Dr. Samir Hatukai, who is responsible for water purity at the Mekorot company, says that not only is our drinking water pure – it tastes good. So why shell out money for bottled water?
By Yigal Mashiah

What a lovely natural lake there is at the Hamovil Junction in the lower Galilee, and how wonderful it is that rainwater continues to fill it year after year, with perfect ecological regularity! Dr. Samir Hatukai, water quality manager of the Mekorot Water Company, is nonplussed by such rapturous sentiments. While the rain is certainly welcome, he explains, there’s nothing natural about the reservoir. It was created decades ago to collect the water from the National Water Carrier – i.e., water which is transported 35 kilometers from Lake Kinneret in the open air to the treatment plant on its banks for filtering and purification.

“In the 1950s, the idea of bringing up water from 280 meters below sea level and transporting it southward to make possible settlement in the Negev seemed like science fiction,” explains Dr. Hatukai, a water quality engineer, who specialized in human environmental studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A Circassian from Kafr Kama.

“The Eshkol Reservoir here is named for Levi Eshkol, one of the founders of Mekorot,” he says, adding that at first, the vision for the National Water Carrier was relatively modest: “People weren’t dreaming of treating the Kinneret water to make it potable and transporting it to the Negev: They dreamed about producing water that was scientifically cleansed of mud for agricultural purposes, and which would flow as far as the Negev without clogging up pipes. Plenty of people thought that was completely unrealistic, too.”

Hatukai shows a computer model of a pipe that is as twice as tall as a human being. It is impressive that water flows through such a system – and today the National Water Carrier does transport potable water, which is a huge achievement, he notes.

“Mekorot’s plant brings in water from Lake Kinneret, treats it and produces potable water for the country according to the highest quality standards in the world. Bacteria, chemicals, coliforms that cause serious illnesses – all are treated here using the most advanced methods. Our natural environment is full of bacteria, including fecal bacteria. We act as the filter.”

And anyone who fills a cup with water from the Kinneret is drinking all of this stuff, including fecal bacteria?

Hatukai: “And more. I haven’t even mentioned all the toxins and harmful substances.”

So there’s good reason to drink bottled mineral water?

Hatukai laughs. “Despite all my explanations, you’ve managed to turn everything upside down. This plant that overlooks the reservoir is among the newest and most advanced in the world. There are three more like it in the United States and one in Australia. After the purification process, you can fill up a cup of water from here and drink it.”

So you’re telling me that the whole, vast industry of bottling water is a total waste of money?

“I’m saying that the water from the National Water Carrier is completely safe for drinking.”

Our conversation takes place above a giant filtering facility at the Eshkol Reservoir. Below us, the water bubbles as in a Jacuzzi.

“When the filtered water leaves here, with everything we’ve added to it for purification – mostly chlorine – it’s not only safe, it’s quite tasty,” Hakutai says, looking as if he’s about to prove this by piercing one of the enormous pipes to pour out some water. He waxes poetic about it the way others do about wine. We walk down one floor.

“At this point, in the pipes, the water is already completely safe,” he adds with great enthusiasm, as we pass a series of monitoring devices affixed to the pipes. “Look at the monitor here: At this stage we know the exact level of murkiness, the chlorine content and all the other elements.”

His hushed tone of voice almost makes it seem like Hatukai has just divulged a state secret. Indeed, people from the Mekorot spokesperson’s office are accompanying us, careful not to make any ill-considered remarks, as if we were touring the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

It’s chilly here. Above us is the whirring filter and a tangle of giant pipes; the scene is reminiscent of a surreal set in an early 20th-century expressionist movie.

You guys go to all this trouble just to convince me to drink water from the National Water Carrier instead of bottled mineral water?

Hatukai chuckles. “Do you really think there’s competition? One big bottle of mineral water costs 500 times more than the same amount of water from the tap. For the price of a 1,000 liters of tap water, you can buy two bottles of mineral water. Where’s the competition?”

Okay, you’ve convinced me that the water that comes out of this site is totally pure and clean in accordance with all international standards. But wouldn’t you agree that a lot can happen to the water’s purity as it makes its way to the Negev, over hundreds of kilometers?

