Drinking Fountains Have All but Disappeared From Israel's Streets

Snobbery, health fears have led to the near-extinction of those urban oases where you could quench your thirst for free

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldier washes his face from a water fountain in the south. 2014
Ilan Assayag

The Israeli summer is blistering hot. Yet pedestrians strolling the steaming streets will find little succor from cool free water, because there isn’t any. Drinking fountains have all but disappeared from the Israeli street.

There are two main reasons for their disappearance. The first is the successful campaign by bottled water companies, which seem to have persuaded people that paying money for something they can get for free — water whose quality is supervised by government — is a good idea. The second is that stores, kiosks and restaurants that sell bottled water don’t want the competition.

Israel has eight months of summer each year, says city planner Ayal Zaum: Pedestrians need public water fountains as badly as they need shade.

Why aren’t there laws mandating public drinking fountains in Israel? When asked, the Health Ministry said that while there are standards for installing and maintaining public fountains, there is no requirement to actually have them.

Public drinking fountains are not the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Ministry, nor of the state’s Water Authority, which referred us to the Interior Ministry. Officials there said that city planning had been reassigned to the Finance Ministry, which suggested that we turn to the Union of Local Authorities, an umbrella organization for local governments. The ULA said it was not aware of any directive requiring communities to provide drinking water in public places.

Israel is not alone when it comes to the gradual disappearance of public drinking fountains. It’s a problem in the United States as well. The International Plumbing Code, which builders use to determine how many bathrooms an office building should have and how pipes should work, has halved the number of drinking fountains required in each building.

In the U.S., consumption of bottled water quadrupled between 1993 and 2012, to 9.67 billion gallons a year.

The snob factor

The real problem is the snob factor, claims landscape architect Michal Halevy Bar, who has been studying the development of water culture over decades: Ordinary tap water has lost status to the gods of bottled water. (She was referring, tongue in cheek, to an ad by one purveyor of bottled water.)

“Once, the fountain was a place to relax in the middle of the day — drinking, splashing water during heat waves. Strangers and acquaintances could interact. Any fountains around today are almost always clogged. They aren’t maintained, and there are puddles around them that attract mosquitoes. Who drinks from that? Only cats and dogs. The watering hole has morphed from a place to congregate, into a blight.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines water as the fundamental right on which all human rights depend, Halevy says.

But the “water culture” in Israel has changed. Even the ancients acknowledged the duty of the sovereign to provide this existential need. Arab cities and Rome too featured public troughs, fed by springs or some other source, going back centuries. Israel has some 400 of these troughs, most of which don’t work anymore,

The modern era’s first free public water fountain was unveiled in London in 1859. Thousands gathered to watch officials turn on the tap and at its peak it was used by about 7,000 people a day.

By 1930, access to free, healthy tap water in public places was so common that bottled water was disparaged, used only in offices and factories that couldn’t afford plumbing. In much of Europe bottled water retained its cache, but the rest of the world began to imitate it starting in the 1970s, when France’s Perrier spent $5 million on an advertising campaign in New York, selling itself as a chic, upscale product. By 1982, U.S. consumption had doubled to 3.4 gallons per person per year.

That culture change, which privatized and commercialized an existential need, while causing ecological damage to boot, gradually reached Israel, too. So, when Israelis are wandering the streets and want a drink, they’re accustomed to buying a bottle.

“The mineral water companies have appropriated public natural resources, with the approval of the state. They invented a new business of water consumption while piggybacking on the health trend,” Halevy Bar says. “Through clever branding, companies have created demand for a natural resource that already exists in the faucet.” Moreover, they sell this free product in plastic bottles that are causing global contamination.

Even in the market for bottled water has it own internal snobbishness. The market research firm Euromonitor of the Israeli market found that increasing polarization. Premium brands such as Perrier and San Benedetto and low-cost brands such as Aqua Nova are gaining share, mid-priced brands are dropping.

“Consumers are seeking more interesting beverages, and are willing to pay for premium bottled water offering specific value,” Euromonitor said.

Infrequent fountains

Meantime, it’s hard to find a water fountain even in places such as courts, train station and government offices. Maybe it’s because there are no rules. Or they want to preserve the livelihood of the local kiosk. Malls don’t have fountains as a “courtesy” to the restaurants: The only faucets with free-flowing water are in the restrooms.

Yuval Arica, owner of faucet manufacturer Shaham-Arica, says government bodies buy between 1,000 and 2,000 water fountains a year, some for parks, most for schools, where fountains are a rule (one per every 40 pupils). In fact Arica can’t remember the last time he was asked to install a fountain in the street.

But even if they had, Halevy points to a poll showing that not a few parents forbid their kids from drinking from public water fountains. That’s how effective the bottled water companies’ campaign has been, she says.

However, while fountains have been disappearing, kicky displays featuring water spouting around have been proliferating. Decorative fountains and pools have been delighting the urban citizenry for millennia. Today there are even fountains featuring music and light shows. Another modern trend is “ecological pools,” which are an imitation of nature, featuring plants and animals that are supposed to keep the water clean, without need to pump through filters or add toxic chlorine.

Landscape architect Asif Berman describes the function of fountains and ponds in cooling down towns in arid climes. Take the Roman city in Israel, Beit She’an, where water installations the empire built for the welfare of its inhabitants were preserved.

“Water works like an air conditioner, and when the wind passes through it, it cools far-off places,” says Berman.

The latest wrinkle in facilities where water is used for amusement and play. Berman, whose office designed and designed the “Be’er Sheva beach” in the middle of the Negev desert, distinguishes these facilities from pools and fountains: “This is water that can be touched.”

The most common model is surfaces from which fresh water erupts in gushes. These facilities are so fashionable that they were recently installed in London, between Kingston Station and nearby residential and commercial buildings — a bit of a silly gesture given how much it rains there, and in Montreal schools.

Decorative fountains can cost millions of shekels, and their maintenance is costly too. Cities that sport them have to maintain special staff to take care of them.

A standard public drinking fountain costs about 4,000 shekels ($1,000.) A fancy one that cools the water first can come to as much as 15,000 shekels, plus an additional 1,000 shekels a year for maintenance.

In other words, for the price of one fancy decorative fountain, a city could install 150 regular drinking fountains. But they don’t, and when the public fountains break down, the cities often simply block them up.

Local governments really should provide their citizens with free drinking water outside, Zaum says: At the very least, water is healthier than sugary drinks. It contributes to equality and to the environment, too. He suggests installing drinking fountains next to places that rent out bicycles. Perhaps these businesses could foot the bill.