A new survey from QSupplies has used Environmental Performance Index (EPI) and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data to flag the countries where it is and isn’t safe to drink tap water. While an interesting survey, water experts have been quick to question its methodology, which they claim oversimplifies a complicated matter.
The company sourced each country's EPI score directly from Yale University's Environmental Performance Index, in which higher scores indicate safer drinking water, and created a data visualisation representing these scores by size. Ten countries had the maximum 100 EPI score for water in the survey.
All based in Europe, these included: Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Ireland, Austria, Iceland, Netherlands, Greece, Malta and the UK. However, the European countries of Albania and Moldova achieved barely half of this, scoring 50.3 and 50.8 respectively. The 24 countries with the lowest EPI rating were all in Africa.
Is EPI data reliable?
Water industry experts have weighed in on the validity of EPI data in calculating where it is and isn’t safe to drink tap water.
Speaking to Aquatech Online, Tertius Rust, head of AMI and digital transformation at the City of Cape Town, says: “I appreciate this study looks at the impact of poor water quality, yet in few key areas the number of events can have a massive outcome on your EPI Score which some might argue is not a accurate representation of the total water supplied or even the number of people that have drinking water. In short, I don't like this graph but it does start a good conversation.”
Mark VM Wong, 2nd senior assistant director at PUB, Singapore's National Water Agency adds: “I believe the survey calculated off diarrhoeal disease burden per capita. Which to me doesn't fully represent drinking water quality. It completely ignores water impaired by non-microbial contaminants and it does not fully explain how they separate the amount of diarrhoeal diseases arising from drinking tap water versus other sources like food etc.”
Other experts have noted the failure to include PFAS contamination in the study.
“I don’t like this graph but it does start a good conversation.”
Should the survey, in fact, focus on water security? Will Sarni, Founder and CEO of Water Foundry adds: “I believe we should be focused on a lack of water security and not the ranking of unsafe water. The work of Sera Young from Northwestern University gets to the heart of the issue on how to better align the lack of equitable access to safe drinking water to investment. The ranking of most and least safe drinking water, while interesting, is not actionable and not surprising.”
A 2022 study, with anthropologist Professor Sera Young as the lead primary investigator, relied on data from a 12-question survey developed by Gallup World Poll. The poll examined problems with water availability, access, use and stability for 45,555 adults across 31 low- and middle-income countries. Collaborators on the study developed the Individual Water Insecurity Experiences scale to measure individual water insecurity.
The Water Insecurity Experiences scale, the foundation of the IWISE scale, evaluates whether a household has enough water to meet all its needs, such as drinking and hand-washing. The survey gives a clear idea of what people are actually experiencing given their water supply.
“I believe we should be focused on a lack of water security and not the ranking of unsafe water.” - Will Sarni, Founder and CEO of Water Foundry
The safest drinking water in the world
Aquatech spoke to water innovation expert Paul O’Callaghan from BlueTech Research on which countries he believes have the safest drinking water and why.
“The safest water in the world may be Orange County Water District (OCWD) California,” he says.
“I borrow from the words of Professor Shane Snyder, who says, if you are worried about what is in your water, assume everything. And go from there.
“OCWD has a multi-barrier approach in place for water reuse. This means that in terms of confidence in water safety, their water reuse plant produces some of the safest water in the world.”
O’Callaghan says there are very few chemicals regulated compared to all of the chemicals out there. “No water utility will tell you the water is safe. They will say that it's compliant with the regulations, but that does not mean it is entirely safe,” he says.
“If you are worried about what is in your water, assume everything. And go from there.”“A famous Dutch water professor likens drinking tap water with low levels of chemicals in it like PFAS or THMs, to smoking. It may not kill you today, but over a lifetime it will increase the risk of a negative health effect if its contains chemicals like THMs, and DBP’s
“‘Safe’ implies reduced harm, or no risk of harm. I am looking for water that is good for me, that is good for my body. That is what we should be striving for, not just safe. Given that a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, maybe it seems tone deaf to be thinking of healthy waters, but it's all part of raising our awareness of water quality,” he concludes.
Europe’s drinking waterThe survey found Europe to have some of the safest drinking water in the world. Speaking to Aquatech Online, Professor Jacob Tomkins OBE, Founder of The Water Retail Company says: “Europe has the best and safest tap water in the world. The main reason is the Drinking Water Directive which is the most comprehensive piece of drinking water quality protection legislation in the world, there is also a newly introduced watch list which considers emerging pollutants, such as PFAS and nano-plastics.
“The UK, Switzerland, Greenland and other non-EU states in Europe shadow or replicate the Drinking Water Directive provisions. The Directive ensures constant compliance monitoring,” he adds.
“In addition European countries have almost universal mains water coverage (apart from some remote areas where drinking water quality from local supplies is governed by municipalities and again reflects the Drinking Water Directive).
“European countries also have some of the world's most advanced treatment technologies. Countries like Austria and Switzerland use Alpine meltwater which is pure enough not to require treatment. When I was the secretary of the Drinking Water Division of Eureau there were annual drinking water competitions and Austria always came top.”
Israel, US and Japan, also received high scores in the survey, achieving 93.8, 89.3 and 91.7 respectively.
