It’s pretty obvious to most expats and locals in Vietnam that drinking the tap water can be harmful to our health. The question a lot of expats have is – is it safe for other users such as washing vegetables and brushing teeth? Saigon Expat Services went out to interview the CEO of one of Vietnam’s leading water treatment companies.
Where does the tap water in HCMC come from?
The two primary sources of drinking water in HCMC are the Saigon River and the Dong Nai River which are the two main rivers flowing through the city. The other major source of drinking water is groundwater, particularly in some of the outer lying districts of the city. The city has two major water treatment plants in Hoc Mon District and Thu Duc District. There are also a number of smaller plants in the outer lying regions of the city.
What is in the tap water in HCMC?
Typical treated water quality for Ho Chi Minh City as reported by the Saigon Water Corporation (SAWACO) in 2015 is shown below. This is the typical water quality that is supposedly coming out of the city’s water treatment plants and going into the city’s water distribution system.
- pH – 7.7
- Chlorine Residual mg/L – 0.95
- Turbidity NTU – 0.38
- Salinity mg/L – 19
- COD mg/L – 0.73
- Iron mg/L – 0.02
- Ammonia NH3-N mg/L – 0.01
- Total manganese mg/L – 0.014
- Microorganism MPN/100mL – 0
What does this data all mean?
This data suggests that the water quality is very good. The water quality coming out of the city’s treatment plants however, can be very variable depending upon the quality of the source (river) water going into the plants. The source water quality varies seasonally depending upon flows in the river. During the rainy season water flows are much higher, but water quality can be much worse because of rain run-off from the city streets and surrounding areas carrying a wide range of contaminants into the rivers such as oil, grease, and fertilizers. Another concern is industrial wastewater discharges upstream in the rivers. There are numerous industrial parks around HCMC that may discharge improperly treated industrial wastewater into the rivers. This can result in a wide range of unpredictable contaminants in the rivers such as heavy metals, pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons. Many of these contaminants will pass through the treatment plants into the water supply.
How is the water treated and what dangers are there to drinking it?
The water in HCMC is treated primarily by sedimentation, filtration, and chlorine disinfection.
Besides the industrial contaminants already discussed, another big concern is disease vectors such as e coli bacteria. The rivers and some groundwater around HCMC are heavily contaminated with bacteria. The treatment plants are designed to disinfect the water before it goes into the distribution system, but this disinfection treatment system must be carefully operated and maintained to ensure good and reliable disinfection. And even if the water is properly disinfected before it is put into the distribution system It can easily be re-contaminated in the distribution system itself. The water distribution system for HCMC is very old and pipelines are broken in many areas. It has been estimated that as much as 30 percent of the water put into the city’s distribution system is lost due to leakage from pipeline breaks. Each of these breaks provides another potential avenue for bacterial contamination. The single biggest danger associated with drinking HCMC tap water is probably bacterial contamination. At a minimum tap water in HCMC should probably be boiled prior to drinking.
Is it safe for cleaning your teeth?
The use of HCMC tap water for washing fruits and vegetables or taking baths and showers is probably fine. Using it for brushing teeth though could be potentially a problem if you ingest water while brushing. It is probably best to use bottled water, if available, for cleaning your teeth just to be safe.
Can we trust the Vietnamese produced bottled water to be safe?
The water bottling industry in Vietnam, to people’s surprise, is highly regulated by the Vietnamese government. However, as with many industries in Vietnam, there are often opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to circumvent this regulation. There have been Vietnamese water bottling firms in the past that have been charged with improperly treating bottled water, but it is difficult to say how widespread this type of abuse is. To be safe, especially with young children, it is advisable to only use bottled water from the better known brands.
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