If you live in the Seoul metropolitan area, chances are that your tap water is safe to drink. As quoted by the Office of Waterworks website, "Although an immense amount of money goes into supplying city water, irrational fears prevent many citizens from consuming it."
When I first came to Korea, there was mixed information on how safe the tap water was to drink. The good folks at Dave's suggested that because most of the locals didn't drink it, perhaps erring on the side of caution would be the wisest decision. It made sense at the time as there was no way to tell if there were heavy metals in the plumbing or adequate filtration systems at the reservoirs.
For some time here I was drinking bottled water, something that I never had to do in Australia. Curiousity eventually got the better of me and I decided to find out more information on the issue.
According to the World Health Organisation, in order for water to be safe for human consumption, it needs to pass 145 quality tests. These assess everything from turbidity and chlorine content to contaminants and viral particles. As assessed by UN representatives, Seoul city tap water has been classified as safe to drink by these standards on multiple occasions. The city council has such confidence in its water quality, that it publishes continuous monitoring data from sites around the city in real time, the first public waterworks company in the world to do so.
It has also invited scientists from the US based STL and Weck laboratories, which are professional analysis institutes. Professors and governers from across the city requested that quality checks be done across the city, from Hagye to Gupabal. Seoul city tap water has passed all tests repeatedly and the Office of Waterworks here has also acquired ISO/IEC international certification, meaning that it is a qualified research body in water purity.
But the citizens of this city are a tough crowd to convince. With an adequate Gust of Popular Feeling yet to occur, it seems that people here will be drinking bottled water for many years to come. So in an effort to encourage the taxpayers to rethink their views on tap water, the council has rebranded it as Arisu, which is the archaic word for 'big river'.
There have been a few ongoing efforts to promote it to the public. The good mayor has been on TV a few times, drinking it. The Blue House (Korea's parliament) also serve it during official meetings. I gave a speech about it at South River Toastmasters one night, for which I was lucky enough to win the best speaker award. During the speech I was holding a glass of the stuff and drank it on stage. After the speech, one of the guests said to me "Now I'm convinced that Arisu is good for us! Where can I get it?"
So why are people still so reluctant to switch from bottle to tap? There are many factors involved, but the historically recent Korean War knocked out a lot of the city's infrastructure. Since that time, the whole country has modernised rapidly, sometimes a little too rapidly for it to handle. There's also the issue of manufactured demand and misinformation perpetuated by
greedy multinationals legitimate businesses.
Many people are worried about the quality of the pipes. According to the Office of Waterworks, 98% of the outdated pipes were replaced by 2007, with the remaining being completed this year. However, the old galvanised steel pipes never posed a health hazard anyway, as lead was never used and there were no other metal contaminants that could accumulate in the body.
But if you're living in Seoul and you're still not convinced, the council has a special service for you. If you ring '120' or go to their website, you can arrange for a technician to come to your house and conduct a purity test on your own taps. They provide this service free of charge, as a part of their ongoing public awareness campaign.
The graph above is WHO data, displaying the percentage of the developing world with access to safe drinking water. You may rightly ask "Why on Earth would I want to switch from bottled/filtered water when I feel so much safer drinking it?"
The photo above shows a water carrier from India over a century ago. His job was to ferry water over great distances by filling up his leather skins and running over the arid land to those in need. If he were magically transported to today's Korea, he would probably be amazed by the technological development of the water infrastructure here.
Besides other things, like aeroplanes and instant noodles.
Besides other things, like aeroplanes and instant noodles.
But there are three major reasons for drinking tap water, which I'll summarise here:
Tap water contains fluoride, which protects your teeth from cavities. It's one of the greatest engineering feats in modern history. Water purifiers needlessly take this out, thereby increasing your chance of tooth decay.
Tap water in Seoul costs 0.5 won per litre. When you compare that with your average bottle of SamDaSoo at 1500 won, you may realise that bottled water is a mere 3000 times more expensive. 1500 won might not seem like much, but what other necessities are you willing to pay such a proportionally enormous amount more for?
Trucking bottled water around the cities is a huge burden on the environment. It is often refrigerated in the shops and also comes packaged in large amounts of non-biodegradable plastic. PET bottles can be recycled, but recycling costs energy and it's never 100% efficient.
Another thing that you may not realise is that there aren't any strict labelling requirements for water. In Australia, for example, 'Spring' water only means that a certain percentage of the contents are from a natural source. In fact, many bottled water companies don't even use the word and simply filter tap water. You can ring the companies and find out for yourself.
Some people complain about the taste of tap water, and I must admit that there is a bit of a chlorinated aroma to it. But if you let a glass sit for 20 seconds, most of this dissipates.
Anyway, please note that the above information only applies to the Seoul metropolitan area for now. I hope you'll consider the points that have been raised, and happy tap water drinking to you all...