluoride in our drinking water are very low.
Could there also be heavy metals in the drinking water?
This is exceedingly rare, but theoretically if an industry is discharging its wastewater untreated and containing heavy metal residues and this water is also leaking into other direct supplies one could have heavy metal contamination in the water. In Israel, like in most developed countries, there are water quality standards for industrial wastewater. The Environmental Protection Ministry is responsible to make sure all industries are complying to the standards. A few years ago, Haifa Chemicals was fined by the ministry for not meeting the standards. Further, if home water systems are updated and in good condition, there should not be rust, lead or copper in the drinking water.
What about the white stone that lines kettles? How does this influence health?
Some areas have higher levels of stone than other areas; it depends on the water infrastructure, the age of the pipes, the temperature and altitude where you live rather than water quality. The stone sediment is made of minerals and the solution is to run the water and let the sediment settle, or any basic filter will work. But the amount you consume is not a health risk. But you can develop kidney stones and brown stains on your teeth from drinking water with higher-than-normal salt content. Salts or sodium chloride are in every water source and it is a very important mineral, we need it, all life needs it, but in small amounts, just like vitamins, so it needs to be monitored.
In the 1950s a lot of the water in Israel was brackish and we weren’t able to treat the salts. At Yotvata in the Arava, the first kibbutzniks suffered from kidney stones from 30 years of drinking this water. This problem was solved in the late 1960s with the advent of desalination. Today every kibbutz in the Arava Valley has a small desalination plant to remove the excess salt in the drinking water.
What’s wrong with drinking from plastic bottles, containers and pitchers?
People reuse plastic bottles – this is not good as the bacteria collect inside and eventually will contaminate the water. Once bacteria have colonized a plastic bottle or straw [in a sippy cup], it is simply impossible to remove all the bacteria, even if you use a special brush and soap. The only way to ensure you have gotten rid of all the bacteria is through very high temperature sterilization and even this is not foolproof.
You also never want to drink water that is standing still for a long time; it may pose a health risk. Water is a vector for viruses and bacterial disease, and it attracts insects, such as mosquitoes, which can lay eggs in the water. I wouldn’t drink out of a pitcher of water that was standing for more than three days because the water will certainly be colonized by something. Any container will attract bacterial growth after a time. But plastic cups and bottles are the most problematic.
Drinking water out of plastic is also problematic over time as the plastic degrades and can absorb contamination from the environment and encourages bacteria to grow in it every time you open the bottle. People are concerned about bisphenol in baby bottles, but all plastic will degrade and can leach chemicals like bisphenol into the water. A study on bottled water also showed plastic is porous and breathes fumes. If it sits in the sun, the plastic is degrading, but is also literally breathing in fuel fumes, so you shouldn’t buy water that is sold at a gas station. Are you going to get sick? Probably not. But is it a good thing to do? No, it is potentially risky. Similarly you should not leave a plastic bottle sitting in a car for a long time. The incredibly high temperatures that can occur in a closed car in the summer can increase the rate of plastic degradation into the water.
Also, the carbon footprint of bottled water is huge. About 10,000 bottles a week are sold and maybe 1,000 are recycled. The recycling plant also has a fixed capacity. Bottles are a major pollutant, they take up space in landfills, birds and small animals ingest [pieces] or get stuck [inside], and they do not biodegrade. They remain in the environment forever. Plastic never goes away.
So what can adults use beside plastic bottles and pitchers, and what can children drink from beside plastic sippy cups?
For everyday use it is safest to drink out of a glass. For transporting water, metal and ceramic are much safer. But the economics of the situation are that plastic is cheaper but does expose people to certain risks.
So you won’t drink bottled water?
I don’t, except in places that I know do not conform to WHO water standards, like many places in the developing world.
What is your opinion on distilled water?
It takes too many nutrients out.
Can conventional water filters catch whatever contaminants do get through the water system?
Filters in a sense work the same way an aquifer works, as water moves through sand layers, large pollutants – dirt, sand, stone – remain in the sand. But sand won’t catch hormones, salt, plastics, bacteria or all metals. To do that you need a very fine mesh membrane filter such as that used by desalination plants, and that’s very expensive.
Is the drinking water better in some areas of the country?
