The Korea Herald


[Feature] Public anger, concerns persist over contaminated tap water

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : July 2, 2019 - 18:11

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For more than a month, Lee Su-jin, who lives in western Incheon, has relied on bottled water to do household tasks from cooking to cleaning. Driving to a neighboring city to eat out or use a self-service laundromat has become a daily routine.

It is all because of “reddish water” still running from her taps, a problem that was first detected May 30 and has affected some 15,000 households and 160 schools in Incheon. 

“It has become almost impossible to lead a daily life for the past month,” said Lee, 42, a mother of a 12-year-old child. Lee runs an online community and is using it to gather complaints from other residents of areas affected by the tap water crisis. 

“There are clearly limits to leading a daily life with bottled water. Our family drives to Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, to eat out,” she said. “I cannot cook for my daughter or let her have a shower with this water. We cannot even do our laundry.”

“We are getting so tired and frustrated about it,” she said. “The government has to responsibly intervene and draw systematic measures as soon as possible, rather than just allocating a budget.”

Last month reddish water was reported in Seoul and other cities, adding to public concerns over the quality of tap water in South Korea.

The crisis was not unexpected, experts say, but only laid bare the fundamental problems in the country’s water management system -- a lack of oversight and specialized personnel. 

Residents from areas affected by the contaminated tap water crisis in Incheon announce their intention to file a complaint against an Incheon city official in charge of managing water pipes, at a press conference in front of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office on June 20. (Yonhap) Residents from areas affected by the contaminated tap water crisis in Incheon announce their intention to file a complaint against an Incheon city official in charge of managing water pipes, at a press conference in front of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office on June 20. (Yonhap)

Crisis spreads 

The reddish water problem was first reported in Incheon on May 30.

The city at the time assured residents that the water was safe, based on scientific water quality analysis.

However, more complaints followed about reddish water, sending residents out on the streets for a rally accusing the municipality of offering a botched response. They called for decisive action to contain the problem.

Incheon said it would provide financial support for hospital treatment, bottled water purchases and the cleaning of water tanks at residential complexes. The city also said it would offer special loans to help local merchants whose businesses have suffered as a result of contaminated water.

The inspection team under the Environment Ministry -- comprising 18 officials, experts and scholars -- announced last week that the water quality in the affected areas in Incheon had been restored to normal levels.

But that was not enough to ease the public concerns.

“Many of the residents in Incheon are still checking the water quality from their taps on a daily basis by using a filter,” the Incheon resident Lee said. “The quality of tap water is still uneven, and differs from house to house.”

While Incheon was grappling with the tap water crisis, which critics call a “man-made disaster,” reddish water was reported June 19 in Mullae-dong in southwestern Seoul. Some 1,042 households and an elementary school in the area were advised not to drink tap water.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said it would begin replacing 138 kilometers of old pipe within the year, instead of doing it in 2020 as originally scheduled. For the 1.75-kilometer pipe that contaminated tap water in Mullae-dong, the replacement work will be completed by the end of this year.

The city government secured an additional 72.7 billion won ($62.8 million) for the construction project. It is expected to cost 178.9 billion won in total to replace the 138 kilometers of pipe.

Both Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Incheon Mayor Park Nam-choon offered apologies.

Ansan, Pyeongtaek and Gwangju, all in Gyeonggi Province, also saw reports of murky water in recent weeks, with the municipalities struggling to identify the causes.

“We are preparing measures to prevent a recurrence,” said an official from the Environment Ministry.

The ministry plans to publish a white paper on the reddish tap water problem in Incheon at the end of July, to address how and why it happened. Separately, measures to prevent additional incidents of tap water contamination will be announced.

Aged pipes to blame?

Though it has not been confirmed, the cause of the tap water contamination seen in different locations appears to be different.

The Incheon city government believes the problem occurred in the process of switching tap water supply systems.

Experts see the problem in Incheon as the result of a failure to stick to a manual -- a lack of experience and expertise on the part of those in charge of managing water supply systems. It was also later found that a device measuring turbidity in water was out of order there.

“The tap water crisis in Incheon stems from a combination of the lack of a budget to replace old pipes, inadequate cleaning of the pipes and government officials’ initially poor response to the problem,” said Choi Suing-il, professor at Korea University.

In Seoul, on the other hand, the municipality views sediment from aged water pipes as the cause of the murky water.

“In Seoul, replacing aged water pipes could help contain the cause of the tap water contamination, but the reddish water problem could continue to occur unless efforts to maintain and manage the water pipes are made at an appropriate level,” Choi said. 

The water pipes in Seoul are older than those in Incheon.

In Korea, water pipes are supposed to be replaced after 30 years of use. But experts say it is inefficient to replace all pipes after a fixed period because they can be used for much longer depending on how well they are managed, maintained and monitored by specialists.

“Replacing all the old pipes cannot be a fundamental solution,” Dockko Seok, a professor at Dankook University, said. “It is time for Korea to improve the country’s whole tap water management system.”

The government should systematically keep blueprints of water pipes and information about them -- where the they are located, when they were built and how they are shaped -- so that risks of contamination can be controlled, he said.

“Along with a detailed water management manual, personnel specialized in water maintenance and management should be increased, which requires financial and administrative support from the central government,” he said.

“Otherwise, this reddish water problem could occur anytime anywhere.”