Readers' Submissions

Water Water Everywhere

  • Written by Sawadee2000
  • February 12th, 2011
  • 17 min read


“Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I’m curious, was anyone else out there forced to memorize The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Well, Old Sawadee had to back in high school, along with various soliloquies from Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. Do students have to memorize anything these days, other than the combination of their lockers? Ah, the glories of modern progressive education! In any case, my less than epic tale today is perfect for quoting those lines from Coleridge.

Three weeks ago on a lovely Sunday morning, I stepped into the bathroom after spending an hour outside watering the lawn, flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees growing here at Bahn Sawadee. During the “cool season”, here in Lampang we usually don’t receive a drop of rain from the end of October until the end of April. That means I need to water everything frequently. That’s okay with me, because I find the job relaxing. In addition to watering, once a month I fertilize everything. Perhaps that’s why we always produce a bumper crop of fruit and vegetables.

After performing this morning ritual, I was ready for a hot shower. I climbed into the tub, turned on the water heater to maximum, and turned on the tap. Instead of the rush of hot water I was expecting, I instead received…nothing. Not a trickle. Not a drop. After uttering a few imaginative expletives, I turned off the water heater, climbed out off the tub, and headed to the kitchen to begin filling a large pot of water and put it on the stove to heat up. Damn it! We were out of water…again!

Oh yes, this is unfortunately an all too frequent occurrence at our home. Now, on the side of our house we have a 1250 liter water tank which, if all is well, should constantly refill itself from the municipal water supply. There is a pipe from the water main which serves our moo bahn, to the water tank. It seemed that by watering everything that morning, I used up the last of the water in the tank which now was empty. I climbed up and removed the tank cover to confirm the bad news. Yes, we were definitely out of water.

My wife had a few choice words for me upon learning of our waterless condition. Essentially she called me out for not observing the Prime Rule when using one of our outside taps. That rule is: “Thou shall NOT turn on the outside water for more than a minute without checking that the municipal water supply is functioning!” Mea Culpa. I forgot this important rule. All I needed to do was turn on the tap where the water main comes onto our property. If water is coming out of that tap, then water will fill our tank. If on the other hand I turn on the tap and nothing comes out, then it’s time to go into water conservation mode. Depending on how much water is in the tank, we may have to abstain from using the washing machine, or taking long showers until the water is flowing freely once more into the water tank. This could take as little as a few hours, but might very well take a day or more!

Folks let me tell you, I don’t mind living a simple life. If drastic circumstances require it, I’m ready to live a Spartan existence, at least for a relatively short time…but I need water, plenty of water! Oh I have drinking water to spare. We usually have half a dozen big five gallon jugs of it up against one kitchen wall. This is Thailand though, and even in the cool season, I need two showers a day. If any of you out there reading this do not shower at least twice a day while here in Thailand, please kindly stand downwind from me!

Please excuse my indelicacy of mentioning my need for water for the commode. Have you ever counted how many times you flush the toilet every day? It may be more than you think. If like me you have a family, the number of flushes per day really starts to add up. A lack of running water means I have to use drinking water to fill up our two toilet tanks. A jug only costs 12 baht, so it’s not like using some for this purpose is going to break the bank, still it is a pain in the neck.

So what some of you are undoubtedly asking is the problem with my water supply? Why are there so many problems? If any of you read my submission, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, then you know that is pointless to ask even a seemingly obvious question like that. Who the hell knows why these things happen? Obviously: a) some maintenance is going on that required shutting off the water supply, b) some extraordinary accident occurred, or c) (My personal pick for most likely) Someone, most likely Somchai, fucked up big time!

Maybe Somchai was digging with a backhoe where he had no business digging. Maybe…after consuming a few too many bottles of Chang on his lunch break he pushed the wrong button, or threw the wrong switch that is part of the water system. No one I have ever asked, not my Thai neighbors, not the two policemen that live here, not our poo-yai-bahn has ever been able to tell me why.

