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Tap or bottle, dead or alive

In 2003, bottled water surpassed Germany’s per-capita consumption of beer. So - what’s with the tap water? PLUS: Have you been left thirsty at a Berlin restaurant? Tell the world...

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Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

NAME AND SHAME: Have you been left thirsty or empty pocketed at a Berlin restaurant or bar that refused to serve you tap water? Tell the world about it: post a comment here!

In 2003, bottled water surpassed Germany’s per-capita consumption of beer. The steady decline of the country’s national beverage can be blamed on demographic changes like the disappearance of the hard-drinking farmer – but what’s with the water? The very next year, Hotel Adlon shifted the trend into top gear when it offered an extravagant water menu of 42 international premium waters: H2O had become a matter of lifestyle, status… even taste. And, as Germans embraced the idea of paying for still water (as well as sparkling), the bottled water industry hasn’t looked back. But what about the country’s five-star tap water?

Germany’s water has an excellent reputation, and its capital is no exception. In fact, in a 2003 comparative study, Berlin tap water came first, ahead of any other major German city. Berlin tap water is extracted from groundwater pumped out of strata formed during the Ice Age.

“We have very good natural groundwater resources here,” Stephan Natz, spokesman for Berlin’s water utility company, Berliner Wasserbetriebe (BWB), says with pride, “which explains why, unlike many places, we have the luxury of not having to put chlorine in our water.”

The city’s water is extracted from underground aquifers at nine plants, the two largest being in Tegel and Friedrichshagen. The only drawbacks with the local groundwater, he says, are minor iron and manganese residues that cause a rusty ochre tint, and have what he calls a “slight blood-like taste”: “But the water here is potable right out of the ground.” It also contains many healthy natural minerals, like calcium and sodium. The one and only cleaning step is the removal of iron.

The controls are many and rigorous. More than 180 portable water checkpoints are spread out all over town, mostly at schools, crèches and hospitals. And then there are the fish! Moderlieschen (sunbleak), a small, extremely sensitive freshwater species (6-9 cm), have been entrusted with round-the-clock quality control of the water supply. Their extreme sensitivity to environmental changes and the constant scrutiny of sensors and cameras can instantly detect any abnormalities – making them a crucial monitoring tool in the face of potential contamination, such as an attempt by terrorists to poison the supply. By comparison, a lab analysis takes at least two days.

So far, local water has passed every lab test with flying colors: Berlin fulfils all EU requirements and the Trinkwasserverordnung (Drinking Water Ordinance). None of the official legal limits are even remotely approached. Alongside the fish monitors, over 2500 groundwater monitoring pipes provide continuous analysis of the water’s contents, and 180 random samples from consumers’ pipes are examined every month.

Hormones and old pipes?

No matter how well-rated Berlin’s tap water is by trust-worthy organisations, Arno Steguweit refuses to use it for anything but cooking and coffee: “I just wouldn’t wanna drink it for pleasure or taste.” The city’s premier water connoisseur and Hotel Adlon’s first and last water sommelier, once got into trouble with the BWB for publicly stating that, to him, Berlin’s water tasted of chlorine. (He should know, since many Berlin luxury hotels mix the disinfectant into their tap water to make international guests feel more at home.)

But Steguweit is also concerned about quality, citing a 2006 survey by Der Feinschmecker magazine that found residuals of antibiotics and female hormones in every single tap water sample – not enough to pose a health risk but impossible, so far, to filter out. “It’s all in the micro-range. If you drank nothing but tap water every day for 100 years, it wouldn’t add up to more than one birth control pill!” answers Stephan Natz.

Besides the imperfect filtering, Steguweit also mistrusts the water pipes: “Go ahead and take a look at one of these pipes after 20 years of constant use! We are incredibly naive about this.” Natz denies this. The only dangerous pipe materials are lead and copper, he says, and all 7889 km of public drinking water pipes are made of cement, cast iron or steel, and show no signs of wear. He calls lead pipes a “West Berlin problem from the Gründerzeit [late 19th century]”: East Berlin’s network was nearly completely destroyed in the war, and then rebuilt lead-free. An estimated 5000 to 7000 house connections are still affected, which the BWB has vowed to check and replace before 2013, when more stringent concentration limits kick in.

If you are unsure about your own apartment, ask your landlord. Otherwise, letting the water run for a bit in the morning before drinking it should make it safe. Natz points out another problem very few people are aware of: cheap mixing faucets imported from China that use brass valves instead of ceramic ones, and thus contaminate the water.

Is bottled better?

Like Steguweit, Germany as a whole prefers the bottle to the tap: there are 528 brands of mineral water here, compared to 183 in the United States, 13 in Sweden and one in Zimbabwe. And Germany’s bottled water consumption is the sixth highest in the world: some 10 billion litres (124.9 litres per person). But is bottled water better?

Labelled as “natural mineral water” (i.e. obtained from a natural mineral source), it may retain its natural mineral content, distinctive taste and therapeutic assets. But more often than not, it has been sterilized, ionised, carbonised – ‘killed’ in all kinds of ways – as well as heavily ‘electro-smogged’ on the long trip to the supermarket shelf. While big brands like Evian and Volvic squeeze out their springs to the last drop, Coca Cola’s Bonaqa is little more than fizzy tap water marketed to us in a bottle.

For Thomas Hartwig, owner of the water-purity focused webshop Leogant.de, bottled water is never the right solution. At least, he says, German tap water is by law held to a higher standard than anything you can buy in a bottle. This water autodidact and purist uses the faucet as the basis for his complex water revitalization process, which really is a lot less crazy than one could possibly make it sound in a few short lines.

According to Hartwig, filtering is essential, but not enough: substances leave their “information” in the water even after they have technically been filtered out. Water revitalization means physically imitating the natural spinning processes of groundwater by using semi-precious stones, like quartz, that restore positive energies to the water. Some people put a few rock crystals in their water jug to pull this off – or you can buy elaborate filter kits and a host of other purification gizmos.

A quest for purity

There might be a certain decadence about the privileged west’s quest for super-healthy everything. “Obviously, many developing countries would be delighted to have our kind of tap water,” Hartwig concedes. As for Natz, it is a matter of priority: “You donate to Doctors Without Borders before investing several hundred Euro in fancy equipment!”

At least there are a couple of points all three experts agree on: in Europe, we enjoy the privilege of the world’s best tap water. And we should really try to stay away from the large international bottled water corporations – and not just out of political correctness. Ultimately, whether you drink your water from the sink, a PET bottle or a crystal goblet with fairy dust sprinkled on top, whether you choose to filter, levitate, revitalize or otherwise optimize it, Berlin’s tap water is still better for you than Sprite.

Stephan Natz concludes with a sobering message: “We have to get over the idea of ‘pure’ water. There is no pure water, just as there is no pure air.”