Myth One: Don’t drink the water if you’re in The Canaries!
Not drinking tap water in The Canaries causes an enormous amount of plastic pollution. Quite apart from the plastic, most is shipped here from Spain, which means it has an enormous carbon footprint. It’s also much more expensive than drinking tap water. It may contain microplastics and even toxic microbes (regulations for tap water are far stricter than for bottled water). If you don’t have a car, you may have to lug 10 litre containers uphill to your apartment. So why do so few people (less than 30 percent of Canarians, and about as many tourists as you can count on one hand) drink it? Well, I decided to do a little research …
Firstly, when I decided to write about drinking water here, it was because I am really concerned about plastic pollution. I’m a winter visitor, and I flew here — I’m not trying to take the moral high ground! But I’m also an environmental philosopher and a yoga teacher and I write books about the ecological emergency, so this really matters to me.
Myth Two: You Can’t Talk, Hypocrite!
One of the first objections someone might have to my writing about plastic pollution is that I’ve just contributed to carbon emissions hugely by flying. My answer to that is that for many years, I didn’t fly, but my current circumstances now mean that’s not possible. Sometimes we have to balance one thing against another, and in my case, that’s my relationship against my desire not to fly. We don’t have a huge income so we can’t (yet) choose to take the slower, more expensive options overland and sea.
My second answer is that we are all, whether we like it or not, enmeshed in a global situation that includes climate change, biodiversity loss, human rights abuses, deforestation, and annihilation of ecosystems (this is what I mean by ‘the ecological emergency’). We are none of us outside the system, however much some people would like you to think they are. That means that we are all, to some degree, hypocrites. Knowing that is no excuse for doing nothing, though. It is a reason to be humble, and do whatever each of us can. We can all do something to act more responsibly, and by sharing what we are doing, and what our challenges are, we can connect with, discuss with, and even help each other to think about possible solutions.
Myth Three: You need a reverse osmosis filter!
There are lots of things I’d like to change about the way we as tourists contribute to the local economy. I would love to believe that tourism could be sustainable. I’m not convinced, but The Canaries are particularly dependent on tourism, so for now we have to look for ways to support positive changes.
One thing we all have in common is that we all drink water (in some form!) and the first and most striking thing about coming to The Canaries from Ireland is that without exception, all of the water supplied for drinking in bars and restaurants is supplied in bottles, the vast majority of which are plastic. The vast majority of people here use bottled water for drinking, unless they have a filter at home, something that costs in the order of €150 (there are cheaper options, and I will come to those. There are also much more expensive ones).
Myth Four: recycling will do the trick!
What happens to all this plastic waste? In January 2021, a video was circulating on Twitter of the landscape of northern Lanzarote, literally covered in plastic. The top had blown off a landfill site in what had once been sacred lands. It was horrifying and tragic. https://www.canarianweekly.com/posts/why-rained-plastics-lanzarote.
Even if you recycle the plastic containers in which most water is supplied, The Canaries cannot cope with the sheer quantity of plastic. Much of it does not get recycled. It ends up going to landfills. And of course landfill plastic is only the tip of the iceberg. Infuriating as it may seem, there are still far too many people who simply don’t care where their waste ends up and much of this finds its way into the sea. Unscrupulous businesses, careless tourists, and the occasional corrupt official all contribute to this route. We now know that there are currently five huge plastic vortexes, each the size of Spain and Germany combined, currently circulating in the oceans.(Plastic islands — Iberdrola) They destroy marine life, exacerbate climate change, and ultimately create health hazards for all creatures, including us.
Myth Five: there’s no alternative!
So what’s the alternative? Do I need a filter? What kind?
When I asked that question on Facebook, there was a definite sense of concern about using plastics. And rightly so. The most common answer among those who live or spend long periods here was, get a filter! So I did some investigation into filters. A few companies supply water filters for around €150, which is fine if you live here (although in my book, it’s a lot of money) but it’s definitely not likely to appeal to a family coming here for a couple of weeks. Some people use filter jugs, which are cheaper, but still use filters which are non recyclable. And they cost considerably more than 89c for eight litres, the current cost of a plastic container of water in Lidl.
Most filters of the kind supplied by local companies and plumbers use a process called reverse osmosis. This effectively produces something purer than distilled water. In other words, it’s very pure.
The tap water in the Canaries is predominantly produced through desalination — and — REVERSE OSMOSIS. In other words, why would you buy a filter to filter a product that has already been filtered?
Something fishy is going on.
The second alternative was that some complexes have a water container that you could fill up for 10c a litre. Again, this sounds great — until you realise that, depending on the scheme, this is just bottled or filtered water by another name.
Someone is making a lot of money here.
Myth Six: You can’t drink the tap water in The Canaries!
The third alternative is staring us all in the face. The water in The Canaries is …. Drumroll … the third best quality water in all of Spain! (https://tappwater.co/en/tap-water-canary-islands-water-filter/). In fact, Canarian government officials are BEGGING people to drink the water: https://www.tenerifenews.com/2019/11/adeje-pleads-drink-our-tap-water/
So I did
The tap water in the Canary Islands is now, largely, desalinated sea water. If the process is correctly adhered to, desalinated sea water is just as drinkable — if not more so — than bottled water. The difference is that the desalination process requires that the water be fully distilled. Then it must be chlorinated to remove bacteria and remineralised to balance the desalination process.
Let’s bust some myths, then. First, the water must meet EU and Spanish legally defined standards. Legislation (Royal Decree 140/2003) demands that the quality of tap water must be drinkable. In 2020, 100,000 tests were carried out on public water supplies. These proved that the water in almost all cases (as in any country, there are occasional issues with water supply) was drinkable, and whenever it was not, a notice was issued. The water here has to meet the same strict standards as in Germany, Sweden, France or anywhere else in the UK.
There simply is no truth to the myth that the water in this archipelago is undrinkable. The water is neither of poor quality, nor will it make you ill. The water here is taken from the Atlantic, where it is ‘free from industrial pollutants and heavy metals’. The filtration and reverse osmosis processes free it of any other contaminants it might contain.
Yet no one wants to drink it. Why?
The problem is partly historical — there was a time when the quality of the water in The Canaries declined, due to poor management and less oversight. These problems created an opportunity for private suppliers of bottled water and filtration systems to exploit public mistrust, and make money. And feeding that mistrust for profit is still going on, according to Fernández-Couto, the CEO of Emalsa (water supply company in Gran Canaria). https://emalsa.es/el-agua-de-las-palmas-de-gran-canaria-entre-las-mejores-de-espana/
OK, I’ll fess up
I drank the tap water yesterday here in Los Gigantes. Twenty-four hours later, I’m feeling good. I made coffee with it this morning. My man looked a little suspicious. He drank it anyhow. We’re both still here. I have to admit that there is a brackish taste to the water here. That’s almost inevitable with desalinated water. The website from which I got some of the information for this piece, https://tappwater.co/en/tap-water-canary-islands-water-filter, recommends allowing the water to sit in a jug for six to twelve hours, to allow the chlorine to dissipate. I did this. However, there was a definite fine layer of salts on the surface of the water. So I will buy a charcoal filter for the tap for around €50 to filter out the salts and chlorine. In the meantime, I’ll experiment. I won’t get obsessive. If I order ‘aqua con gas’ in a restaurant, and they bring it in a plastic bottle, I’ll drink it.
But I won’t buy the myth that the tap water here is undrinkable. I do admit that it’s not the tastiest water I’ve ever had. But I also think that we need to talk about why such a damaging myth goes unchallenged, year after year. After all, we’re drowning in plastic. And water, if not my favourite tipple, is still the stuff of life!