Drinking the Water

The mighty Nile may be the country’s lifeblood, but it’s also a threat to the nation’s health.  Like most urban rivers, the Nile is heavily polluted by everything from industrial...

The mighty Nile may be the country’s lifeblood, but it’s also a threat to the nation’s health.  Like most urban rivers, the Nile is heavily polluted by everything from industrial runoff to human waste.  Nonetheless, it supplies most of the drinking water in a country where water treatment facilities are in notorious bad repair.

Despite the faint smell of sewage that sometimes rises from the warm water flowing from our faucet, we have been told the water is safe.  ”It should be,” says Malek, who works as a water-quality consultant, “after the amount of chlorine they pour into it.”

Unfortunately, the high chlorine level is also a problem.  The water, that flows through the city pipes and fills the gleaming chrome water stands and crocks hung with tin cups set out on city sidewalks, is associated with liver cancer and kidney failure rates among older Egyptians that are some of the highest in the world.  Those who can afford to, buy bottled water.

Aquafina water has the lowest count of Total Dissolved Solids. (Photo: Diego Torres Silvestre)

After lugging six one-liter bottles at a time up the seven flights to our apartment, we have resorted to tipping the boys at the corner store to deliver water by the case.  Dropping our daily stack of plastic empties in the stairwell garbage cans, we cringe over the environmental impact in a country where we have yet to find much evidence of recycling.

Not all brands of bottled water are equal:

We have learned to study the brands in the supermarket before reaching for the bottles: liter imports like Evian cost a whopping 15 pounds (or $2.50), compared to 3 pounds (or 50 cents) for a liter of domestically bottled brands, many of which are owned by multi-nationals, like Aquafina (Pepsi), or Dasani (Coca-Cola) and Nestle.

The bottled water brands here claim their water comes from local wells.  (In the U.S., by contrast, much bottled water comes from the tap.  Per a 2007 CNN article: According to a 1999 report by National Resource Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington, “about one-fourth of bottled water is bottled tap water [and by some accounts, as much as 40 percent is derived from tap water] – sometimes with additional treatment, sometimes not.”)  Egyptian well water is not problem-free, however, especially the water pulled from shallow wells.  A number of brands have been cited by Egyptian authorities for bacteria contamination.

Most bottled water sold in Egypt comes from multi-national companies such as Pepsi.

Drinking liters and liters of bottled water has turned us into connoisseurs.  Finding significant taste difference between the various domestic brands, we did some research to discover there are quantifiable reasons for the perceived variables in taste, having to do with differences in water purity.

All brands of bottled water contain a lot of extraneous stuff dissolved in the water: solids, like metals and minerals, which must be listed on the label in terms of a T.D.S. (Total Dissolved Solids) count.  Distilled water, for example, has a T.D.S. count of 0.  (In the U.S., mineral water has to have a T.D.S. of specific minerals over 250.)

Most brands of bottled water list a simple T.D.S. number on the label.  Sometimes though, they just list the individual solids (like Ca, Mg, Bicarb, etc.).  In this case, simply add the individual values to get the T.D.S.  Ideally it should be below 200 parts per million (ppm).

It turns out our taste buds were right: Aquafina has the lowest number–130 T.D.S.; Hayat, Dasani and Siwa follow, also with low numbers; and muddy Baraka is so full of gunk–430 T.D.S., you might as well drink from a faucet.

Here’s a sample breakdown of Aquafina’s solids in parts per million:

Calcium  5.2

Magnesium  13.2

Sodium  14.5

Potassium  0.8

Bicarbonates  6.0

Sulphates  65.0

Chlorides  17.0

Silicates  2.0

———

Total T.D.S. = 130 ppm

In any case, no matter what brand you select or where you buy your water, check first that the bottle is sealed and that the seal is unbroken.

About Colleen Gillard and Georgia Wells

Covering the events in Cairo after the Jan. 25 revolution and following elections.