Ironically all of the people who live directly behind our moo bahn have never experienced a water shortage. They are on a completely different supply system, which in the past six years that I’ve been living here has never broken down…ever! It’s just my bad luck to be hooked up to the jinxed system! Once more I am forced to repeat that old mantra, “Welcome to Thailand”!

As long as I’m on the subject of water, is there a single guide book to Thailand that does not warn prospective visitors about drinking the local tap water? When I hear that, I shudder at even the possibility of coming down with cholera or dysentery. I have never been tempted to test my luck, and have stuck to bottled water since I first set foot on these shores. Still, I have to wonder what the state of the public water supply really is in Thailand. Will a small glassful indeed send you racing for the toilet? Is full of pathogens and toxic chemicals?

I didn’t have time to research the subject thoroughly, but I did come across a few interesting pieces of information. The following is a bit dated, and I can’t verify it’s accuracy in any case.

Drinking Water Quality Standard in Thailand

Properties

Parameter

Units

Standards

Maximum Acceptable Concentration

Maximum Allowable Concentration

Physical

1. Colour

Platinum-Cobalt
(Pt-Co)

5

15

2. Taste

Non Objectionable

Non Objectionable

3. Odour

Non Objectionable

Non Objectionable

4. Turbidity

Silica scale unit (SSU)

5

20

5. pH

6.5 – 8.5

9.2

Chemical

6. Total Solids

mg/dm³

500

1,500

7. Iron (Fe)

mg/dm³

0.5

1.0

8. Manganese (Mn)

mg/dm³

0.3

0.5

9. Iron & Manganese (Fe&Mn)

mg/dm³

0.5

1.0

10. Copper (cu)

mg/dm³

1.0

1.5

11. Zinc (Zn)

mg/dm³

5.0

15.0

12. Calcium (Ca)

mg/dm³

75b

200

13. Magnesium (Mg)

mg/dm³

50

150

14. Sulphate (SO4)

mg/dm³

200

250c

15. Chloride (Cl)

mg/dm³

250

600

16. Fluroride (F)

mg/dm³

0.7

1.0

17. Nitrate (NO3)

mg/dm³

45

45

18. Alkylbenzyl Sulfonates (ABS)

mg/dm³

0.5

1.0

19. Phenolic substance (as phenol)

mg/dm³

0.001

0.002

Toxic elements

20. Mercury (Hg)

mg/dm³

0.001

21. Lead (Pb)

mg/dm³

0.05

22. Arsenic (As)

mg/dm³

0.05

23. Selenium (Se)

mg/dm³

0.01

24. Chromium (Cr hexavalent)

mg/dm³

0.05

25. Cyanide (CN)

mg/dm³

0.2

26. Cadmium (Cd)

mg/dm³

0.01

27. Barium (Ba)

mg/dm³

1.0

Bacterial

28. Standard plate count

Colonies/cm³

500

29. Total coliform

MPN/100cm³

<2.2

30. E.coli

MPN/100cm³

None

Remarks:

mg/dm³

=

milligram per cubic decimeter

MPN

=

Most Probable Number

a

=

These values are allowed for tap water or ground water that is used as temporary drinking water. Such water with a parameter between the maximum acceptable concentration and the maximum allowable concentration can not be certified as standard drinking water for industrial products and stamped with the standard logo.

b

=

If the calcium concentration is higher than the standard and magnesium concentration is lower than the standard, calcium and magnesium will be identified in terms of total hardness with a standard value of less than 300 mg/dm³ (as CaCO3)

c

=

If a sulphate concentration of 250 mg/dm³ is reached, magnesium concentration must not be more than 30 mg/dm³.

Source : Notification of the Ministry of Industry, No. 322, B.E. 2521 (1978), issued under the Industrial Products Standards Act B.E. 2511 (1968), published in the Royal Gazette, Vol. 95, Part 68, dated July 4, B.E. 2521 (1978).

