Health Ministry Given Failing Grade on Ensuring Drinking Water Safety

State Comptroller's report points to local authorities' failure to properly maintain water drilling facilities.

The quality of the country's drinking water should be high, in light of close monitoring by the Ministry of Health and the advanced treatment methods in use. But according to an investigation by the State Comptroller's Office, these means are insufficient or are not being employed at all. The result is that in many communities the drinking water does not meet the quality standards. There have been no epidemics so far, but exposure to substandard drinking water can have long-term health consequences.

The State Comptroller's report issued recently points to a failure by local authorities to properly maintain water drilling and pumping facilities as well as to conduct routine chemical testing to ensure the quality of the water delivered to households. Moreover, there have been incidents of water pumping and supply continuing even after a particular water source has been declared contaminated and unfit for consumption.

The state comptroller examined the treatment of drinking water in 11 municipalities - Be'er Sheva, Bnei Brak, Holon, Haifa, Taibeh, Kfar Sava, Kiryat Ono, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Tamra and Safed - and in 13 regional councils: Brenner, Gezer, Gan Raveh, Upper Galilee, Modi'in Region, Hof Hasharon, Lev Hasharon, Mevuot Hermon, Megiddo, Maaleh Yosef, Emek Hefer, Sadot Negev and Samaria.

According to the comptroller's interpretation of the law, these authorities are responsible for seeing to it that various water suppliers, including the national water company, Mekorot, or regional water associations, provide water that conforms to Health Ministry standards.

Israel's water supply is based on a single source of above-ground water (Lake Kinneret) and a number of natural groundwater reservoirs. Much of the water supplied to cities is provided by the national water grid, which is based on the National Water Carrier and associated pipelines, but many locales use local wells instead. In all cases the water is disinfected with chlorine. Water from the Kinneret passes through a central treatment system that for a number of years has also included a central filtration facility.

According to data collected by the State Comptroller's Office, at the start of the last decade there were 649 approved drinking water sources in Israel. Between 1990 and 2007, the Health Ministry withdrew approval for 308 of these sources, slashing the number of approved sources by nearly half.

The local authorities are supposed to be one of the links in the chain of water quality monitoring and treatment. The report, however, reflects weak links in the chain. In some communities drilling and pumping facilities were not maintained properly, and the chlorination process was not always carried out correctly. In Tel Aviv, sewage pipes were found near pumping sites, creating the possibility of sewage contaminating the drinking water. Two years ago the Health Ministry informed the municipality that the physical condition of its water drilling facilities had deteriorated and that it would not be able to continue to supply drinking water from such facilities. The municipality explained to the comptroller that the facilities were built 50 years ago, to suit the conditions prevailing at the time, and said it is preparing a program that will address the problems.

In several communities the local governments failed to test water quality regularly, and as a result the suppliers lacked reliable information about the quality of the water. In Kfar Yedidya, in Emek Hefer, the tests were performed five years later than scheduled. The tests are intended to detect contaminants such as toxic metals or pesticides, long-term exposure to which even in small concentrations, can cause serious damage to the kidneys, the circulatory system and the heart, as well as causing cancer.

People in Kfar Yedidya and in communities of the Megiddo Regional Council were supplied with water from a source even after excessive levels of contaminants were detected. In another case the council trucked in clean water to Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek. A second regional council on occasion supplied drinking water to residents from wells used for agricultural irrigation whose water was not approved by the Health Ministry for drinking.

The case of Kfar Yedidya became a prolonged saga in which a number of bodies, including Mekorot, tried to connect the locale to the national water grid rather than the local, contaminated, water source. In this and other cases the entities involved told the State Comptroller they encountered many difficulties in obtaining permits for the change. The Water Authority told the State Comptroller that connecting Beit Oved to the national grid was hampered by "engineering, physical and statutory difficulties."

Unfit for drinking

The report noted that the State Comptroller's Office had determined that the Israel Water Authority had "authorized water allocations for domestic use, including water for drinking and cooking, from drilling sites that were banned by the Health Ministry. The authority did not note on the supply licenses the fact that the water from these drilling sites is prohibited for drinking and cooking. In this way it enabled the supply of water that is unfit for drinking."

The vast majority of the deviations from water quality standard are due to excessive amounts of nitrates from wastewater and runoff from agricultural fertilizers. Concentrations of nitrates do not pose immediate health risks but they are an indicator of contaminated water. Long-term exposure to nitrates has been implicated as a risk factor for leukemia and colon cancer, although the link has not been proved conclusively.

One area in which the State Comptroller found serious failures was in the use of backflow prevention devices. These are critical to keeping potentially contaminated water out of the water supply. According to the report, in many communities backflow prevention means had not been installed. In Holon, for example, only 30 out of 650 businesses required to install backflow prevention systems had done so. A source at the Holon municipality said this week that the figures in the report are not current. According to the source, 160 businesses have already installed the devices and the municipal water corporation is taking action, including sending warning letters, to ensure full compliance.

The report concluded with harsh criticism of the Health Ministry, which is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the country's drinking water is safe. According to the report, while the ministry takes many measures to ensure drinking water quality it does not take full advantage of the means at its disposal to prevent water suppliers from breaking the law. Its failure, the report said, "has for many years enabled the supply of water that is not fit for drinking."

Health Ministry officials acknowledge the difficulty of enforcement. Ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron-Greenbaum say this is due to a shortage of inspectors and of attorneys who can file lawsuits. "The ministry must focus on cases in which there is a real and present danger. In other cases the actions are taken in accordance with priorities," she said. Shimron-Greenbaum said the ministry would need special budgetary and personnel provision in order to step up its enforcement. "We would be grateful to the state comptroller if he would make this clear in the report and stress the priority that should be given to this. It is clear that without the suitable allocations of personnel and budgets we will not be able to carry out the tasks," Shimron-Greenbaum said.

The Mekorot Water Company said in a response, "The company implements an integrated approach to water treatment while saving water resources and preventing pollution. The company regrets that there are water suppliers and private companies that supply unacceptable water and do not take proper care to preserve the water sources out of economic considerations. We call for increasing enforcement against polluters and for expansion of the measures to rehabilitate wells that have been contaminated."