Israel has one of the most sophisticated water systems as it integrates four water sources, each of different quality, to one standard for the consumer. When you turn on your tap, you don’t know where the water comes from.
So if an area, like Kiryat Tivon, has higher than normal air pollution rates and higher than normal national rates of cancer, that pollution is not sinking into the ground and affecting the local water sources?
People in Kiryat Tivon drink water from all over the country and people in Jerusalem might be drinking water that includes water from Tivon. In Tivon, the pollution can seep into the aquifer, but it is filtered – 80 percent to 90% – and then goes to treatment for agriculture; not drinking. Drinking water is separate from the water used for agriculture. Someone can be affected if they inadvertently drink high quantities of agricultural water. But no one should drink from agricultural pipes.
Doesn’t water used for agriculture end up being ingested indirectly, though, via plants that grow from agriculture water and animals that eat from agricultural products? Haven’t many substances been found in the water, not all of which have yet been tested to know if they have toxic effects?
We are now finding hormones in water – we are such a medicated population. Take birth control, it’s very popular. When you take this or any medication, some of it passes into the toilet. When wastewater is treated to reuse for irrigation, it is not treated for hormones. So there is no question that some are ending up in the water supply and the hormones could get into your food and cause diverse problems, and yes, it’s crazy when you think of the amount of hormones put into the feed for cows, chickens and any animals that we eventually eat. But as of yet there aren’t hormonal standards for drinking water.
Antibiotics and any other medicines can get into the water in the same way. As the awareness of the issue grows these standards are being developed. The question is one of concentration and how much is actually bad for us. The research on this is still in its infancy.
Pesticides are also a problem; they get into the environment from agricultural runoff. This is bad for the fish and other aquatic life. All vegetables – even organic – grown in this soil can be full of contaminants, like pesticides and hormones. The treated wastewater we irrigate with is treated to the highest standards that available technology allows for; however, the state also adds pesticides and fertilizers into irrigation water – this is called fertigation – and then plants absorb 80% to 90% of irrigated water, depending on the efficiency of the irrigation method. What is not taken up by plants contaminates the environment, streams, groundwater, wadis, fish, and it goes up the food chain. The further up the chain it goes, the more concentrated the contamination is. I wouldn’t eat any fish from any river in Israel.
Pesticides and hormones from runoff can also get into the streams and aquifers and end up in the drinking water supply.
Israel doesn’t reuse any sewage water for drinking water? Isn’t this unusual, especially in a place with water scarcity?
In some places in the US and Australia there are places that recycle wastewater for drinking. But in Israel there is a law that you cannot. And even if you can treat wastewater to the point it can be healthy, the Health Ministry forbids us to use wastewater even for the shower. Israel conserves freshwater primarily for drinking and it is enough. So our wastewater from showers, toilets, sinks, street drains, etc. is sent to wastewater treatment facilities and treated to a tertiary level – over 90% fresh – that goes mostly to agriculture. This is a very efficient use of wastewater as agriculture is the largest water consumer in the country. Because of water scarcity, the future of farmers depends on wastewater. Israel is more advanced in this respect than other countries. It treats more than 70% of its domestic sewage; Spain, the next highest, treats 12%.
Okay, so let’s put all of this in a broader political perspective, starting with the basic question. Where does water in our pipes come from?
The drinking water comes from the Kinneret, the coastal aquifer, the mountain aquifer in the West Bank and the desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast. Most water comes from outside our 1967 borders.
According to the World Bank, 80% of the water from the mountain aquifer, that was once the major water source for Palestinians, now goes to Israelis, not Palestinians. The organization EWASH also says that 85% of water from the upper Jordan River is diverted to Israelis only. Does the majority of Israeli water come from Palestinian villages in the West Bank? And do Palestinians also have access to this water?
According to the Oslo Accords, Palestinians themselves are responsible for treating and providing water to citizens in large urban centers – like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus – of Area A, where 70% of the population lives. But in many places, like rural villages – talk about water scarcity – they frequently run out of water. They don’t have any water infrastructure; some don’t even have taps and can get sick from polluted drinking water. Water is scarce and is a health risk. Most rural Palestinian villages in areas A, B and C have a water scarcity problem.
