Analysis

Israel, the Next Flint? Gov't Dawdling as Desalinated Water Kills

Desalinated water low on magnesium is creating a stealthy public health crisis in Israel and the government is settling for a committee.

The Palmachim Desalination Plant
The Palmachim Desalination Plant David Bachar

Drought has always been a threat of existential proportions in the Middle East. The path Israel chose to mitigate its impact was discussed in the New York Times on May 29, 2015 in an article titled "Aided by the Sea, Israel Overcomes an Old Foe: Drought." Israel's conquest of drought cited by the Times was achieved by building five large-scale desalination plants in just ten years, a project viewed by many as one of Israel's outstanding achievements. However, in contrast to natural water, desalinated water lacks essential elements essential to human health such as magnesium and calcium.

Israel's desalination plants produce 600 million cubic meters of water per year, enough to supply drinking water to about 80% of the population.    

Israelis have been drinking desalinated water from 2005. Eleven years later, in April 2016, an increase in mortality following the switch to desalinated water was presented at the 63rd Annual Conference of the Israeli Heart Society.

The government's lethargic response to the reported increase in deaths caused by reliance on desalinated water brings to mind the fiasco in Flint, Michigan, which is another example of a man-made catastrophe that won too little attention, too late.

Other countries also use desalination to enhance their water supply. Generally, desalinated water comprises no more than 30% or less of the total amount of water consumed. Israel is unique in having replaced almost all of the natural water delivered to its urban residents with desalinated water from the sea.

The Scunthorpe enigma

The problems caused by replacing hard with soft water were first realized over 50 years ago, in the city of Scunthorpe. In 1959 this English city inaugurated a plant to soften the very hard aquifer water that served as its source of drinking water. In so doing, the amount of calcium was reduced from 444 to 100 milligrams per liter.

In the following years, the incidence of heart-related deaths sharply increased in Scunthrope; meanwhile, in nearby Grimsby that continued to supply untreated hard water, there was no such increase.

The Scunthrope enigma triggered numerous studies of the impact of calcium and magnesium in drinking water on public health in general and on heart disease in particular. Finally, in April 1968, the English medical journal Lancet published a study stating the correlation:"In the sixty-one county boroughs of England and Wales… the harder the local drinking water and the more calcium it contained the lower was the death rate in middle and early old age: this was particularly so for cardio-vascular and to a lesser extent bronchitis mortality".

Doubled death rate among heart-attack patients

The joint study mentioned above was published by researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Sheba Medical Center in April 2016 .The study evaluated  the impact of replacing natural drinking water with desalinated water in Israel. They found that the mortality rate among patients after heart attacks who lived in areas supplied with desalinated water was more than double the rate among people living in areas supplied by natural water sources.

The Israeli Health Ministry itself estimates that magnesium-deficient desalinated water is leading to about 250 deaths per year.

To put that into proportion, during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, 94 Israelis died of the disease – meaning that postulated deaths from desalinated water are roughly three times greater

Impact on children

Mineral-deficient water is also bad for children. A 2002 study in California associates low dietary magnesium levels in children with reduced lung function; and a study from the University of Maryland Medical Center states that a "clinical study of more than 2500 children and adolescents 11 to 19 years of age found that low dietary magnesium intake may be associated with the risk of asthma".

Hadera desalination plant - Eyal Toueg - 04092011
Eyal Toueg

Manmade epidemics

Flint Michigan is a prime example of man-made disaster stemming from a public health hazard that was systematically ignored.

In 2014, in order to save money, the city  stopped supplying treated water from Detroit, and began pumping water from Flint River, which has been a repository for toxic, industrial waste for over a century. Moreover, the city neglected to treat the river water with an anti-corrosive, resulting in lead leaching out of the old piping system into the drinking water. The outcome has been exposure to poisoning by lead and other noxious substances.

The reaction to the fiasco was multifaceted. On January 16, 2016 President Barack Obama declared the Flint water crisis to be a federal emergency. The contaminated Flint River water was replaced with higher quality water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. In addition four government officials were fired, millions of dollars of lawsuits have been filed and criminal charges made against six officials.

In Israel, the unnecessary deaths of about 250 people a year have gone unnoticed by the public. But in fact the dimensions of the Israeli crisis are not small: millions of Israelis have been drinking desalinated water for years.  As in Flint, immediate steps should be taken to minimize the effect of drinking desalinated water on human health.

 There are four steps the government should take to address the desalinated water crisis. The first involves the limiting of the amount of desalinated water supplied to each consumer to 25%. This may involve temporary natural water transfers from other sectors. Since this will take time to institute nationwide, priority should be given to consumers in the south and near desalination plants, who have been consuming mainly desalinated water since 2005.

Secondly, water conservation programs should be reintroduced and thirdly, a crash program should funded to implement the treatment of desalinated water, returning the magnesium and other important elements that were removed during the desalination process. Finally, investments should be redirected from new desalination plants to expanding natural water resources, with special emphasis on renovating the sand aquifer.

The author was head of the Urban Water department in the Tahal water engineering group from 1975-85, and has served as a consultant to the Water Commissioner and cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.