Koreans Just Won’t Drink Tap Water

The vast majority of Koreans have access to potable water, with well over 90% coverage. Yet a majority are still not in the habit of drinking straight from the tap. Instead, they either only consume boiled water, use water filters, or drink bottled water.

According to an article in the Korea Herald, a 2013 government survey found that only about 10% of the population drinks tap water without any further treatment. The city of Seoul even gave its drinking water the brand name Arisu and set up an agency to promote tap water use. However, this campaign does not seem to have moved the needle much. In recent tap water surveys, the percentage of people drinking untreated tap water is no longer reported separately but lumped together with those boiling their water first.

In a 2020 study paper, only about 25% of participants responded that they preferred tap water. In contrast, around 43% indicated they would much rather drink bottled water. The study authors cited strict adherence to traditional values as one reason – children follow their parents’ habit of boiling water. Other factors are risk aversion and unfounded fears about toxic substances or unhealthy minerals in tap water. Social norms and herd behavior also play a role. Moreover, a lack of public drinking fountains has not helped assuage the common belief that the water is risky. This perception is further affirmed by the much more ubiquitous presence of filtered water dispensers in many places.

The condition of the water pipes in a building also affects the taste and quality of the water. Koreans are accustomed to boiling tap water, as it has only been a few decades since city water systems replaced well water for most households. Concerns about old plumbing are often exaggerated, as Korea has urbanized rapidly and many buildings have modern water pipes. Yet the tradition persists stubbornly.

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