Mallorca Monday: Can you drink the water?

Our first night here was spent in an Airbnb, and the first thing our host did was pour us a glass of water. It was summer, and it was hot, so we eagerly gulped it down, and both simultaneously gagged. It was salty, and tasted like it came out of a garden hose.

That was our first experience with Mallorcan water. Since then, we have gotten totally used to it, and hardly notice it anymore, but I still gag thinking about that first glass.

And this is a common thing that many visitors to Mallorca have to deal with. There are tons of people out there asking if the water is even potable.

So what’s the deal? Why does it suck? Is it dangerous to drink? We are here to find out for you!

First, and most importantly, is it safe?

We never even stopped to consider that it wouldn’t be safe. It’s Europe! Of course the water is good to go, right? But the more we traveled around, the more we overheard tourists haranguing the waiters to make “absolutely sure” that there were no ice cubes in their drinks, or that the ice cubes must be made from purified water.

Well, a person who can stomach an iceless gin and tonic must be terrified out of their minds. So we looked into getting a Brita pitcher. But to avoid wasting our money we decided to do some research. And what did we find?

The water tastes bad, but it’s perfectly healthy.

Though, it is really difficult to get to this conclusion with just a casual google search. The internet is FULL of people talking about how dangerous it is, about how “by anyone else’s standards” the water would never be allowed to be distributed, etc. Many of these people are either more familiar with the Mallorca from the 80s (when the water was dangerous), or they sell reverse osmosis systems (and need people to be scared to buy them).

The tourist guides, the government, and the locals all say the same thing “the water is safe to drink, just unpleasant”.

So what’s the deal?

Short answer: There are three problems with Mallorcan water. 1. It’s hard 2. It’s over chlorinated 3. It can be salty.

Long answer:

Mallorca gets all of its water from a series of aquifers, as well as two large reservoirs in the western mountain range, (the Cuber and the Gorg Blau).

The reservoirs are all rain fed, so that water is relatively soft. But the water in the aquifers is imprisoned in a super porous limestone tomb, so it picks up a ton of minerals. Then, that water is treated, same as any public water, with chlorine. We all drink chlorinated water, but for some reason the water here is extra chlorinated. Is chlorinated water good for you? Depends on who you ask. Chlorinated water is either the bedrock upon which all civilization stands, or it is the primary cause of cancer and senility. It probably falls somewhere in the middle, I don’t care, moving on.

Anyways, when the aquifers and the reservoirs get low they switch on the desalination plants to augment their supplies.

There are at least three desalination plants on the island, one each in Palma, Andratx, and Alcudia, and they seem to be most active in August due to the dry summer and the crush of tourists.

For some insight into why the tourism impacts the water supply, here are some juicy facts.

  • There are just over 1 million people living on this island year round. And, in 2017 Mallorca had 13.9 million people arrive in its airport. This number doesn’t count the cruise ships or the ferries. Now, these 13.9+ million people are typically only coming for a week or so. Some have summer houses, and stay longer, but most of them are out pretty quickly.
  • HOWEVER, back in 2016 Mallorca broke another record, this time for the highest number of people present on the island on a single day. Get ready for this…. On August 9th, 2016 there were 2,057,244 people present on Mallorca. So half of all the people on the island were tourists on that one day.

These people want showers, long showers. How else are you going to get the sand off after you’ve visited the beach, or get the dirt and sweat off after a hike?

And don’t forget about the golf courses, of which there are 19. They are a huge draw for tourism, and they need to be kept green and pristine.

So it’s more a matter of when, not if, the desalination plants get switched on.

And when they do, apparently the taste of the water goes wayyyyy down. Desalinated water is still a bit salty see, and the tolerance level for how much salt that can be allowed in public drinking water starts loosening when the situation starts to look desperate.

The first drink of water we had in Mallorca was back in mid-September, and I’m pretty sure the reason it was so extra horrible was because it was desalinated ocean water.

Why do tourists refuse to drink it?

So, given the situation, why do some tourists steadfastly refuse to take in ANY local water?

Back in the 70s and 80s the tap water in Spain was not super reliable. Tourists in Spain frequently got “Spanish Tummy”, or travelers diarrhea, and people knew to avoid drinking tap water. In a weird way it sounds like they were jealous of “Montezuma’s Revenge” and just wanted to make it seem like they did something exotic over the summer.

But that was then. This is now. According to the Spanish government, 99.5% of all drinking water is fit for drinking. The water in Spain is held to certain standards set by the European Union (the specific standards can be seen here). Each water provider (any source that supplies more than 5,000 people a day) must provide one report on their water quality every six months, and any provider that fails their report must have their water distribution suspended.

So if the water is so safe, then what’s with all stuff out there saying the exact opposite? For example, why did the Daily Mail report that 32% of Britons report suffered from travellers diarrhea in Spain back in 2011? Why does this website talk about Legionnaires disease and extreme salinity in Mallorcan water? And why do so many people on travel boards recommend buying bottled water whilst visiting Spain? Various reasons.

  • The Daily Mail is a garbage tabloid meant to scare.
  • One website is selling water purification systems under the brand name “Mallorcawasser”. Yeah, you can guess who their target demographic is (*it’s not the locals*)
  • And plus, your average vacationer has been bombarded by these messages for decades now. It doesn’t help that the water was dangerous back when most of these travelers were kids. They probably have bad memories of visiting Spain and getting sick. If Mexico did a bit better with its water (it’s more a problem of distribution that purification there) would you drink it? 10 or even 20 years from now? You might hesitate.

And the final thing I have noticed… hard water is just plain hard on some people’s tummies.

I found a study that claimed that hard water was actually beneficial for the intestinal system because it can alleviate constipation. And maybe if you are more sensitive to hard water, these constipation fighting properties trigger diarrhea? If you’ve lived your entire life in a region with soft water, you’d struggle to down a glass of hard water. It all comes down to how very, very sensitive everyone is about their “home water” – nothing tastes better than your home’s water.

 


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