“Outside Europe countries like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have high quality tap water as do some of the Gulf states, Australia and New Zealand. This is because of a combination of legislation, monitoring, treatment, and network maintenance,” adds Professor Tomkins.
Unsafe drinking water
In some of the mid-ranking countries for drinking water there was a wide variation in water quality outlined in the survey.
Professor Tomkins says: “In North Americas there is high quality drinking water in cities (perhaps with some exceptions like Detroit and New Orleans), but in rural and semi-urban areas there is a wide variation in water quality. Under investment in infrastructure, particularly in the USA and lack of expertise and monitoring means that rural and small town water supplies can be unfit to drink, for example the tragic case of Walkerton in Canada and Flint in the USA. There are also major lead problems with non-mains pipes and internal plumbing in the USA.”
And many parts of the world do not have municipal tap water and rely on untreated surface or groundwater. Parts of rural Africa and Asia use highly polluted surface water for drinking and often the population cannot afford to boil or purify this water. Groundwater is generally safer, but in parts of India groundwater is high in Arsenic.
The situation in South and Central America is similar with water in most cities being of a reasonable quality, but small town, peri-urban informal settlements, and rural supplies have low quality supplies in many cases. This is aggravated by water theft which means people tap into the mains introducing contamination. Likewise interruptions in supply and variable mains pressure allows ingress of contamination across networks.
In Africa, where all the countries with the lowest EPI are based, the continent has the largest range of water quality. Many areas have no mains supply and alternative sources are contaminated. But at the same time water kiosks and mobile top-up metres are rapidly providing higher quality water to peri-urban and semi-rural areas.
“Africa has some excellent water companies with high quality monitoring and treatment.”“Africa has some excellent water companies with high quality monitoring and treatment, meaning that some of the big cities particularly in the Maghreb region have high quality supplies (such as Algiers, Rabat etec),” says Professor Tomkins. “Likewise countries like Botswana are rolling out treated water to the urban poor and rural areas through community engagement whereby the water company builds the treatment asset and the community builds and maintains the network,” he adds.
Prof. D.A. (Dragan) Savic, FREng CEO of KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands says water is poorly managed in the lowest-ranked countries.
“In addition to the lack of resources both financial and human for infrastructure development, water is often poorly managed because of a lack of good governance structures. Due to its nature (e.g., human right and literally “falling from the sky”) it is undervalued and underpriced when supplied centrally, while it is overpriced when supplied by private providers, thus excluding large parts of the population,” he says.
Financing the world’s water problems
The World Bank contributes large amounts of finance for the development of water and sanitation systems in developing countries. However, are these funds being directed towards the areas most in need?
According to a report published by the World Resources Institute (WRI), out of the 32 countries receiving the most water-related finance from the World Bank, only 11 had high or extremely high water stress levels. Water stress occurs when the demand for water surpasses the water resources available. This means that the remaining 21 countries did not have a high demand for water despite receiving funds from the World Bank.
One could argue that the World Bank's finance is driven towards geopolitical goals and advancing economic development, leaving waters distressed countries behind. The report from WRI does highlight that some countries that are of strategic importance, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, receive significant assistance for water despite having low water stress levels. Another factor is the drive towards large projects that might focus on water infrastructure like dams, which may provide less impact to those directly experiencing water scarcity.
“There is no doubt that access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right that everyone deserves.”However, it's essential to take into account that the countries receiving the most significant amount of funds might not necessarily have the worst water quality. The World Bank prioritises funding water infrastructure for the greatest number of people within a specific country, regardless of the severity of the water crisis. In some countries, the water crisis might be severe but only affect a small number of the population, while in other countries, millions of people are suffering due to severe water scarcity.
“There are huge sums being invested in Africa and Asia by the World Bank which are targeted at areas with low water quality,” adds Professor Tomkins.
“In recent years the Bank has moved away from huge set-piece investments in large-scale infrastructure towards projects that engender collaboration between governments, business and civil society, and are also focussed on empowering and engaging women particularly in relation to WASH programmes. In addition, home-grown initiatives using technology and community engagement are also delivering affordable high quality water on a large scale.”
Prof. D.A. (Dragan) Savic adds: “The importance of the World Bank (and other development banks) in the water crisis is huge as there is a lack of diversity of funding for less developed countries. For example, public-private partnerships are less prominent and innovative financing mechanisms are not well developed.”
There is no doubt that access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right that everyone deserves. Many countries are investing heavily in ensuring that their citizens have clean and safe water to drink. Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland are among the countries that have consistently ranked high when it comes to safe drinking water.
The success of these countries can be attributed to their strong policies and regulations, regular inspections, advanced treatment technologies, and strong enforcement to protect the water sources, while developing countries are particularly vulnerable to unsafe drinking water due to factors such as inadequate infrastructure, poor sanitation, and pollution.
As businesses, we have a responsibility to do our part in helping to provide access to safe drinking water wherever possible. This can be done through initiatives such as supporting water infrastructure projects in developing countries or implementing sustainable water practices in our own operations. Together, we can help ensure that everyone around the world has access to clean and safe drinking water.