Money-colored Water

Israelis do not like tap water. They prefer mineral water, filtered water, and soft drinks.

The Health Ministry and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem confirmed this in a study published in May. The study, which included 800 adults in four locales, found the average Israeli drinks 14 cups a day, including eight glasses of water; only one-third are regular tap water.

Other surveys have found that fewer than a third of Israelis drink straight tap water; they drink bottled mineral water (26 percent), filtered water from a cooler (18 percent), water from a filter under the sink (10 percent), mineral water from a cooler (8.9 percent), and water from a pitcher filter (3.6 percent).

Mineral water companies have reported a 300-percent increase in bottled water consumption over the past nine years. Now, Israel's per-capita mineral water consumption is 96 liters a year, beating out the United States, Greece and Saudi Arabia. Western Europeans consume more bottled mineral water, however; they have been bottling water there for hundreds of years.

Israelis' attitude toward water might teach us a thing or two about our attitude toward our surroundings, nature and government responsibility. Furthermore, the bottled water trend shows us how great an influence brand names have on our lives.

Let's look at the case involving the Golan Heights spring Salukiya. In February, the Health Ministry ordered Mei Eden to stop selling water from the spring because of contamination. Neviot, which draws water from the Ein Zahav spring in the Upper Galilee, was also ordered to halt distribution for similar reasons. For several weeks the two companies saw sharp decreases in sales. But now that summer is approaching, sales have rebounded, as customers return to their routines.

Meanwhile, due to the contamination, the dropping ground water level and sediment caused by rain, the Health Ministry made Mei Eden and Neviot install filters against bacteria inside their springs, some distance from the bottling plants.

Filtering the spring would appear to challenge the water's classification as "mineral water." Israeli regulations state that mineral water must be bottled straight from the spring, "without an interim stop or passing through any other system." According to the stricter European standards, mineral water may not be treated as is done at Mei Eden and Neviot. However, the Health Ministry decided to interpret the regulations leniently, and did not insist the companies relabel their products.

Moreover, because spring water is exposed to contamination, the authorities decided to give Mei Eden and Neviot permits to drill for the water and to pump directly from the ground. (The long legislative process has just begun.) The Health Ministry decided that in the meantime, the filtering is ensuring that the water does not endanger the public health, and the failure to meet standards is no reason to close the plants and fire the workers.

All of this - bottled spring water needs a filter to ensure potability, and it will soon be nothing more than groundwater, like most of Israel's tap water - should have damaged mineral water's charmed reputation, or at least have aroused a public debate: Who owns Israel's water?

The Water Law stipulates that water sources are a public asset, and that all citizens have a right to them.

Last September the Water Authority responded to this question, in response to a High Court petition filed by the non-profit Association for Distributive Justice. The Water Authority stated that the water companies have the same rights to spring water as private individuals and factories.

And so it transpires that the water companies do not pay the state for the right to sell our spring water, even when they export it. Water Authority spokesman Uri Shor says that like other factories, mineral water companies pay less per unit of water than households. The companies would be hard-pressed to come up with a better deal.

Shor says he drinks tap water, and that he believes mineral water is unnecessary. "At the supermarket in Katzrin you see people walking out with six-packs of Mei Eden, even though that's the same water coming out of their taps. That's the strange power of the trend," he says. It's like selling ice to Eskimos, with a bit of chlorine as required by law.

Shalom Goldberger, the chief engineer for environmental health at the Health Ministry, says he also drinks tap water because he knows it's safe and nutritious. However, Israel's potable water reservoirs are in a terrible state. Most of the water in the coastal aquifer, which serves the Dan region, meets standards, but contamination in the greater Tel Aviv area is spreading due to gas stations, pesticides and factories.

Goldberger warns that it is important to halt the contamination, but adds that water that reaches our faucets has been treated. Springs are occasionally shut due to contamination, or the public is told to boil its drinking water, but these cases are infrequent (91 of Israel's 1,036 water sources were closed in 2006 and 2007. The water sources comprise 990 wells, 26 springs, and 20 surface sources.) Since springs also may be contaminated, the public is no worse off with tap water.

Since Lake Kinneret is dangerously low, most of Israel's water is ground water. Because it is constantly threatened by contamination, saltwater and dwindling supply, there is not enough for all. That is why three years ago the Water Authority began desalinating sea water in Ashkelon and Palmahim; it is opening a plant in Hadera, too. Now, 20 percent of tap water is desalinated, and the rate will only be increasing, Goldberger says.

The Health Ministry survey of drinking habits was designed to check whether the desalinated water needs to be supplemented with calcium and magnesium. Nutrition experts usually agree that ground water with a bit of chlorine and fluoride is as good as, if not better than, mineral and filtered water, which lack some vital ingredients.

However, the state is having difficulties convincing the public. The bottling and filtering companies claim their water is better and cleaner, and spend quite a bit on advertising. Mei Eden published a "kit" encouraging children to drink water, including a brochure describing the water-related adventures of six friends (the "six-pack"), led by a girl called Eden. The company's spokeswoman proudly boasts that the brochure "has been distributed to 3,000 kindergartens, in full cooperation with the Education Ministry." (The ministry said it is careful not to allow corporate brands into educational programs.)

By the way, there is currently a movement against adding fluoride to tap water. An American book, "The Fluoride Deception" by Christopher Bryson, has been published in Hebrew. In the introduction to the Hebrew edition, Israeli activists argue that the state, under pressure from fluoride plants, poison wells under the pretext of dental hygiene. (The Health Ministry responded that fluoridation prevents cavities and does not harm people or the environment.)

Meanwhile, the bottling and the filter companies are fighting: Filters may breed germs. Mineral water lacks vital minerals. Both claim their product is cheaper, and lower prices.

Those who choose to avoid this cycle of consumption drink tap water and look on with sadness.