Undoubtedly there are more up to date studies out there, but they are probably in Thai. If anyone has anything more current in English, I would be interested. The Thai government has never seemed overeager to publicize bad news of any sort. If the drinking water was truly toxic, how would you ever know? I suppose being curled up in fetal position on the bathroom floor just might present a clue, although the curry you ate from the market (which had been sitting out in the sun all day) might be equally suspect!

Well these fellows up here in Lampang found out the hard way what toxic water was all about!

50 ill after drinking from creek – Farmers' chemicals pollute water supply By Somsak Suksai

Tribal farmers have been warned to be more careful in their use of pesticides after 50 people became sick after drinking water from a creek last week.

Khian Piangkaew, chief of Lampang's Chae Hom district, said the victims were from Mae Chorfa village in Chae Hom district.

They fell ill after Makeu Yang, 40, a farmer in their community, brought water from the stream for them to drink while they helped him work his paddy field.

Chu Mukiang, head of Mae Chorfa village, said the stream was contaminated with pesticides applied by farmers living in upland areas. The chemicals were washed into the stream during heavy rain last week.

Buakaew Yang, one of those taken ill, said local farmers had used an excessive amount of pesticide as they thought it would kill the weeds quicker.

Termsak Phanomwan na Ayutthaya, assistant director of the tribespeople development centre, urged the tribes people, particularly those living near watershed areas, to be more careful as excessive use of pesticides poses a threat to their health and water supplies.

Makes you want to reach for a big glass of H2O right about now, eh?

When I’m down visited my wife’s family in Buriram, I would never dream of even brushing my teeth with the water that comes out of their well! Her family never had indoor plumbing until we put it in about ten years ago. Considering the poor sanitation that they practice, the pathogen levels in the ground water must be off the charts. Hell, even my in laws don’t drink it. They, like most Thais, drink bottled water.

Ah, bottled water! What would we do without it here where the average daily temperature, while not quite hot enough to fry an egg on the hood of my car, (bonnet to all you non-Yanks) is still pretty damned warm? Taking into account everything I drink, including coffee and tea, I must consume several liters of bottled water each and every day.

Apparently I’m not alone. According to the International Bottled Water Association, the average Thai goes through 118 litres of the stuff a year. Thailand ranks 13th out of the top 20 bottled water consuming countries, and in fact is the only Asian country to make the list.

So, inquiring minds want to know a number of things. Are there standards in Thailand for bottled water? Is any brand safer better in terms of purity? How about in terms of taste? Are the enormous jugs of water I get delivered to my home superior to say, Nestle, Namthip, Singha, Aura, or the rest of the brands you’re likely to find in the cooler at 7-11? Well certainly I think it’s safe to say that the major brands aren’t likely to make you sick, and I assume (naïve as that may sound) that the bottles they use are sanitary. What about those self-fill dispensers you see more and more of? What are you getting when you fill up your own jug?

I think in Thailand we can forget about spring water. What we are talking about is filtered tap water. Nestle, like Coca Cola, isn’t shipping their beverages around the world in enormous container ships. Their products are all locally bottled. Yes, some “exotic” foreign brands from France, Italy, and yes even New Zealand, are in fact bottled in their home countries, but I’m talking about the most commonly available brands.

Knowing how things work in Thailand, I’d be surprised, and happily so, if there were purity standards for bottled water…but frankly I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Even if there were written standards, I find it difficult to believe that that they would be enforced. Hell, there are fire safety regulations, somewhere…if only in some moldy dank basement, but that didn’t prevent the disaster at Santika a few years ago. Unfortunately an envelope of “tea money” magically makes too many problems vanish.

Still, most companies…even Thai ones might tend to frown on making their customers sick, if for no other reason than it’s bad for business. It would seem then that however the entire myriad of bottled water companies is processing their products; it is safe for human consumption…or so we all hope!

