In August, Macau was devastated by Typhoon Hato. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the city came to a virtual standstill – with most areas of the city lacking water supplies or electricity.
The main storage reservoir and Coloane water treatment plants were able to resume their operations within four hours and 12 hours respectively after the electricity was restored in the city, though the plant in Ilha Verde was damaged badly and only began operating after 37 hours. Citizens turned to using water from temporary sources such as fire hydrants and water tankers which also raised questions about the adequacy of our water supplies.
Following its recovery, how much do we know about the safety of tap water in Macau?
“A number of temporary water supply points were arranged in the affected areas, but water quality of our treatment water had not been affected during the crisis” says Oscar Chu, Deputy General Manager of Macao Water, the city’s water supplier. “The water from fire hydrants are safe for consumption and Macao Water regularly monitors the water supply network.”
Chu reassures that not only was the water from temporary supply points during the storm safe for consumption, but that they are also secure across the board.
Water samples at some 90 sampling points across the supply network are randomly selected by Macao Water and the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM) lab on a daily basis. Routine tests are conducted to ensure water meets hygiene standards according to the Regulation of Water and Wastewater Drainage of Macao (RADARM), a policy stipulating requirements on local drinking water. Test results are publicly available on both IACM and Macao Water’s website.
While supplies are under strict monitoring by IACM and Macao Water, water in property domains could be a different story.
“After potable water enters private property domains, whether the secondary supply system is kept in good conditions is crucial for ensuring the good quality of tap water,” advises Chu.
“The maintenance of any secondary supply systems located within private property boundaries is the responsibility of property owners, management companies or registered proxies.”
Conditions of internal systems should be monitored, maintained and cleaned on a regular basis, he says. These include equipment like water pumps, pipes and storage tanks on ground level and on rooftops, where some water tanks are placed.
In an informal survey conducted by Macau News, eight out of 10 respondents between the ages of 25 and 60 choose to boil tap water before drinking.
The majority of respondents who say they boil tap water cited concerns for water quality in the storage tanks where private residential homes store water supplies. Three respondents say that it is done out of habit and in following what family members do. One, based in Hong Kong, says it stems from the traditional belief that tap water is “raw”.
“Water filtration systems are more common now compared to the past because people are more familiar with it,” says Blake Ireland, managing director of Hong Kong-based firm Life Solutions, which was established in 2003 and specialises in water filtration and purification. Its clients base includes private residences and more than 1,400 corporate companies.
Comparing the two cities, Macau residents are also more familiar with filtration technologies than those in Hong Kong because of more common awareness on bad water quality in the former. “The filter concept was acknowledged by Macau citizens earlier than those in Hong Kong. As a result, it is more common in Macau than in Hong Kong,” he adds.
In Hong Kong, around one-third of residential and private offices have filtration systems in place, according to Ireland. He believes that the number of people using filtration systems – both at home, and in workspaces – will increase.
People are more concerned about their health, he says, adding that there is now better understanding of filtration technologies. In Hong Kong especially, contaminations – such as lead being found in water in public housing estates in 2015 – has led to higher awareness.
The two respondents in the informal survey who didn’t feel the need to boil tap water choose to buy bottled water if they have doubts about quality of the source. But while bottled water is considered a “safe” alternative by some, it is not necessary free of all negative effects.
Plastic bottles contain an array of chemicals, many of which have been proven as unsafe for humans.
These include Bisphenol A (BPA), which is linked to cancer and defects in newborns; and phthalates, typically used in the manufacturing of PVC – health hazards include developmental and reproductive effects, according to One Green Planet, a US-based online environmental platform advocating all things green.
“The biggest negative effects [of bottled water use] are related to waste, cost and attitude,” says Tracey Read, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based environmental charity Plastic Free Seas, which advocates for change in plastic usage through campaigns.
“Despite the recyclability of plastic drink bottles, most bottles do not actually get recycled for a number of reasons,” she adds. In Hong Kong, these include poor separation and collection systems for recyclables; contaminated collection bins; costs of collecting, transporting and sorting plastics; and regulations on exporting waste.
Read says that plastics degrade at different rates in different environments, depending on exposure to the sun. 20-year-old plastic bottles in “excellent condition” have been found on beach cleanups in Hong Kong, she says. Plus, buying bottled water for everyday consumption is also expensive.
In Hong Kong alone some 1.5 million plastic bottles of water are bought every day – and six out of seven of those end up in the landfills or the ocean, says Claire Yates, CEO of Hong Kong-based stationery maker and gift purveyor Lion Rock Press. Established in 2013, the brand recently launched an eco bottle and tumbler named “No Plastic Mm Goi” that aims to raise awareness of single-use plastic as well as to encourage Hongkongers to forego the use of plastic bottles.
In “Tapped”, a 2010 American documentary exploring the consequences of bottled water on the environment, it is said that 30 billion plastic bottles are thrown out by Americans annually. The film also claims that 40 percent of bottled water merely comes from a tap.
“Many people are unaware that some brands of bottled water is just tap water – and that bottled water does not have to have the same levels of testing as tap water does,” Read says. Bottled water companies get away with this because of a combination of clever marketing, a lack of regulation – plus it would simply not be possible, nor cost effective, for bottled water companies to source from “pristine places” featured on water labels.
There is still a perception that tap water is not safe to drink, Read adds. “There is less trust in tap water – even in newer housing estates with newer pipes … [which] will only increase the consumption of bottled water in the future.”
Macao Water’s daily tests monitors the amounts of more than 90 types of materials in its supplies, including salinity, organic compounds and heavy metals. Bottled water companies are laxer in comparison, though the number of tests varies from company to company.
Blake Ireland agrees that drinking tap water is more beneficial to the environment. “It is more eco-friendly, and cheaper, than using bottled water.”
Peace of mind
“In Macau, there are more issues with the water than there are in Hong Kong,” says Ireland. “The main problem occurs in Macau’s older buildings where the pipework may not have been replaced for years.”
Macau currently has around 4,000 buildings that are over 30 years old. “We assume the facilities are not in very good condition,” Chu says. Macao Water recommends that cleaning and maintenance of water systems in private buildings are conducted every six months.
So how can we ensure that our drinking water – particularly in private buildings – is safe, without shelling out for bottled water, which hurts the planet?
Boiling water can kill all pathogens – bacteria, viruses and microorganisms, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are different schools of thought on when humans began boiling water for purification. In a book published by the global non-profit American Water Works Association, the tradition was said to have begun in prehistoric times.
Other than boiling water, Ireland says that there are various simple ways to conduct tests at home.
“Individuals can do a flushing process by simply turning on the tap for two minutes [after] the tap has turned off for a long time,” he says. “This process can avoid stagnant water from old and rusty pipes.”
Flushing will not help much, however, if contamination is not related to the pipes, or water tank.
For peace of mind, residents can look into installing water filters in the home – which can act as a “safety net” to combat a situation where it is difficult to ensure pipes and water tanks in a building are in good condition.
“Even when there is a sudden drop of water quality which no one can predict, the filter should be able to protect individuals from contaminated water.” Ireland adds.
For residents who are truly concerned about the quality of their water, however, they should arrange for it to be tested by an accredited laboratory to ensure safety.
“No matter which system they use, regular maintenance and filter replacements are essential in order to achieve and maintain high quality of water all the time.”
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With support from Macao Water