The ten countries with the best tap water in the world

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

18 April 2016 See comments (5)

tap water

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.

  1. Roger Patrick - President @ Competitive Advantage Consulting

    23 Apr 2016 - 00:05 (GMT)

    Dear Peter,

    Wonderful to have a positive water story. Indeed it is a characteristic, I have always thought, of a first-world lifestyle that the tap water is safe and a pleasure to drink. There are similar contests in the U.S. on the best tap water in the country, and perhaps with greater publicity this could be a driving force for improvement and the public's willingness to pay. On the other hand, bottled water is a necessity in many not so fortunate countries as the water has to be safe every day, not just a future plan. This is I think a public education problem, as all but the poorest countries have the capacity to provide safe drinking water as long as the public sees the value.

    Some of the management practices you mention stand out for me:
    - the optimal service territory concept from Italy. Excessive fragmentation is a problem in the U.S. for example, where most of the water quality problems are in small systems. I imagine there are some interesting discussions in Italy on the meaning of "optimal", which in fact is an opportunity for positive debate on every aspect of water cycle management
    - the 50 day zone rule from Luxembourg is elegant in its simplicity
    - the importance of having well run systems, and being open-minded about public vs private management rather than taking an ideological stance on what is a matter-of-fact issue
    - the importance of citizen awareness on the value of protecting water resources. This is a result of conscious effort by society, not an accident

    One final comment: do you think rather than shut down the blog that someone else could inherit it? Of course it could not be the same but it has momentum, and perhaps could have a second life.

    Best wishes

    Roger


  2. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe - Chairman @ Nestle

    03 May 2016 - 09:05 (GMT)

    @ Roger Patrick

    Dear Roger,

    Thanks for the comment – particularly for your last point. The momentum of the blog was very much also an outcome of your always highly constructive comments, and also the comments and questions from a large number of my other readers.

    In the present form and content, this blog has been a very personal undertaking. But you can be sure that water will remain very high on the agenda of Nestlé and will continue to appear very prominently in the communication of the company and its leaders in the years to come.

    Best regards, Peter


  3. Teresa Waples - Production Supervisor @ Purina Pet Care

    03 May 2016 - 20:03 (GMT)

    I am very proud to work for a company that is always looking for ways to responsibly interact with our environment. The directives and objectives are all about conservation and leaving our communities better than we found it. I would like to see this blog continue to we can all share ideas and best practices. Nestle as a company is an honorable corporate citizen.


  4. tano wilfried - stagaire @ cogelec

    02 Aug 2016 - 21:47 (GMT)

    J'aimerais que ce genre d'entreprise s'investisse aussi pour la bonne qualité de l'eau en afrique


  5. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe - Chairman @ Nestle

    08 Sep 2016 - 08:31 (GMT)

    Dear Tano,

    Thanks for the comment. There are things going on in the direction you suggest; please take a look at some of my other posts here. Most importantly, have a look what poor countries such as Cambodia have been able to do themselves; the fascinating story of Ek Sonn Chan, head of the Phnom Penh water authority. (You may find more on him in https://www.water-challenge.com/csv/water/water-challenge/posts/leakage-and-water-management- ).

    Regards, Peter

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