Flanders needs to start drinking from the tap, say researchers


A mistrust of water treatment methods will stand in the way of water recycling goals, according to a study of drinking water habits

Still or sparkling?

Tap water has a serious image problem in Flanders, with a majority seeing bottled water as safer, tastier and classier than anything in a carafe. This is already bad news for the environment, but also means policymakers will have an uphill task persuading the public to drink purified wastewater.

The starting point for the research into attitudes about drinking water was a finding by the Flemish Environment Agency that 66% of people living in Flanders mainly drink bottled water. This led Antwerp University, the Water-Link company and the Flemish Water Expertise Centre (Vlakwa) to ask why this was so.

Their survey found that tap water was seen as unhealthy and less tasty than bottle water. “Bottled water is also still seen as a status symbol,” said Dirk Halet of Vlakwa. “It is the norm on social occasions, and diners in restaurants are willing to pay several euros for a well-known brand of water.”

Circular water use

It was also apparent that some sections of society are particularly resistant to tap water. “It’s mainly men, older people and the less educated who will not put tap water on the table,” said Robbe Geerts and Frédéric Vandermoere, the Antwerp University sociologists who lead the research.

What is needed, they conclude, are advertising and branding campaigns to counter negative perceptions about tap water, and to reposition social norms so that tap water is more acceptable. Where possible these should target the most resistant groups. Steps should be taken to address the small minority of houses not on the water main, or where lead pipes are still in place, they said.

The researchers also asked how people would feel about drinking purified wastewater. This is already done to a limited extent in Flanders, but is likely to become more widespread as a strategic response to water shortages. In the government’s Blue Deal water management plan this is tactfully covered under the heading of “circular water use”.

People in Antwerp show the most confidence in water treatment technology, people in East and West Flanders the least

The reaction was not encouraging. “When we talk about confidence in recycled wastewater as drinking water, that support is generally not high,” said Geerts and Vandermoere. “We also see that mistrust occurs most often among women and the lower educated.”

There was also a regional difference, with people in Antwerp province showing the most confidence in water treatment technology, and those in West and East Flanders showing the lowest confidence. Why this should be the case is not clear.

The solution to this resistance is, again, targeted information campaigns. These will require more data if they are to stand a chance of success.

“Local research is necessary to devise action strategies and to create support within a Flemish context,” said Geerts. “This is an important condition for the success of the Blue Deal.”

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