A cursory glance when you set foot in most stores, restaurants and even apartments in the UAE makes it appear like bottled water is the norm here – more than a dozen brands are available to buy and they're the go-to when it comes to convenience. However, dive a little deeper and you'll realise things are more fluid than they seem.
Contrary to popular belief, tap water in the UAE is perfectly safe, according to the Conformity Affairs Department at the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology.
"If the unbottled drinking water complies with the UAE's GSO 149 [GCC Standardisation Organisation], it is suitable for human consumption," Yousef Al Saadi, director of Esma and the first UAE-certified food scientist, tells The National. "Constant monitoring by taking samples for laboratory testing is needed to ensure continuous compliance with standards," he adds.
Is the UAE tap water safe to drink?
In the UAE, seawater is treated by desalination – a distillation process that removes impurities – before it flows out through your taps. The composition of tap water has been controlled to be compliant with the International Standards for Drinking Water from the World Health Organisation. The water is, therefore, safe to drink when it comes out of the water treatment plant, says the team at Culligan, a water treatment solutions organisation with more than 20 years of experience in the Middle East.
However, there are a number of reasons why most UAE residents don't sip directly from the tap. "Unfiltered water or tap water, which was perfectly drinkable when it left the treatment plant, will go through tanks between there and the point of use, which may render it unsuitable for drinking. There may be contamination by bacteria and soluble or insoluble chemical impurities, such as iron, which will discolour it and give it a metallic taste. It may also contain chlorine, which gives water an unpleasant taste," says Marco Seghi, director at Culligan Middle East.
These risks are more likely to arise when pipes or water tanks have not been cleaned properly. It’s why most municipalities recommend water tanks be cleaned at least once a year, if not every six months. If tap water is not clear, has residue, or tastes or smells bad, then it is recommended residents have it tested by an accredited water laboratory or contact a water treatment company.
Boiling tap water is considered by many as a method of purifying their drinking supply. While it offers certain benefits, there are other factors to consider. "Boiling water can kill germs and micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses that cause diseases. However, people should note that things like lead, nitrates and pesticides are not affected," says Dr Ayesha Khalid, a family medicine consultant at Burjeel hospital.
That tap water is also qualified as "hard" water is another common concern, says Seghi, who often gets asked by clients whether it is ingestible. "The concentration of certain minerals is what creates the hardness of water. Hard water contains dissolved minerals such as calcium and magnesium, while soft water is treated water in which the only ion is sodium," explains Khalid. While it might be assumed that this makes hard water undrinkable, Khalid believes it does not cause adverse health problems.
"There's a common myth that consumption of hard water leads to kidney stones because of the content of calcium. But studies have shown no association between water hardness and urinary stone formation. It is the quantity of water consumed, and not the quality, that matters most in the occurrence of kidney stores," she says.
Filtered tap water
For those not comfortable drinking straight from the tap, there are a number of filtration systems on the market. “Filtered water treats tap water to remove any impurities, making it safe to drink,” says Seghi. “These processes can include physical filtration to make the water free from bacteria, and chemical filtration such as [by using] activated carbon to remove chlorine, colour and odour. Finally, the water may be treated with ultraviolet light before the point of use to make if safe and hygienic.”
There are several reasons why some UAE residents opt for water filtration systems over tap water – and sometimes even above bottled water. Amanda Tomlinson made the switch when a friend mentioned its benefits to the environment. But she has since come to discover there are other advantages associated with installing a water filtration system in her home.
"I drink a lot of water and we were just going through plastic bottles," she says. "This way, you don't have rubbish building up inside your house. You also don't have to worry about running out of water in the middle of the night. Finally, it's not just good for the environment, but also for health. You see plastic bottles sitting out in the summer heat and you don't really know what it's leaching into the water."
While Tomlinson switched six years ago, she says she’s observed that filtered water is now gaining ground. It’s a sentiment echoed by Carol Fraser, managing director of No More Bottles, which offers filtration as an alternative to bottled water. Fraser started the company in 2017 when she and her business partner noticed a growing trend in North America and Europe that opts for filtration systems over bottled water dispensers. “Previously, this has been for convenience and cost-saving reasons,” she says. “But in recent years, more awareness about pollution and possible health concerns regarding consuming water from plastic bottles is [fuelling] the trend.”
To keep up with the growing demand for filtered water, several restaurants in the UAE are gradually making the shift towards the trend. Restaurateur Emma Sawko says: "At Wild & the Moon, we became popular for our infused waters and nut milks, both of which are made using filtered water. At Comptoir 102, we serve filtered water on demand and guests love it."
Bigger restaurant chains and hospitality groups are also looking at more ethical options. Dubai-born Sarood Hospitality, for instance, offers refills in reusable bottles. It also plans to roll out house water filtration systems next year across all its restaurants, which include The Noodle House, The Duck Hook, Hillhouse Brasserie, Khaymat Al Bahar and Flow.
Khalid says those opting for such water still need to be cautious and concentrate on the process of filtration as “filtered water may have impurities, too, especially if the filter is not changed regularly”.
Bottled water, then, is still a popular option for the majority of UAE residents, with 500ml bottles of most brands available in grocery stores for between Dh1 and Dh2. Many consider it purer and free from the impurities that can come from water pipes. Some brands also boast about having extra nutrients in the water, but Khalid says “if we are consuming a healthy, balanced diet, there is no additional benefit of these minerals”.
Seghi adds another caveat. "In the UAE, bottled water, if not coming directly from a natural spring, is often municipal water that has been treated. You could say that filtered tap water and bottled water are, in fact, the same, but different factors impact the composition and quality type."
These factors include contaminants found in pipes or water tanks. However, there are also increasing concerns globally about health risks associated with drinking bottled water. “Many bottles contain a synthetic chemical called bisphenol A [BPA], which has been linked to health issues,” says Fraser. “Meanwhile, sometimes water dispensers are not properly sanitised at regular intervals, leaving them a breeding ground for bacteria.”
Most worrisome of all is the deluge of plastic waste that such water brings with it. Those looking for the convenience of bottled water while being mindful of the environment could opt for reusable or glass bottles, with the latter being offered by Acqua Panna, Evian, Al Ain and Mai Dubai. As Dubai resident Sudarshana Rathore puts it: “They may cost a little more, but they’re better for the environment in the long run – and you don’t have to worry when they’ve been out in the sun all day.”
With more establishments and households now opening up to eco-friendly solutions, 2020 could well bring us closer to ditching water bottled in plastic. And that's something we can all raise a glass to.
A version of this story was first published on November 25, 2019