“You’re mistaken. From here the water flows south in closed pipes until it gets to the local authorities that buy the water from Mekorot. Every 30 kilometers, the water goes through another computerized inspection. If anything suspect is found, a technician is called in right away. If he confirms the suspicion, a sample is sent to Mekorot’s regional headquarters for inspection. Then I, together with the district director, can decide to immediately shut off the supply of questionable water and reroute water that has passed inspection in other places – from one of the desalination facilities, for example. That’s how it goes, all the way to the Negev. The water is under continuous inspection, every few kilometers, 24 hours a day.”

Cost wise, there’s no competition between two bottles of water and 1,000 liters from the tap, so what are you fighting against so tenaciously?

“Against a bad reputation. In the 1990s, there were a lot of articles denigrating the quality of tap water for drinking. The public gradually began to lose faith in the drinking water. Millions of television ads go on and on about the purity of bottled water. The financial damage is negligible, but public trust is affected. The implication from the ads is that other water is of inferior quality. It’s infuriating and unfair.”

Have most Israelis switched to bottled water?

“Certainly not. Surveys show that 74 percent of consumers drink tap water. The important thing to emphasize is the constant supervision of the water from the moment it leaves the Eshkol Reservoir. There is no supervision of mineral water from the moment it is bottled. There are countless potentially dangerous parameters. The plastic bottles, the manufacturing process, storage conditions. I’m sure you’re familiar with all the sales techniques: The bottles stand there in big piles in dozens of gas stations, absorbing gas fumes in the 40-degree heat. Plastic and gasoline. When did these bottles leave the factory? How long have they been standing in the heat? Who is in charge of quality control and water purity vis-a-vis the consumer? We are fully responsible for the water quality until it reaches the local authority.”

And from that point on, who is responsible for the water quality?

“The authorities. And certainly, bad things could happen to the water while it’s under their custody and until it comes out of your tap. So if you tell me the public is investing millions (in bottled water ) because of what could happen to the drinking water in the hands of the local authorities – then that could be a valid argument. But as long as it’s under our purview, it is safe and inspected all along the way.”

Do I detect criticism regarding the way the local authorities handle the drinking water?

“It must be said that, to the authorities’ credit, there has been a significant improvement in their water treatment in recent years. The reason is simple: money. It used to be that payment for water went directly to the local authorities. Typically, the municipalities’ concern for purity wasn’t at the top of the list of priorities. Funding would be allocated to other, more urgent needs, either political or budgetary. Today, since the passage of the Water and Sewage Corporation Law [of 2001], the money has to go into a designated bank account. There are more resources [allocated] for water. The situation has improved.”

Of course, I have to ask the “security” question. How many times have you heard the cliche: “One day they’ll poison the National Water Carrier and half the country”?

“I hear this from time to time. You can reassure the people of Israel: This has never happened and it will never happen. But I cannot discuss out security arrangements with you.” The people from the spokesperson’s office prick up their ears. “All I can tell you is that there is a very advanced combination of technological means and organic inspection methods. Contamination is discovered immediately. The affected section [of pipes] can be closed off without having to shut down all the rest. We hold lots of security drills, covering a variety of scenarios, not only terrorism. There are also more mundane dangers. Chemicals from agriculture could be swept into the open part of the pipeline by rain, a piece of pipe could deteriorate – there are all kinds of things. In our inspections, we use living organisms and computer technology to monitor changes in their behavior patterns.”

The spokespeople do not look pleased with this bit of information, but Hatukai continues: “Changes in the behavior of the living creatures can be monitored with the naked eye, but only at later stages, after technological mechanisms have alerted us. Above us in the reservoir there are tilapia and other kinds of fish. Each is an expert on gobbling up another type of pest, but this whole ecological system is balanced by us. As far as the notion of a threat that the water will be poisoned by terrorists, you can relax.”

I’ll ask again: Can you say with absolute certainty that up to now there has been no terrorist attempt to damage the National Water Carrier?

“There hasn’t been.”