What you need to know about the drinking water in Switzerland
When people move to a new country, checking the water quality is rarely among their top priorities. Should you be worried about what flows out of your faucet in Switzerland?
Many people take good, clean drinking water for granted. In fact, they don’t think about it much, unless they live in one of the numerous countries without fresh, pure water.
Thankfully, Switzerland is repeatedly recognised as a country with the best quality tap water in the world, according to the United Nations.
Here are some water facts you should know.
Where does Swiss water come from?
Streams, rivers, glaciers and more than 1,500 lakes provide the entire population with the water.
Eighty percent of the water comes from natural springs and groundwater, the rest is taken from the lakes.
Has it always been clean?
No, it hasn’t. In fact, as recently as 50 years ago it was disgusting.
Just as Switzerland was not always a wealthy country, its water was not always pure either.
“In the mid-1960s, only 14 out of 100 Swiss households were connected to a sewage treatment plant. In many places, foam floated on Swiss rivers, and the lakes were covered with carpets of algae that had to be 'grazed' by ships", according to an article in Blick written by a scientist from the University of Zurich.
The article goes on to say that “agriculture contributed with too much fertilizer, industry as well, but also households. Detergents often entered watercourses unfiltered and caused foaming brooks. And in Bern, until the 1980s, household wastewater from the old town (including toilets) was only roughly filtered before being discharged into the Aare”.
What changed, and when?
The change did not happen overnight but gradually, mostly due to effective sewage treatment plants.
“Today, 97 percent of households are connected to a sewage treatment plant. The rest live in areas so remote that it makes no sense to connect them”, the article states.
“In addition, industrial plants now have better filters and farmers are more reluctant to use fertiliser. And the laws have become stricter: for example, phosphates in detergents have been banned”.
Science has played a major part in purifying the water as well. Methods to measure various toxic elements became increasingly sophisticated, detecting, for instance, residues of antibiotics and other drugs.
Also, the establishment of groundwater protection zones makes it possible to distribute much of the water without having to treat it.
Like any natural product, tap water contains minerals and trace substances, but due to the strict regulations on drinking water treatment, their concentration is at such a low level “that it can be drunk without hesitation”, according to a non-profit Swiss fund, Water for Water (WfW).
That’s because “clean water” means that the concentration of these substances is well below a level that could be harmful to health.
So can you drink the water directly from the faucet?
Except for extraordinary situations (see below), yes.
It can be drunk from every tap in every region without posing a health hazard.
In fact, tap water in Switzerland has a much better ecological balance than bottled mineral water, according to the Federal Food Safety Office.
It's good to drink. Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com
What about public fountains?
Except for the winter months when the water is prone to freezing, drinking fountains can be found practically everywhere in Switzerland.
The quality of water in the fountains is inspected by each municipality to ensure that it is clean and safe to drink.
If this is not the case, a label with the note “no drinking water” must be visibly attached.
When is tap water in Switzerland not safe to drink?
In exceptional and extreme cases, tap water may not be suitable for human consumption.
This happened, for instance, in July 2021, when heavy rains and flooding had contaminated water supply in some Swiss communities.
In such cases, authorities advised households not to drink water directly from the tap or wash fruit and vegetables with it, but to boil it first.
Also, in 2019, traces of an organic compound chlorothalonil were found in tap water in some of the country's agricultural areas. This compound has been banned in Switzerland since January 1st, 2020.