- As part of a new Food Code in Dubai, restaurants would be encouraged to offer free tap water — from this year (2020) — to reduce the use of single-use plastics
- Landlords would also be liable for the condition of water tanks in private residences
- Moreover, it would now be written into tenancy contracts that the landlord would have to arrange regular cleaning of water tanks in their building
Dubai: Last year, the Dubai Municipality said that as part of a new Food Code, restaurants would be encouraged to offer free tap water — from this year, 2020 — to reduce the use of single-use plastics.
This was suggested at the sidelines of the Dubai International Food Safety Conference in November where an official added that as part of the changes, landlords would also be liable for the condition of water tanks in private residences — and it would now be written into tenancy contracts that the landlord would have to arrange regular cleaning.
All this would be done, with a view to eventually becoming law, implied the official.
However, Dubai Municipality offered a clarification.
Iman Al Bastaki, Director of the Food Safety Department at Dubai Municipality, said that the Food Code said nothing about making tap water mandatory in hotels and restaurants — and that tap water could only be consumed if tanks and pipes were cleaned, maintained and laboratory tested by Emirates International Accreditation Centre (EIAC)-approved facilities.
The quality of water that DEWA provides up to the meter meets the highest internationals standards. However, DEWA recommends that all water tanks and internal connections be in accordance with its specifications. Tanks should be regularly cleaned and maintained to prevent blockages and ensure quality of water.
“Water tank cleaning requirements have been there since 14 years and there is nothing new,” she said.
“The Food Code says that if the hotel/restaurant is providing filtered tap water, it must be safe. This is not a new requirement either. The Food Code says that the water must be potable, whether it is for bottles or ice. Don’t forget that ice is produced in machines that run on tap water.”
Water before meter is safe
Effectively, this means that the water before the meter is already safe, and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) confirmed this.
“The quality of the water that DEWA provides up to the meter meets the highest internationals standards and is in accordance with World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.
"However, DEWA recommends that all water tanks and internal connections be in accordance with its specifications. Tanks should be regularly cleaned and maintained to prevent blockages and ensure the quality of the water.”
However, despite the safety of water and even with EIAC approvals, which restaurants clearly have to obtain to get a food safety licence, it seems it will not be mandatory for restaurants to offer free tap water, yet.
How are environmentalists viewing the issue? They are seeing the clarification as a positive move and believe that it is evidence that fruitful discussions are ongoing.
“I tried not to see it as a retraction, but as Dubai Municipality being very specific,” said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, the founder and managing director of Goumbook, a Dubai-based social enterprise dedicated to sustainability that launched ‘Drop It’, a campaign to cut back on single-use plastic use, in 2016.
“At the moment, [offering free tap water] is not something that can be mandatory, it’s also related to whether it should it be free or not. It is something that needs to come with more regulation,” she said.
“The authorities are already good at encouraging it [drinking tap water] and it’s very important we correct the huge misconception that tap water is not drinkable. A lot of local bottled water is tap water anyway,” she added.
“For a government body to issue statements even to clarify this is very encouraging. So, these are positive signs,” said Antonelli Abella.
Moves against single-use plastics
In the midst of all this, Dubai Airports announced that they are banning all single use plastics from this year, and Abu Dhabi declared efforts to ‘substantially’ reduce single use plastic by 2021.
Entities such as the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and Dubai Municipality’s food court are also switching to tap water, so it is on the wider agenda.
The UN have called for global action to beat plastic pollution.
The numbers are daunting: from 400 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year, 36 per cent is single use, and water bottles are a big offender, especially in this region where the prevalence and trend for buying bottled water is so high.
400million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year, of which 36% is single use
Habiba Al Marashi, chairperson of Emirates Environmental Group, said, “I was very encouraged to read what Dubai Municipality announced recently as it’s a good indication of the maturity of the market.
“It’s right to give consumers a choice and Dewa have more than once confirmed the water is of the highest standard until it reaches the house. The onus is on the owner to make sure the pipes and tanks are cleaned regularly, and if there’s any doubt, you can install filters on the tap.”
