Jun 11 2009
HELSINKI – Finland is a good place to get a drink of water. But it wasn’t always so.
More than 30 years ago the pulp paper factories here were booming and polluting the rivers and lakes. The drinking water smelled of chlorine and sometimes looked faintly like dirty dish water. The Finns called it “Ugly Water.”
Then came a big scare. Researchers found that the water was loaded with potential cancer-causing substances. The government clamped down on the paper mills and started pouring money into improving the drinking water.
Now, the water in Finland, especially here in the capital, ranks among the best in the world, according to the United Nations. The Finns entertain themselves with blind water tasting contests, like wine-tastings in America. They pit their tap water against tap water from other countries and the biggest names in bottled water.
“You can take a bottle of Evian and our tap water and our water comes out better,” Janne Virkkunen, the senior editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest and most influential daily newspaper, told me.
In most developed countries, the water is safe to drink and available at the turn of a tap. Flush toilets are standard. But it’s not like that in a large part of the world where people are mainly poor and governments often provide little public service. Around the world nearly 1 billion people do not have clean drinking water readily at hand. Women often spend hours every day walking to fetch water.
In some cities, where you might expect better, the water is surprisingly bad. For example, just a few hundred miles east of here, in St. Petersburg, the capital of czarist Russia, the city pumps water from the heavily polluted Neva River through treatment plants and into homes and offices. The process doesn’t work as well as it might. The tap water is often gray, according to Finnish water experts, and people routinely boil the tap water to kill bugs that can rather significantly upset the stomach. Some European cities along the polluted Danube River also get along with drinking water that is not so great.
In some places, bottled water becomes the solution. Italy, Germany and Spain are the heaviest users of bottled water in Europe, Finland the lowest. Sometimes bottled water suggests a touch of class, even though the water is no better than what comes out of the tap, and even though the bottles create an environmental mess. Just the other night at a formal dinner near Helsinki at the headquarters for Nokia, the big cell phone maker, they were serving fine French wines and bottled water.
For decades, Helsinki had taken its drinking water from the Vantaa River. But in the 1970s officials decided on a radical plan to radically improve their drinking water. They staked out a big lake 72 miles north of Helsinki as their reservoir. The lake, Lake Paijanne, had suffered from the paper mills. But it was being cleaned up and, today, Jukka Piekkari, the managing director of Helsinki Water, the municipal water company, tells me that he often scoops up a drink of untreated or raw water for himself when he walks along the lake.
To get the water to Helsinki, the Finns decided to carve a tunnel through solid granite. They made the tunnel big enough to drive a bus through. It is one of the longest in the world. Building the tunnel took eight years and, in today’s currency, cost nearly $270 million or about 190 million Euros. It was a huge investment for a fairly small country – now 5 million people – with a fairly small economy. The tunnel was closed for repairs for eight months last year.
The water flows through the tunnel mainly by gravity from the lake into a red brick treatment plant in Helsinki. It is cool when it comes in – 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit – and cool when it goes out. “When it’s fresh and cool, it’s very nice,” Mr. Piekkari said.
In the first step in treating the water
, sediment and clumps of unwanted materials are removed. Then the water flows through layers of sand and is flushed with ozone, or electronically activated oxygen, and filtered through carbon. Finally, it is further disinfected with ultra violet light and a mild blend of chlorine and other chemicals.
“Most European cities use quite sophisticated treatment processes,” said Prof. Riku Vahala, a water specialist at the Helsinki University of Technology. “We have a combination of high-quality raw water and a high-quality treatment process.”
At a dinner at Helsinki’s ornate 19th century City Hall to salute visiting members of the International Press Institute in Vienna, the Finns at my table bragged about their water and laughed about the bad old days. Eero Waronen, the chief spokesman for Mayor Jussi Pajunen, said the pollution totally destroyed one small lake. “It was so evident that something had to be done,” he said.
The Finns seem to know precisely what they prize in a good drink of water. At the South Harbor one morning, Mattila Outi, a university student, was handing out brochures for a canal and harbor cruise. The sun had broken through the clouds, but a light rain was still falling and many people were wearing windbreakers. In the cobblestone square in front of her, ranks of white canvas tents rose as shelters for fruit and vegetable sellers, coffee shops and artisans offering jewelry, carved wood, wool sweaters and scarves.
“It’s very good,” Ms. Outi said of the water.
What does it taste like?
“Like nothing,” she said. “Not anything special.”
How do you know if you have bad water?
“It’s bad,” she said, “if it has some taste. If there is no special taste, you know it’s clear, it’s good for your health.”