|A child drinks from an Arisu fountain in front of City Hall / Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government|
By Lee Suh-yoon
Despite the popular misgivings, Seoul's tap water may be healthier — and tastier — than bottled water.
Commonly referred to as Arisu, the Han River's old name dating back to the Goguryeo Dynasty, Seoul's tap water is meticulously filtered through one of six treatment plants along the Han River. Scientists constantly monitor the water quality for 170 variables, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends.
In a 2013 report by the National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER), the risk of bacterial growth was lowest in tap water. On the other hand, water that passed through household purifiers or was left inside opened bottles carried bacteria.
Tap water is also just as healthy as bottled spring water in terms of mineral content. The same NIER study showed that mineral content between the two was similar. Purified water, however, had almost zero mineral content.
Despite the scientific evidence, Koreans have not embraced tap water. Most households buy two-liter water bottles in bulk or install a purifier in their homes.
Many are put off by the smell and taste of chlorine in the tap water and consider odorless water to be cleaner. To tackle this psychological barrier, the city government spent 528.5 billion won ($472 million) on upgrades to all treatment centers in 2015, aimed specifically at improving the smell of tap water.
"By using ozone to disinfect the water, we lowered the amount of chlorine added to about one-third," said Oh Hyuk-joon, a PR official at the Office of Waterworks in the city government. "We wanted to break down the public perception of smelly tap water."
The new filtering technology also includes carbon chunks that can filter out other odor particles from the river.
|New rust-proof water pipes being installed under Seoul. / Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government.|
Public distrust in tap water runs deep, partly due to past incidents like the 1991 Nakdong River phenol contamination incident. City officials hope the new upgrades will slowly ease the population into drinking tap water.
And the investment seems to be paying off. A recent blind test of Seoul's tap water with two bottled water brands showed people could not differentiate by taste.
Another concern is old pipelines that could dissolve rust and lead into the water. To keep the water flowing clear, the city government has been switching the city's water pipes to new stainless steel ones since 1984. As of 2017, over 98 percent of the city's 13,366-kilimeter water pipe network had been upgraded this way.
But water pipes inside houses or apartments are another issue because it is up to the homeowners whether to change them. Starting in 2007, the city government offered to subsidize up to 2.5 million won ($2234) of the pipe-switching costs for homes built before 1994. By 2017, 61 percent, or 349,273 targeted households, had switched their pipes.
Those who still fear contamination can take extra precautions by leaving the tap open for 30 seconds before use, thus flushing out water that has been sitting in the pipes. Only cold water should be used for drinking because hot water may pass through rusted boiler tanks, authorities say.
Drinking tap water can also significantly reduce bills. Assuming each person drinks one liter a day, a four-person household will pay only 854 won ($0.7) a year for drinking water if they use the tap. The same family that drinks bottled water will spend 682,500 won ($610) a year.