A desalination plant in Ashkelon.
A desalination plant in Ashkelon. Photo by Limor Edrey
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to decide this week whether Israel should add magnesium to its desalinated water - a move the Health Ministry says would save lives, but also significantly raise water rates.

Adding magnesium, which is said to help maintain a normal heart beat, could save the lives of 250 Israelis a year who would otherwise die of heart attacks, according to a recent Health Ministry report. If Israel does add the mineral to desalinated water, it would be the first country in the world to do so.

But various government authorities have spent the past three years arguing over how much it would cost to add the magnesium.

The Health Ministry estimates the cost at between NIS 15 million and NIS 20 million a year, while the Israel Water Authority says the plan would cost hundreds of millions of shekels a year, significantly pushing up the rates paid by consumers.

The Health Ministry argued that failing to add magnesium would also have other financial consequences, because of the projected rise in health care costs associated with heart disease and high blood pressure, and the anticipated increase in sales of bottled water.

"Desalinated water without magnesium will keep an [economically] weaker population away from an available source of this essential mineral, and will make mineral water better than tap water, thus causing the public to buy bottled water with minerals that is 200 times more expensive," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry was referring to findings showing that parts of the north and south of the country, some of which are more economically deprived than the center of the country, are already relying primarily on desalinated water.

Netanyahu will announce his decision after Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman meets with Prime Minister's Office director general Harel Loker and representatives of the Finance Ministry and Water Authority tomorrow.

Israel is considered a global trailblazer in water desalination, a process in which salt and other minerals are removed from seawater. The country has three desalination facilities - one in Ashkelon, one in Hadera and one in Palmahim - purifying about one-fifth of the country's drinking-water supply. After two more large desalination plants open in the next few years, in Ashdod and Sorek, desalinated water will comprise 60 percent to 70 percent of the drinking supply.

In some parts of the country, desalinated water already constitutes a majority of residents' drinking water.

In the region between the western Negev and Sde Boker, more than half the water supply has been desalinated - and is thus missing calcium and magnesium - as is more than 80 percent of the drinking water in Sderot and other communities near the Gaza Strip, according to the environmental group Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

In the north, about 60 percent of the drinking water has been desalinated in Fureidis, Kibbutz Nahsholim, Moshav Habonim, Moshav Kerem Maharal and Zichron Yaakov.

The World Health Organization determined in a 2011 report that "it would be appropriate to consider remineralizing" desalinated drinking water with calcium and magnesium salts.