But the question of which brand actually tastes better remains unanswered. Can the average person differentiate between say, Aura and Nestle? While Old Sawadee’s taste buds are as sensitive as any wine snob, I doubt that I could tell one from another. As long as there isn’t a detectable “off” flavor or aroma, I would give equal marks to NYC tap water and water from Lourdes. To me all the talk about “pure mountain springs” is just a ploy to charge more money. I’ve drunk Vitel water in France, Aqua Fuggi in Italy and Poland Springs water in the USA. To be honest I wasn’t impressed with any exceptional qualities of any of them. If they contained any exceptional minerals, they were evidently lost on me.

I would just love to get a bunch of so-called water connoisseurs together for a double blind taste. Can you just imagine some of the pretentious comments? “It is reminiscent of a well percolated limestone aquifer with a hint of potassium and highly aerated overtones.”

The one thing that does seem to affect the flavor of bottled water, and not for the better, is the type of plastic used in bottling it. I’m sure many of you have had water here in Thailand that came bottled in flimsy opaque bottles, or sometimes in foil covered cups. In my humble opinion, this stuff smells and tastes dreadful. I suppose if I were dying of thirst, I would greedily chug down as much of that stuff as I could get my hands on. I can’t count the number of times I’ve refused a drink of that water. Not being a chemist I haven’t the foggiest notion what type of plastic is used here, but I can say for certain that it is definitely not of the food grade variety.

As I’m writing this in my office at school, I’m glancing over at cases at two large cases of this type of bottled water that the administration supplies us. My fellow Thai teachers drink it without comment. It is free after all. I never touch the free stuff. Instead I walk over to the school’s mini-mart and buy drinkable water.

At home we have two or three large jugs delivered weekly. At 12 a jug, I consider it a bargain. Hell, that price includes having a couple of muscular Thai men lug it into my kitchen and set a jug on my water dispenser. Sweet! While not yet 61, poor Sawadee would prefer not to put any more strain on my carcass as is absolutely necessary.

Our water dispenser is not a fancy one. It does have a refrigerated unit to cool the water, but my wife doesn’t like cold water, so we rarely plug it. If I need hot water, I use our electric kettle. We also have a nifty pivoting metal rack that allows me to tip a jug into a container for cooking. It is a clever little device. My hat is off to the fellow who dreamed it up.

I know somebody out there is wondering how I rate my bottled water. Well, it tastes absolutely fine and dandy, and it hasn’t made me sick. That’s good enough for me. If I were any more of a hygiene zealot than I am now, I suppose I should be worrying about how all the empty jugs are cleaned, but I think I’ll just let that concern slide. I think I have enough worries on my plate to deal with, thank you very much.

What is potentially more troubling to contemplate is what water was used in the ice I get in local restaurants, or by in the market. Did the water come out of the tap, or a bottle? Do I really want to know? Now if I were some place like India or Sub-Saharan Africa, I think I would pass on the ice. Here in The Land of Smiles, I’ve tossed the ice dice thousands of times, and haven’t had to make a dash for the toilet yet. Oh by the way, a friend recently sent me a humorous list of things that show you’ve been in Thailand too long. I would say that if you, on your own accord put ice in your glass of beer; you’ve definitely been here waaaay too long!

Quite a lot of the water I drink at home is in the form of iced tea. I’m taking about plain, garden variety, unsweetened tea. Big C has Lipton’s, which works well enough for me. I’ve been using the same two liter container for years now, and my wife wouldn’t even think of using it for a batch of pickled fish with fish sauce…or so I hope! It ain’t fancy, and it’s stained with many years of tea, but somehow it’s a dear friend that I would hate to part with.

The more I think about it, the water situation in Thailand could be a lot worse, considering that much of the world barely has any potable water at all. As for me, as long as my tank is full, and there are jugs of drinking water in my kitchen, I’ll be content.


Stickman's thoughts:

You ought to correspond with Rahiri about water supply problems. In Soi Kiwi, 30 odd km east of Khon Kaen, he has real problems with the water supply in their village.

As far as differentiating between the different types of bottled water goes, for sure, there is quite a difference. Aura and Minere are in a class of their own and I will always choose either of those brands over others, Minere being my personal choice.