Over the last few months we have heard of many problems associated with tap water. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “unsafe lead levels in tap water are not limited to Flint” and we have read about rocket fuel, lead and germs in tap water affecting millions of Americans. There are similar stories from other continents, both in advanced countries and in some developing economies.
To respond to the hype surrounding municipal water which is triggered by such headlines, and in standing up to the resulting fearmongering, it is time to remember how good tap water can be. A recently established ranking of the ten countries with the best tap water worldwide offers me an opportunity to do exactly that.
The ranking I refer to may not be based on rigorous scientific research; it stems from a website
owned by Valnet, a Canadian internet communication company. But it makes eminent sense to present a positive picture of the quality of tap water that exists in many parts of the world.
So, let me comment with some facts and personal observations. The top ten list, in reverse order, is as follows:
# 10 New Zealand
You may have seen the comment of Glen Nasmith in response to my last post concerning the outstanding water quality of the Blue Lake in Nelson, New Zealand. This is not just one exceptional story, water sources are well protected and strictly monitored all over the country. According to a report of the country’s Ministry of Health for 2013/14, only 1.3 percent of the population was served by inadequately monitored water.
# 9 Germany
The country has very strict rules and regulations for the quality of municipal water and it provides its citizens with full transparency about the presence of possible contaminants.
# 8 Sweden
The Scientific American Environment Index
reports that Sweden is the top performer on select water indicators with near-perfect performance for wastewater treatment, being at the forefront of technological innovation in this area. Also, the country has one of the world’s most robust,
strictly controlled water quality standards.
# 7 United Kingdom
The UK has very strict country-wide standards. As water is local, implementation of these standards is decentralized, i.e., water quality is closely checked and regulated by independent drinking water inspectorates in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who report each year. (Source: Water UK)
# 6 Italy
In Italy, decentralisation led, at one point (before 1994), to excessive fragmentation, and the safety and overall quality of the water supply suffered somewhat. But in 1994, a new law was voted in, introducing the concept of Optimal Service Areas (Ambiti territoriali ottimali, ATO). This is one of the reasons that Italy is now in the top ten list for tap water.
# 5 Austria
I am delighted that the country where I was born ranks so highly. Austria is home to pristine lakes, rivers and aquifers in the mountains, which is where much of the water for households comes from. Citizens are particularly aware of how important this natural resource is to them.
# 4 France
France provides a mixed picture. While there are apparently still some issues in rural areas
, France is also host to some of the best and most sophisticated water treatment and distribution systems in the world. France’s high overall ranking is not least thanks to the strong involvement of the private sector (about 70%
of municipal water supply in the country in 2010, before the expropriation of the Paris water supply by the mayor; strong involvement also in wastewater treatment). In this respect, let me just reiterate: I am not necessarily in favour of privatising municipal water systems; but I am in favour of good management of these systems. And if some private companies do a good [dare I say, better] job, it is, in my mind, important to recognise that, as I have done in
earlier posts about leading state-owned supply schemes.
# 3 Luxembourg
two-thirds of the drinking water (pdf, 4.5 Mb) of the Grand Duchy is extracted from underground aquifers; safety and quality are ensured via sophisticated and differentiated protection schemes applied to selected surface areas; these are particularly strict around pumping stations and very strict in the so-called 50-days-zone (pdf, 800 Kb), i.e., the zone covering the distance the water flows over 50 days as it travels in the ground towards the pumping station.
# 2 Norway
For a very long time before the country discovered oil and gas, freshwater was considered Norway’s most valuable natural resource – in the first instance, for those sailors and conquerors leaving for the North Sea, and later for its hydropower properties. Abundant rainfall – 1414 mm on average per year, far ahead of the average recorded for rainforest countries such as Ivory Coast and many others – ensures constant renewal. Water for households receives a lot of attention. And, despite a challenging geography (e.g. Norway is characterised by an average of only 100 persons per kilometre of water pipeline; in Germany, 160 persons per kilometre - pdf, 400 Kb), installed pipes are comparatively new. Half the pipeline system originated between 1971 and 2000.
# 1 Switzerland
The country where I have been living for the last 25 years. In my house in the Swiss Alps, I drink tap water with great pleasure. For me, it really is amongst the best drinking water that one can find globally from a tap. There are many reasons for this high quality: an early awareness of its’ value combined with proactive actions by the population and by [local] political actors to protect the water in its natural state, combined with an average annual precipitation of 1537
mm (even higher than Norway!) which allows for continuous natural renewal.
Let me mention one country with which I am well acquainted and which has been a topic of several of my posts, due to its’ particularly advanced and efficient municipal water supply under comparatively difficult circumstances. That country is Singapore. Singapore was, amongst others, the winner of the UN Water Best Practice Award 2014. For very good reasons, the city state features in another illustrative ranking of the top 20 countries in tap water, Singapore is a good example of that fact that good tap water is not primarily or only a matter of geography (mountains), but is first and foremost a matter of good, responsible and long-term-oriented water management for the citizens.
As ever, I welcome your comments, questions and observations.