Israelis hit the bottle

More desalinated water streams out of taps, Israelis reluctant to drink it.

drink (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Desalinated water has been streaming out of the tap in households nationwide for the past two years, with little publicity. But with the exception of those in the south, Israelis are proving increasingly reluctant to drink it, instead opting for bottled water or, at least, some kind of filtering device. Israel's household sector currently consumes 800 million cubic meters of water a year, of which 130 million is desalinated. Within four years, the desalinated portion is set to rise to 200 million. And the proportion will continue to grow as natural resources dwindle, says Rafi Ifergan, VP for Technology and Engineering Products at Israel's National Water Carrier, Mekorot. Consumer aversion to the water coming out of the taps remains strong even though "the quality of desalinated water in our taps is improving every year," says Jacobo Sack, a veteran official at Mekorot, and a water and wastewater quality consultant. The increasing awareness of Israel's acute water shortage has put the issue of drinking water at the forefront of the national agenda. More Israelis are relying on desalinated water, both for drinking and irrigation, and the number of desalination plants in the country is slated to rise. Nonetheless, the experts' contention that desalinated tap water is clean and healthy is countered by an opposite perception held by large segments of the population. While there are no hard figures showing how many people don't drink any tap water - desalinated or not - preferring instead the bottled option, the phenomenon is prevalent, especially in the greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. Some of the most common reasons given for not drinking tap water are perceived inconsistent water quality testing, frequent Health Ministry warnings for certain areas, the perception that water-carrying pipes are old and rusty, and finally the taste. "Ninety eight percent of our water resources are being used, so there is nothing under the ground we haven't gotten to. Desalination is the only answer and the quality of the desalinated tap water is excellent. I drink it, and my daughters drink it," Sack says. "Mistakes do happen, but the Health Ministry has done a gradually better job of monitoring water quality. People don't believe tap water is healthy because there is a misconception that the chlorine in the water is damaging to health. It isn't. It changes the taste of water, but there is nothing unhealthy about our tap water. Similarly, people think desalinated water is dirty water," Sack goes on. Prof. Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, is emphatic that desalinated tap water is the best possible water you can drink. "I'm a hydrologist. I drink tap water in my house and not because I can't afford bottled water, but because it is clean and healthy," Adar, considered one of the foremost water experts in the world, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. According to Adar, the quality in Israel's water distribution system "ranks with the best in the world." So why doesn't the general public share that feeling? Could it have something to do with the frequent Health Ministry warnings advising residents of cities country-wide to boil their tap water before drinking it? Some Israelis seem psychologically unable to accept that tap water is clean and healthy, even when the claim is based on hard science. "There is a myth that bottled water is better for you, and I know that it is only a myth," says an Australian national living here. "The reality is that there are elements from the plastic that can seep into the bottle and enter the water and that can be bad for you... Yet, in general, I don't trust the tap water in Israel. I hear so much about pollution." Some people say they just like having cold water bottles handily available in the fridge while many households filter tap water with various products, even though manufacturers clearly state on their packages that there are no health benefits to doing so. Still others will drink tap water when they are visiting the north, but not when at home in the center of the country. "As a pregnant person I would not drink tap water because of the inconsistent testing and the quality of the piping is not very good," says a Jerusalem resident, who adds that she has no problem drinking tap water in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona. When it comes to water intake, it seems Israelis prefer to play it safe, and, however inaccurately, safety is by and large perceived to be found in bottled water. While there are Israelis who believe there is nothing unhealthy about drinking tap water, it seems that water industry professionals just cannot get their message across to the wider public. Adar says the ingrained anti-tap perception likely started in the 60s and early 70s when the level of dissolved salts in water was high and that was considered unhealthy for people's kidneys. But the major reason people don't drink tap water, according to Adar, is that they don't like the taste. Adar says Mekorot is working on the problem. A spokesman for the Standards Institute of Israel, which overseas water re-use technology standards, notes that while bottled water companies advertise their water as coming from natural sources, they never say that tap water is unclean. "They wouldn't dare do that, because they know they can't back it up," he said. "Not only can you save money [by not buying mineral water], but you can also save the hassle of carrying the bottles," Sacks, the water consultant, says. According to economic data on the soft drink industry, both of the country's major bottled water companies have seen a very dynamic growth rate over the past decade. The reasons for this are the decreasing cost of bottled water as a result of increased competition, and the strengthening perception of the low quality of tap water, fed by the intermittent Health Ministry warnings. Further surges in bottled-water sales are expected because of the relatively strong economy and rising health consciousness. Meanwhile, farmers using drinking-quality water from a desalination plant in Ashkelon have discovered that the water lacks some necessary elements such as calcium and magnesium, and is too rich in boron. This can have a damaging effect on tomatoes, basil, citrus trees, flowers and other economically-important plants but is not adverse to humans. Danielle Singer contributed to this report.