Antonelli Abella said lab tests to check your own drinking water at home cost as little as Dh250, while filters start from around Dh500 to Dh1,000.
These take around 15 minutes to install and need changing around once a year at filter change cost of around Dh300 to Dh500. However, the saving from not buying bottled water for a family of four could be as much as Dh5,000 a year.
That is at home where you can see what’s fitted in your kitchen, but should you trust a restaurant?
“People are not aware of the very high standards that restaurants have to pass to get their approvals,” said Antonelli Abella. “The standards are very high and that covers the fact that the water needs to be drinkable. Restaurants wouldn’t risk this as they would lose their licence. In such a highly regulated environment, there are no real barriers, filters are cheap, and there would be less waste.”
Al Marashi, agreed, “We should trust restaurants as they are monitored by the relevant bodies, but who is to say that bottled water is any better? We don’t know how it’s been stored, or how long it’s been exposed to the sunlight. So, there needs to be a lot more information and transparency shared with society before they decide what option they want.
“This is a very literate market in terms of consumer protection and the market should be trusted. We will only know if we try, and if we keep questioning whether we trust it or not, we will never know,” she added.
“Single-use plastics should be phased out but it’s not only on the consumer, but the producer and the supplier. If there’s emphasis on the end user, it should be on the other players as well to ensure we can produce better environmentally friendly options and investment should be made in research to help find other viable alternatives.”
So why the reluctance to encourage or make it mandatory for restaurants to offer free tap water? Could it be that bottled water companies and restaurants will lose money?
“There is a resistance and only open-minded companies will be intelligent to look at alternatives,” said Abella. “They’ve made enough money over the years that they should have put money aside for research and development to find alternative packaging solutions.”
As for restaurants, she said, “Hopefully, taxation on waste will be applied soon so that restaurants will have to reuse waste or pay more for disposal.”
What people have to say
Sayed Yousef Al Hashimi, 20, Engineering student in Dubai
“I am not accustomed to drinking tap water in the UAE but when I travel abroad, I see that many people do drink it. The water is tested of course and is safe to drink, so I would agree that drinking tap water will help eliminate single plastic usage and be better for the environment. I think it’ll become a norm in the UAE since a lot of effort and money is invested in making sure that tap water is drinkable.”
Vaidehi Ashok, 20, auditing intern in Abu Dhabi
“I don’t mind drinking tap water but I’m not sure how safe and healthy it could be in a city environment. I wouldn’t personally order tap water in a restaurant, I’ll always prefer bottled water. This move towards introducing tap water [in restaurants] could have a huge impact on reducing plastic waste. It would be easier though to introduce [the drinking of tap water] in homes because trusting public water dispensaries would be difficult as it is hard to know the standard of cleanliness in these places.”
Poorvi Shah, 25, Business management student in Dubai
“I’d be happy to switch to tap water as I’m used to drinking that in European countries during my travels. The UAE has guaranteed the safety of tap water and we should all do our part in eliminating the use of plastic bottles. I think the fact that this water could be offered free of charge would help the public to gradually try and get used to drinking tap water and hopefully contribute to making this country move swiftly towards greater sustainability.”
Brian Reckerman, Sri Lankan, Office Manager
“I have been living in the UAE for 30 years. I knew of a colleague who only drank tap water for 15 years when he lived here. I don’t know if he used to boil or strain it. But I have only been drinking bottled water. Recently, I have started drinking filtered tap water at my office. As long as it is safe to consume, I will drink tap water. If restaurants are offering tap water, they have to follow all the safety guidelines to ensure it is safe. As long as the tank, piping system and taps are clean, there is no issue.”
Nouneetha Krishnan, Indian, homemaker
“I use tap water for washing and cooking but I wouldn’t drink it straight from the tap. On rare ocassions, when I have run out of bottled water, I boil tap water with cumin to be make it safe to drink. Since the time I came to the UAE, I have been drinking bottled water as I don’t know how clean the water tanks and pipes in the building are. I would not mind drinking filtered tap water at home, but filters are very expensive. In restaurants too, I prefer bottled water.”