x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi residents wary of water quality

A Canadian family living in Abu Dhabi relies on tap water for all their needs, arguing that it is safer to drink than bottled water.

Robert St-Jacques gets his drinking water from the tap in his home rather than buying bottled mineral water in a bid to reduce plastic waste. Jeff Topping / The National
Robert St-Jacques gets his drinking water from the tap in his home rather than buying bottled mineral water in a bid to reduce plastic waste. Jeff Topping / The National

ABU DHABI // When Bob St-Jacques moved to Abu Dhabi, he made sure his family relied on tap water for all their needs.

Concerned about the amount of plastic waste created by bottled water, the family drank from the tap in their native Canada and throughout their time living in Europe and the Caribbean.

They were not about to change in the UAE, even though most people here prefer bottled water because it is marketed as a safer choice.

"I see it the other way," said Mr St-Jacques. "Even in the US, city water is actually safer and has less trace elements than bottled water."

In December, The National visited the spacious villa that Mr St-Jacques shares with his wife, Corina, and son, Xavier.

The water was tested for the presence of minerals, chemicals and disease-causing bacteria.

The results showed that the water was fit for all human uses, including drinking.

Mr St-Jacques was not surprised.

"I used to work in construction before and I interacted with many desalination engineers," he said. "I knew five years ago that the quality of the water is very good."

Not quite so convinced was Fatima Al Mazrouei, an artist and media coordinator.

The 27-year-old Emirati does not drink tap water because "it is not as healthy as mineral water".

"We use it [tap water] for cooking and making tea and coffee but not for drinking," she said.

Arsalan Al Hashimi, 34, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, expressed a similar opinion.

His family, originally from Yemen but who live in the capital, used to drink tap water, filtering it with a small, in-house unit.

But Mr Al Hashimi's habits changed when he left to study in the US and he switched to using bottled water.

"One of the things lacking here is awareness," he said. "Nobody knows. There is no place for us to find information about the quality of the tap water.

"I do not even know where the water comes from and how it is delivered to my house," he said. "If it is difficult for me to find this information, then how can I make a choice?"

The capital's water is produced by nine desalination plants, equipped with technology that removes the salts dissolved in seawater.

Seven of the plants are in Abu Dhabi, along the Arabian Gulf, and two are in Fujairah.

Their total combined capacity is about 900 million imperial gallons per day, said Jamal Shadid, head of drinking water at the Regulation and Supervision Bureau (RSB) in the capital.

The RSB regulates the work of the desalination plants and ensures that the quality of the water they produce is monitored and tested based on 67 different parameters.

These indicators measure the physical qualities of the water, as well as the presence of organic and inorganic compounds, and disease-causing bacteria.

Last year about 200,000 quality tests were carried out and compliance was 98.5 per cent, according to Mr Shadid.

"The water supplied by the distribution companies is safe for drinking, cooking and bathing as far as it is in the distribution company's water supply system," he said.

But this is only part of the story. Whether tap water is safe for consumption depends not only on what happens at desalination plants, but also in individual buildings.

If water tanks are poorly maintained, harmful bacteria can build up, making the water unfit for consumption.

With his experience in construction, Mr St-Jacques could tell the water tanks in his villa compound were well-maintained.

But many Abu Dhabi residents have reason for caution, warned Ahmed Al Leftauy, the general manager of Magic Touch, a company that specialises in cleaning water tanks and other building systems.

"You have some buildings where for five or six years nobody touched the tank," he said, explaining that tanks must be cleaned every six months.

In his six years in the business, Mr Al Leftauy has accumulated hundreds of photos of dirty water tanks, their walls covered in thick, black slime.

He has also seen cases of dead birds or rats in water tanks.

Part of the problem is that many building owners lack awareness of the importance of the service, and are not willing to pay for it, he said.

Cleaning the water tank in a large residential building can cost several thousand dirhams.

Mr Al Leftauy said the situation would improve if the Government ordered that water tanks be cleaned every six months, as is already the case in Dubai.

Building owners there are issued certificates every time a building is cleaned. Failure to show a certificate results in a fine of Dh10,000, said Mr Al Leftauy.

Only companies approved by the civic body in Dubai can do the cleaning work, using qualified personnel and special chemicals, he added.

"Abu Dhabi still does not have this," he said.