Is it true that all Palestinian water resources are under Israeli control since 1967, and that Palestinians need an Israeli permit in order to develop, repair and operate water resources?
This is a very complex issue. Between 1967 and 1995, when the Oslo Accords were signed, Palestinians had to seek Israeli permission to dig agricultural and drinking wells. At the time, Israel’s Civil Administration, responsible for the Palestinian population, said it was wary in granting agricultural well permits, fearing the digging could harm the aquifer if the pumping was not well regulated. They said it was easier for Palestinians to be granted permits for building drinking wells, as these wells are normally shallower.
From a Palestinian perspective this was untenable, as they were unable to develop their water economy to meet the growing agricultural needs of their population. The signing of the Oslo Accords was supposed to rectify this by granting Palestinians greater control over their water resources; and indeed a joint water committee was established to oversee and approve all new projects in the West Bank. But Israel maintains a veto position on this committee and practically, on the ground, nothing has really improved for the Palestinians.
Whose responsibility is it to create water infrastructure and a safe water supply for the Palestinians living in West Bank villages?
In principle, it depends where the villages are located. But despite the Oslo Accords giving full control to Palestinians in Area A and Palestinian civil control in Area B, Israel is nonetheless pretty much responsible for all water issues in areas A, B and C, due to its veto position on the joint water committee. Water scarcity and sanitation problems also exist for Arabs living in Israel – many Beduin villages in the Negev don’t have their basic water needs met. I don’t think Israel needs to wait for a political settlement, with the Palestinians or with the Beduin. Water can and should be provided to everybody wherever they are; a peace treaty is not needed for this. The UN decided that water is a basic human right. But it’s complex, you ask whose responsibility it is, and this question about water rights is one of the main conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians.
If the division of water changes as you suggest, is there a threat of drinking water scarcity inside Israel?
No. Israel is already moving toward providing most of its drinking water via seawater desalination. Also, greater efficiencies in irrigation will mean more freshwater can be shifted to the domestic sector. We also need to do our part in conserving water and using less wherever and whenever this is possible.
Last year Palestinians charged that Israel was stealing water from Palestinian territory and Israel’s water authority replied that Israel located the water sources and therefore owns rights to them. What are the legal precedents for this situation?
According to one international law of “prior appropriation,” whoever first uses a water source has the right. But there is also a law that says there must be “equitable utilization”: One needs to find an equitable solution for all users to get the minimum amount. Both these laws are recognized in international court.
The mountain aquifer straddles Israel and the West Bank and is shared by Israelis and the Palestinians, so both principles apply. But Palestinians insist that Israel uses more than its share. The question is how is a fair share defined. Israel says its population has grown and has a developed economy and so needs more water than Palestinians. Palestinians argue that they can’t develop their economy and provide for the basic needs of a fast-growing population if they don’t have enough water. At some point there has to be an agreement about how much water each side should use. Jordan’s and Israel’s peace treaty is of note because it says to the drop what is Israel’s and Jordan’s water share for the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers.
Have the water portions of the peace treaty with Jordan been successful, and can they provide a framework for a treaty with Palestinians?
In my opinion, it is absolutely successful. Yes, it works. We have not had a water conflict with Jordan since we signed the treaty in 1994 and the agreement has stood the test of time.
The Oslo Accords made an important point that it recognized definitively Palestinian rights for water and this was a big victory for Palestinians. But Israel never quantified these rights and this was one major failure of Oslo, that it never consolidated a final status agreement. But Oslo is the only agreement that we have. Since then, the populations have grown and the demand for water has grown, so if ever there will be a Palestinian state, an essential issue is to determine how much water Palestinians have the right to use and whether or not Israel will agree to this.
If you look at how much water is available, a lot is not being used, especially in the southern area of the West Bank. But Palestinians are not allowed to dig wells there because this is mostly in Area C. Any water project – in all Palestinian areas, A-B-C – must be agreed upon by Israel, according to Oslo and the joint water committee, the only functioning piece of Oslo that still exists today.
Can recycled wastewater also be a solution for Palestinians?
