AMMAN- Although fewer Jordanians are drinking tap water due to quality concerns, officials and experts stressed that tap water is safe and that alternatives are not as perfect as they seem.

Studies and interviews with consumers show that authorities have failed to sway consumers, many of whom were turned away from public water by the 1998 water pollution crisis, which shook consumer confidence and gave rise to hundreds of bottled water outlets.

Currently, around 80 per cent of the central region’s residents buy bottled water, according to a study conducted by the Jordanian-German Water Programme.

With 32 bottled water factories, 542 local water purification plants and five mineral water bottling plants in the Kingdom, citizens are not short of options when turning off the tap, according to the Ministry of Health.

Not satisfied, not convinced

With the exception of a few cases, like Salameh Hammad, 69, and homemaker Nadia Abu Rummaneh, the majority of citizens interviewed by The Jordan Times said they do not trust tap water.

“I never felt a change in the taste of tap water. My family and I drink from the tap and we all enjoy good health,” Hammad said.

Nadia Abu Rummaneh agreed: “The water is clean, it tastes OK and I don’t have to go through the hassle of having water delivered,” she said.

Many others, however, have gone out of their way just to avoid drinking water supplied by the Water Authority of Jordan (WAJ).

Dana Eleimat said her family does not only rely on bottled water, but has installed a filter to ensure the tap water used for non-drinking purposes is “clean”. Even with a filter, she said the “smell and colour” of tap water is unappealing.

Husam Zarrour, a resident of Dahyet Amir Rashed, in westAmman, said last year he bought a carbon filter and installed it in the kitchen, citing fears for his family’s health.

The Jordanian-German study suggests that Eleimat and Zarrour are not the only ones who fear the Kingdom’s tap water.

In it, researchers surveyed 420 households in Zarqa, Balqa and Madaba to assess consumer satisfaction with the quality of water supplied by the WAJ. The study found that consumer perception of WAJ water quality was mostly “negative”.

‘Rest assured’

Suzan Kilani, director of the laboratories and water quality directorate at the WAJ, insisted that the water pumped to households in the Kingdom is safe, clean, and meets international standards, thanks to strict testing and quality assurance methods.

“All the country’s water resources, pumping stations, boosters and networks are subject to regular monitoring,” Kilani told The Jordan Times in a recent interview.

“We test water for chemical substance concentration and run regular tests to check water colour, taste, odour, murkiness and temperature, which determines the efficiency of the purification process when chlorine is added to the water,” she added.

Kilani acknowledged that nevertheless, certain useful substances are eliminated in the process, while others become highly concentrated at the end of a water network, such as trihalomethanes (THM), which, in high levels, can become carcinogenic.

THMs are a group of four chemicals formed when chlorine and other disinfection byproducts are used to control microbial contaminants in drinking water; these react with naturally occurring organic and inorganic matter in water, according to web sources.

“If harmful chemicals are found, we take measures to reduce their concentration by infusing clean water, treating it, or just stopping the water flow,” Keilani said.

Concerning the water’s “chlorine odour”, Kilani said that chlorine is the only way of disinfecting water, stressing that less than 0.2 milligramme per litre reaches end users.

Pipe problem

The worn-out pipeline network, however, poses a major problem to water quality. Due to broken pipes, water might easily become polluted by the sewage network, a threat that requires ongoing microbiological tests, she noted.

Kilani attributed occasional water pollution incidents to the country’s intermittent water supply.

Scarce water resources inJordan, categorised as the fourth poorest country in the world in terms of water availability, forced the Kingdom in the early 1980s to apply the water distribution programme, under which households receive water on a rotation basis for a few hours during a certain period of time, usually a week. The resulting intermittent water flow combined with the worn-out pipe network, can be the perfect storm for pollutants, experts say.

“When water flow is disrupted, negative pressure forms in the pipes, which then suck in sewage, if pipes are broken and adjacent, into the network,” Kilani explained.

Water expert andUniversityofJordanprofessor Elias Salameh said the quality of water in the Kingdom is “good” at the source, but drops during the pumping process.

Consumer responsibility

Consumers are also responsible for the quality of water that comes from their faucet, experts say. Statistics indicate that 70 per cent of complaints about water taste and odour are due to the condition of roof-top tanks.

“People do not usually check roof tanks or they leave them open. Water from the water authority is clean, but it gets polluted in these tanks,” she noted.

Salameh agreed, saying that the quality of tap water worsens when it is kept for long periods in household roof tanks.

“The longer water is kept in tanks the more its quality degrades; water must be consumed gradually instead of being stored, but constant water pumping is impossible,” he said.

Alternatives not perfect

If there are concerns about tap water, the alternatives are not much better, according to experts.

“Bottled water is merely tap water that undergoes a purification process. We don’t know for sure what desalination plants use to purify it, so regular monitoring is a must,” Salameh said, adding that the monitoring process is not consistent.

The heavy filtering of plants’ purification processes strips water of minerals necessary for the body, experts added.

Bottled water that is left in the sun or exposed in the heat can also pose a health risk, the expert underscored, warning that several providers fail to keep water in cool and shaded areas.

Other concerns include reuse of plastic water containers and bottled water that have been stored for months before reaching consumers.

“Water must be consumed within a month after production and be disposed of after that,” he stressed.

Arab Medical Association Against Cancer Secretary General Sami Khatib agreed, noting that exposing water bottles to sunlight can pose a health threat. Claims that water becomes carcinogenic as a result of sun exposure, however, are not scientifically substantiated.

Salameh said that tap water provided to people by the WAJ is “safer than some of the bottled water people buy”.

“If people want to be extra careful, all they have to do is install water filters, which cost JD20-JD30,” he said.

Environment Department Director at the Ministry of Health Salah Hiyari also believes that people’s concerns about the safety of the authority’s water are unfounded.

“Concerned authorities, including the WAJ, The Jordan Water Company (Miyahuna) and the health ministry, would not tolerate any error when it comes to water safety,” he told The Jordan Times, stressing that his ministry keeps a close eye on quality and strictly monitors desalinated and bottled water plants’ health conditions and operations.

Ministry inspectors carry out tests in 21 affiliated water quality labs that test water for physical and chemical properties and for fungi, Hiyari said.

Tareq Khammash, owner of a desalination plant in Arjan, said inspectors from the ministries of health and environment visit his plant once a month and take samples for testing. Sometimes inspectors show up announced, he added.

But strict standards and regulations do not mean that all desalination plants and water factories comply: Around 91 desalination plants and eight factories were issued warnings in 2009 by the health ministry’s environment department, while four water companies and 73 desalination plants were shut down last year.

Water officials acknowledged that such facts should be made known to ever-sceptic consumers such as Eleimat, who despite keeping a cautious eye on the tap, overlook the fact that bottled water is far from perfect.

This article was first published in The Jordan Times on30 August 2010. It won the first prize of the 2011 Environmental Media Award