Why you can buy water imported from Hong Kong in the Netherlands for 59 eurocents (while it costs more there)

Kruidvat, a Dutch drug store, sells bottles of tap water from Hong Kong for discount prices. How do they get there? And how bad is this type of exotic water for the environment?

I’m thirsty. My mouth is dry as dust. I work my way through a busy market street while sweat pours down my back, looking for a convenience store. I see one at the top of the hill, in a bend in the road. Brightly lit with fluorescent light, like most places are in Hong Kong. I enter the store, chilled air from the air conditioning flows over my back. I grab a bottle of Watsons Water from a cooled shelf. It’s the most prominent brand of water in the city, the characteristic green bottles can be seen everywhere. Sold for HK$ 7.50, about 90 eurocents.

Of course, I shouldn’t be buying all these disposable plastic bottles. But temperatures are scorching in Hong Kong, where I am visiting my Chinese family. And tap water tastes like chlorine.

I don’t put much thought into it, until I notice something back in Holland. At Kruidvat, a Dutch chain of drugstores, I stumble upon a bottle of Watsons Water. That surprises me, and the price surprises me even more: 59 eurocents. Even cheaper than in Hongkong. How is that possible? Is this brand also being bottled in The Netherlands? The label says otherwise: ‘Product of Hong Kong.’

How is this possible? Why would you import water from Hong Kong, where tap water isn’t even potable, to The Netherlands, where you drown in pure drinking water? And how does this water from Hong Kong end up in a Dutch store for an even lower price?

The source

I have to say that Watsons Water tastes just fine. But not nearly special enough to warrant importing it all the way from China. Perhaps it contains something special that you can only get in Hong Kong? Or maybe it’s ladled up from a spring deep under the sea by Buddhist monks using bamboo spoons?

Nothing of the sort. The Watsons Water Distillation Plant claims to be the biggest in the world and it looks the part: like a big factory. The plant is located in Tai Po in Hong Kong, right next to the Tai Po sewage treatment works.
The factory filters 430 million liters of Hong Kong tap water every year and heats it to 105 degrees Celsius. The water evaporates into droplets, which are then put in bottles. That’s what their website says, anyway.

Quite strange to do this all the way in Hong Kong. Especially since the tap water there has to be filtered more carefully than in the Netherlands: it contains fluoride and chlorine. That disinfectant is needed because in Hong Kong water doesn’t go straight from the water mains to the kitchen faucet, but is often first stored in big tanks on top of buildings.
On top of that, the city has a water scarcity. Because of the hard granite bedrock underneath Hong Kong, there is little groundwater that can be pumped up. There aren’t many lakes and rivers, and there is a lack of space to store rainwater. No wonder 70 to 80 percent of the water Hong Kong uses has to be imported from the province of Guangdong, across the border with China. There, water is harvested from the Dong river, a questionable source for drinking water. And then there’s the measures the city takes to save water, like using sea water to flush toilets. Not the most sensible place to export water from, to put it mildly.

Watsons itself claims it became the biggest water producer precisely because of the water shortage. During the explosive growth of Hong Kong after the Second World War, the city had a harrowing lack of safe drinking water. At the time, the city was a British colony and thus a safe haven for Chinese people who wanted to flee the rise of the communist regime.

The company, which started off as a pharmacy, already distilled water for the production of medicine at the time. This gave it a trustworthy image and made it immensely popular. To this day, the company says that its water is extremely safe and pure because of this distillation process, it hardly contains any minerals. A calming thought in a city which is obsessed with hygiene — and where hygiene often leaves something to be desired.

Would that be the secret? Perhaps the Netherlands has a huge demand for mineral-free water. That might explain why Watsons is being sold there.

The Netherlands Nutrition Centre tells me on the phone that this isn’t the case. Those minerals don’t really matter. You need water, and you need minerals. but it isn’t important whether those two are combined or not. With a varied diet, you get plenty of minerals. Dutch tap water does contain minerals and fits perfectly fine into a normal diet. The only mineral that requires some caution, is sodium (salt). But you would have to drink enormous amounts of mineral water before this becomes a problem.

A translation of the rest of this longread is still in the works. The original in Dutch is available here, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Bedankt voor het lezen! Ik hoor graag wat je ervan vindt. Neem gerust contact met me op.

This article was originally published in Dutch in de Volkskrant on June 10, 2017.