Here we are, a modern country, and a stone’s throw away it’s disastrous. Two or three weeks ago I was in Ramallah. The city’s population is only 50,000-60,000 but its wastewater treatment facility can only treat the wastewater for 12,000, so all the rest goes back into the environment – or it goes into groundwater and ends up in the drinking water, or it pollutes the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and the environment.
Most of the population makes use of cisterns, which if not managed correctly can also pollute the environment. Even an up-scale house in Ramallah uses a cistern. When the cistern is filled with wastewater, this dirty water is pumped into a truck that invariably dumps it in the nearest wadi because there is not enough capacity in existing wastewater treatment facilities to accept the waste.
To me this is one of the single biggest tragedies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that we are not able to effectively deal with wastewater treatment in the West Bank. In Israel wastewater is treated and goes to agriculture, but in the West Bank water comes out of a house and it goes back into the environment. As a result, I saw Palestinian farmers growing beans and lettuce irrigated with sewage. They have no choice. Because of this the environment is polluted, the water is polluted and there are also the obvious health risks of eating such produce.
Is there an unequal division of the water resources?
Most Jewish settlements in the West Bank are connected to the Israel system, but Palestinian villages might or might not be, depending on where they are located, so in Jewish and Arab communities living side by side – irrespective of politics – one has a lot of water and the other may have none. This should never happen in any society. If you are Jewish or Palestinian, it doesn’t matter, everybody should have their minimum needs for water and water sanitation met and nobody should go without water. So if there is any way to take water out of the political situation, I think we must.
Israeli drinking water standards and laws are not applied anywhere in the West Bank where Palestinians live, only where Jews live?
Israeli water law doesn’t extend to the Palestinian villages of the West Bank even though we use water from the West Bank.
So how would you respond to those Israelis who say that the situation in Palestinian villages is a Palestinian and not an Israeli problem?
Practically, I would say that it’s an Israeli problem because Israel relies on that water, that wastewater is polluting the aquifer that we share.
To those who believe that the West Bank has religious and political significance, I would say that I’m sure they don’t want an area they consider to be holy to be the most polluted area in the region. Even in the Bible there is mention of treating water in a sustainable fashion. I hope that those with a halachic connection to this place who learn that it’s being polluted would be the first ones to say it’s wrong.
Ethically, it’s simple. Water is an essential resource and there is no other resource so essential for survival. Even for those who consider Palestinians “the enemy,” there is an obligation to provide water. Providing water is one of the most important basic issues of one’s humanity and survival.
Legally, there are of course laws – the most well known are the Geneva Conventions: the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August 12, 1949. The convention requires that an occupying state take full responsibility for meeting the needs of the civilian population under occupation. “Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread long-term severe damage.”
Does Israel have influence over the drinking water in Gaza, as well?
There have been isolated instances, like where a water tank was destroyed by Israeli military activities, but this has not happened as part of a government policy to limit water access. There is no direct policy to limit water, but Israel does not allow most building materials, like metal, cement etc. into the Gaza Strip; these are basic and essential elements for building water and wastewater infrastructure, so you could say that the civil administration, the army, controls water.
The Israeli argument is fear that the Palestinians may use such materials to build something other than water infrastructure, something that could cause harm to Israel. The water situation in Gaza is so tragic because they have serious water scarcity and poor sanitation with the water they have, and we have the knowledge for treating and providing water and it doesn’t cost a a lot of money, so it’s possible to take care of it quite easily.
How close are Israelis and Palestinians to solving these issues?
Mark Twain once said that “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” But war over water is a myth. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is incredibly complex, but the one area that may eventually lead to reconciliation is water. If anything, water drives cooperation because it is so fundamental to our survival.
At a professional level there is already a lot of collaboration overwater. The projects I am involved in at the Arava Institute deal withthe transboundary nature of water, and we work closely withPalestinians and Jordanians to solve our shared water and environmentalproblems. The next stage is to take these collaborative projects andput them in the hands of decision-makers who can use them to makeagreements among governments.
Already, there is one such example of governmental cooperation and thatis on the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea conveyance feasibility study beingfacilitated by the World Bank. This project is very controversial interms of its environmental impact, but nevertheless it is one of thefew examples where the governments of Israel, Jordan and thePalestinian Authority are cooperating, and it is all about water.