water quality in south koreaOver the past several decades, water quality in South Korea has remained poor due to poorly-operated water management services and sewage systems. It was not until the 1970s that the Korean government made headway in improving its water services, with help from the World Bank and other nations.

Perceptions Today

According to The Korea Herald, in 2013, the Environmental Ministry conducted a survey of 12,000 South Koreans, and only 10 percent responded that they drank tap water, whether boiled or not. Meanwhile, 55 percent said they only drank tap water after boiling it.

This is despite experts’ opinions that Korean tap water is some of the best in the world. A 2003 United Nations report ranked water quality in South Korea as the eighth highest in the world, ahead of that in the United States (twelfth highest). Incidentally, in 2013, 82 percent of Americans surveyed indicated that they drank tap water.

Why the Disconnect?

Koreans, at least as of 2013, seem to be living in the past on this issue. According to The Korea Herald, 30 percent of those surveyed cited concerns about old water tanks and pipes for their wariness toward tap water, and 28 percent were worried about reservoir sanitation.

Indeed, those were once major issues. The World Bank reports that, in Korea, in “the late 1980s, accelerated urbanization took its toll, and surface and underground water bodies became polluted.”

Then, in the 1990s, the chemical phenol was leaked into the water supply, which caused severe illness to those who drank it. Meanwhile, several reported cases of ‘red water’ increased awareness of aging, rusting underground pipes.

But today, the same concerns are nonissues. Korea’s water and wastewater service are very nearly universal. The Korean government continually monitors tap water quality against a minimum of 59 criteria, including pH levels. Old public pipes have been replaced with new, rust-proof ones, and city governments have offered subsidies for people who want to replace pipes in their private residences.

The water is clean, say the experts. Pain can leave muscle memory, but in time even that fades. If Koreans continue to come together to demand only the highest standards from those they charge with regulating their water systems, they should have nothing to worry about when it comes to drinking tap water.

Chuck Hasenauer

Photo: Flickr