Bottle or tap? Campaigns to drink water from the tap are gaining momentum but this positive trend carries an invisible challenge.
Drinking water pouring into glass. In many places, tap water is associated with impurity.
Companies and cities around the western world are making well-intentioned efforts to encourage people to drink water straight from the tap. The benefits of tap water, they say, far outnumber those of bottled water.
This is a positive trend, but for some people, the facts alone will not get them to change their habits. There is one thing that everyone seems to be forgetting.
But first, let’s look at what is working.
The tap water movement
According to Food & Water Watch, a non-profit organisation based in the US, drinking tap water is better because it saves energy, resources and money, and it cuts waste. The group estimates that plastic bottle production uses up to 2,000 times the energy of producing tap water, and that tap water is a thousand times cheaper than bottled water.
“When we drink tap water, we are saying yes to our municipal tap systems,” according to Food & Water Watch.
Municipalities are speaking up. Venice, Italy, made a campaign against bottled water in 2006. Mayors from neighbouring cities were featured on posters posing next to the message, “I, too, drink city water.”
“It was a big success. Attention towards wasted plastic bottles grew, as did the use of tap water,” says Andrea Razzini, chairman of Veritas, the Venetian water utility. “Citizens responded very well to the campaign, but it’s extremely difficult to address the same issues to tourists,” he says.
Copenhagen promoted Denmark’s safe drinking water in 2014 when it hosted Eurovision, the international song contest. HOFOR, Greater Copenhagen’s water utility, served free tap water from three “water bars” around the city, then repeated the campaign at a local festival last month.
HOFOR’s Dorte von Bülow confirms it was “a great success” and says the most recent event brought 20,000 visitors by the water bars. “Some wondered why we served tap water and wondered if we had done anything special to the water.”
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The tap water challenge
Companies, too, are joining the movement and I’ve been watching first-hand as a student at Grundfos, a global pump company based in Denmark. Grundfos has been promoting drinking tap water both internally and externally.
“Many of our pumps help in bringing fresh, clean water to people, regardless of where you are in the world,” says Anette Stubkjær, sponsor and event manager at Grundfos.
As a company with products that promote global sustainability, Grundfos has begun distributing tap water at its company-wide contact meetings, for instance.
In August at the Smukfest music festival in Skanderborg, Denmark, Grundfos distributed 18,000 cups of tap water over eight days to a mostly Danish clientele – and refilled a countless number of guests’ water bottles.
“Due to the warm weather, it was very appealing to get a cup of fresh, clean, cold water,” says Anette Stubkjær.
Earlier in May, Grundfos made similar efforts to promote tap water at a company-wide, global sports event, Grundfos Olympics. Employees came to headquarters in Denmark from all over the world to compete in different disciplines. The company encouraged guests to refill their bottles with tap water from special AQtap dispensers. While the dispensers caught many people’s eyes, they did not use them to refill their bottles.
“The water campaign did not work at the Olympics,” says Jesper Ravn Lorenzen, Grundfos global product manager. “In the Olympics setup, it was worsened by the fact that people could not see where the water came from.”
I grew up in Zambia, where tap water was not to be trusted
Mantra for many: do not trust tap water
And here is part of the problem that I hope to illuminate. Coming from the developing world where tap water is associated with impurity, I can understand that this Grundfos campaign did not work in a global setting.
According to the World Health Organisation, 1.8 billion people around the world use a contaminated drinking-water source. The majority of these people come from the developing world.
I am one of them. I grew up in Zambia, where tap water was not to be trusted. Even if we lived in a five-bedroom house with a big yard and running tap water, we never drank it directly from the tap. We systematically boiled water and cooled it in the fridge before quenching our thirsts. This was part of the household chores, where my siblings and I took turns boiling and cooling the water.
I remember one incident 15 years ago when I first moved to Denmark. I pulled off at a petrol station in the countryside and asked the lone attendant for a cup of water. I was horrified when he appeared with an empty cup, pointing at the tap next to the petrol tank.
“Is it clean?” I asked, cringing with horror.
He looked at me confused, and snapped, “Of course it is. Why would I give you dirty water?”
I still didn’t believe him, but thirsty as I was, I reluctantly drank it, expecting to get sick the following day.
I didn’t, and over the next several years, I learned to trust the Danish tap.
But what about the other people out there visiting or immigrating to Denmark or Europe or other places with clean municipal water? Do they need a different message? How do we gain their trust and help progress the tap water movement even further?
The taste test
I recently came across one of Europe’s tap water campaigns in Trollhättan, Sweden.
“We are proud of our water and we want to tell this to the world,” one of the people handing out tap water in bottles told me. He challenged me to take part in a blind taste of two kinds of bottled water and tap water from his city. I obliged without hesitation.
I could taste which one was the tap water – or at least I guessed correctly.
But 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have risked my health by taking part in such a test that involved drinking tap water.
I challenge everybody to remember this when you think about your next tap water campaign. The issue is not only about saving plastic bottles and CO2 footprints. Trusting the water is just as important.
So how will you do it? How will you help immigrants and visitors from risky water areas to trust the tap in your own cities? Tackle that challenge, and you will help us all take a major stride away from the bottle.
Content on this page is paid for and provided by Grundfos, sponsor of the water hub