Saturday, March 21, 2009

Korean Tap Water

Last night a car engine backfired close to my bedroom window, jostling me from my seemingly deep slumber. Nonetheless, I welcomed the unexpected wait-up call as a chance to rehydrate my body with the usual cathartic chugging of the nearest bottle of purified water. I stumbled out of bed and clumsily made my way to the fridge, peered inside, but did not see any water. I scanned my dark apartment in hopes of finding a forgotten bottle lurking under the couch. To my dismay, I saw nothing. Frustrated, I opened the cabinet, took out my favorite orange glass and filled it with tap water. As I drank, I imagined all the bacteria and pollutants flowing into my helpless body. The odor and flavor were only adding to my fears that I was drinking contaminated water, but I had to drink something. After I finished, I realized that this previously dormant distaste of tap water was a direct product of my enculturation into Korean society.

Shortly after arriving in Korea, I decided to invite a few friends over to my apartment. At some point, I stood up to get some water and, like usual, I held my cup under the tap and starting filling it up. In almost perfect unison, all of my friends instructed me to stop. They informed me that drinking tap water in Korea wasn’t safe and that I should simply go to 711 and buy bottles. From that moment on, the fear was instilled and now, three years later, I very rarely drink the stuff. And if you ask the average Korean, they will say the same.

For years, the City of Seoul has been tirelessly trying to encourage its water consumption. They’ve staged taste tests, publicized purity results and are currently sending teams of water specialists to homes around the city in hopes of calming the masses with quick, on-the-spot purity tests. All of these efforts are aimed at squelching the concerns of the citizens, but will they work?

If you ask a Seoul-ite whether or not they drink tap water, you will certainly get a ‘no’, invariably followed by a list of complaints. They’ll say the taste or smell is too strong and somewhat metallic. They’ll cite that the water comes from the polluted Han River or they might even mention that the water pipes in their home are made from copper which, of course, is toxic. All of these concerns are valid. The catch is that all of these concerns have been addressed by the Seoul government and most of them have even been solved.

During the rapid development of this nation, water quality laws were relaxed in an effort to encourage industrial development. Damaging as it might have been for the environment, this measure boosted the economy drastically, but it also created widespread sentiment (which still exists today) that the Han River is contaminated by both point and non-point pollution and therefore should not be consumed.

It makes sense and they would be right if they were drinking from the lower sections in Seoul, but they’re not. “90% of the water intake occurs at 5 upstream pumping stations and 10% takes place at the Paldang Dam.” Once that water is collected, it then goes to one of six purification stations, all of which have received international awards for efficiency and reliability.

Additionally, most Koreans are certain that their pipes are old or corroding which will certainly lead to health difficulties. However, since 1995, close to “95% of corrosive water pipes have been replaced” and the government is “working tirelessly to replace any remaining pipes”. In fact, the same teams that are going door-to-door are also armed with pamphlets encouraging citizens to install new water pipes at a governmentally subsidized price.

So, why aren’t they drinking it?

Like all people, Koreans are creatures of habit. For decades, they have understandably avoided tap water because of the hazards it presents. Yet even now, when it has been proven clean and drinkable, tap water is only used for washing and tooth-brushing. It might be the taste, the fear of contaminates or general health concerns, but I chalk it up to universal distrust of the government among Koreans.

People have written volumes on Korean distrust of government, so there is no reason (or space) to delve into that here, but I would like to offer some simple advice. If officials want citizens to start drinking the water, then they must stop relying on tests and publications and take a more proactive approach. Rather than drinking bottled water at press conferences, try slugging back a few gulps of Seoul-brand tap water. Leading by example is not a knack that politicians have mastered, but I can’t imagine anything easier than picking up a glass of water and taking a sip. And to tell the truth, it’s not even that bad. Give it a try.

*** This will be in KT next week ***

5 comments:

Harriet said...

I can not remember if we drank tap water in the hotels and such when we were there.

This problem with Korean water sounds very similar to the drinking water in Mexico.

However, I do not think Mexico has done anything about their problem. They have too many others to solve first.

dokebi said...

My parents & relatives told me that I shouldn't drink tap water in Seoul, but if I drank some by accident it wasn't a bad thing.

I don't get what they were saying.

The Clam said...

They were operating on the common assumption that Seoul water will always be dirty. It's simple habit. The water, while it might not taste great, is clean.

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Aly said...

Do you know if those purification centers take care of diseases and bacteria as well as pollutants? I would assume they do, but my recruiting agent cited cases of Hepatitis specifically as a reason not to drink tap water. I feel like it ought to be drinkable, but am too much of a chicken to try it at least for now.