After monitoring nearly 200,000 people in Israel, researchers found that those who drink desalinated water showed an increased risk of heart disease.
Israel has recently planned to build two desalination plants to fight droughts that have left the country with the lowest water levels in a century.
Located in the tumultuous West Asia, Israel has limited arable land and scare freshwater resources in the southern desert regions. As rainfall in Israel occurs only in the winter, and largely in the northern part of the country, irrigation and water engineering are considered vital to the country's economic survival and growth.
Beginning in the 1930s and codified by the forward-looking 1959 Israel Water Law, all of the water found in Israel is common property. Israel has since been at the vanguard of water conservation and desalination projects, hosting the largest desalination plants in the world with the cheapest reverse osmosis (RO) treatment facilities. Desalination is a process where contaminants, salt, lime and other particles are removed from sea water, usually through the reverse osmosis method.
The main water resource project for the transfer of water from the Sea of Galilee to the coast through the National Water Carrier was initiated in 1965. As a reaction to the construction of the pipeline, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan tried to divert the tributaries of the Jordan River. The move increased tensions leading to the Six-Day War of 1967 during which Israel captured the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
The water resources of Palestine are fully controlled by Israel and the division of groundwater is subject to provisions in the Oslo II Accord. As of January 2014, there were 18 desalination plants in the Gaza strip, 13 operated by UNICEF, which provided drinking water for free to 95,000 people. However, the Gaza War and the blockade of the Gaza strip has caused severe damage to the infrastructure and supply of replacement parts. Nearly half the water to be delivered to the Palestinian territories is lost in the distribution network.
The researchers examined 178,000 members of Clalit Health Services in two groups. One group included two areas in the country that have received desalinated water for 6 years. The second would be a control group in an area that receives only natural water. The study found that in the areas with desalinated water there was a 6% to 10% increase in heart disease compared to the area that received natural water.
Professor Yona Amitai of Bar-Ilan University said the number is statistically significant and can be traced back to a failure to add magnesium to the desalinated liquid. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning that the desalination process removes essential minerals, such as magnesium. They recommended that magnesium be added artificially. Although the proposal for introducing magnesium has been raised in the past, the Israeli Water Authority and Health Ministry have failed to agree on a plan for implementation.
In another study conducted on pregnant female rats, it was found that drinking desalinated seawater for a long time may cause teratogenic effects in the development of new-born rats.
“The water in Israel, including the desalinated water, is a very good quality, and meets the most stringent requirements of the drinking water regulations,” the Water Authority stated. “The Health Ministry is authorized to decide if magnesium should be added to the diet of Israeli citizens.”
The water ministry had announced a plan in April to build two more desalination plants to reinforce the five built along the Mediterranean coast over the past 13 years. It is estimated to cost over $400 million. They also planned to expand the country’s water grid, cut back on pumping from natural springs to rehabilitate rivers that have dried up, and possibly pump large amounts of water into the ailing Sea of Galilee that is Israel’s main freshwater source.
Desalination is also an energy-intensive process which is particularly cumbersome for the Palestinian territories. On the other hand it is very cheap for Israelis to buy desalinated water as the Sorek treatment plant can produce a thousand liters of drinking water for 58 cents. Israeli households pay about $30 a month for their water, far lesser than Las Vegas $47 or Los Angeles $58.
Our assessment is that it is pragmatic and cost-effective for arid desert region of Israel to artificially add nutrients during the desalination process. We believe that necessary legislative measures should be implemented carefully which also takes the Palestinian territories into account.