Travellers heading overseas are often advised not to drink the local tap water and to stick to bottled water, but this advice can be potentially dangerous when it’s based on the assumption that the bottled water quality abroad will always be of the same standard as the products that you are familiar with at home.
We’ve collected a selection of online reports covering instances when local standards for bottled water quality have not been met by producers, and cases where unscrupulous bottlers and vendors have simply set out to deceive their customers, without a thought for the serious harm to health they may be inflicting on their victims.
TWO IMPORTANT QUESTIONS FOR TRAVELLERS TO CONSIDER WHEN THINKING ABOUT BOTTLED DRINKING WATER AWAY FROM HOME
1. WHERE LOCAL STANDARDS EXIST, SOME BOTTLED WATER MANUFACTURERS MAY STILL FAIL TO MEET THEM. HOW WILL YOU KNOW WHICH BRANDS OF UNFAMILIAR BOTTLED WATER ARE SAFE WHEN YOU VISIT?
- In February 2005 Cambodian media reported that “Locally Bottled Water Not Always Safe To Drink”.  This was followed in 2008 with a report stating “Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy reported that more than 100 bottled water companies in Cambodia were being considered for closure for failing to meet minimum production quality standards. Only 24 of the 130 bottled water companies are compliant with the ministry’s Department of Industrial Standards.”  Would you have known which companies were producing unsafe bottled water?
- In April 2009 it was reported in Vietnam that at least 60 water bottling facilities had been closed around the country after “samples failed safety standard tests”.  Has the bottled water you’re drinking been produced in a safe facility?
- In July 2011 it was reported that Government authorities in Beijing “halted the sale of 31 brands of bottled water after they failed safety tests” and “random market inspections found bacteria colonies in the water”. “Tests on one brand of bottled water – Yiqun – found that bacteria levels were 9,000 times above safety standards, while those in Tianxing Special Water were 560 times higher, a report in the state-run Beijing Times said.”  Although tightened regulations were introduced in 2016, there are now over 1,500 domestic brands of bottled water in China , and in a highly localised industry with only a few large national players (one of which was involved in a quality standards controversy in 2013 , while other major brands were declared unsafe due to bacterial content in 2014), how would you make a decision on which one to choose?
- In April 2014 Chinese authorities in Guangzhou deemed 13 brands of bottled water were unfit for human consumption.  Would you have known to avoid these brands?
- In January 2015 it was reported  that scientists in India had discovered excessive levels of potentially carcinogenic toxins in bottled water in Mumbai. Have you considered the risk from chemical contaminants in water when travelling overseas?
- In January 2015 the Beijing Bureau for Food and Drug Inspection identified the best selling Wahaha and C’est Bon bottled water brands at the top of a list of eight 18.9 litre products that had been removed from sale due to unsafe bacterial levels. Just because you see other people drinking a local brand it doesn’t mean that it is safe.
- In April 2015 a Taiwanese company was found to have supplied over 20,000 local businesses and hotels with “bogus mineral water made from unlicensed underground water resources”.  How would you know if the water supplied by your hotel or overseas workplace is safe?
- In June 2015 Indian officials shut down 100 water bottling units in the Bengaluru area that were failing to operate to Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).  How would you know if a local manufacturer is breaching standards?
- In July 2015 Panama Ministry of Health removed two bottled water brands, Boa and Tropical, from the market after testing of all local brands, which showed that a “large quantity” of them did not “comply with at least one of the 30 measurement parameters established by the Panamanian legislation.”  Should you worry about a large quantity of bottled water brands failing to meet the standards of the country you’re visiting?
- In August 2015 authorities in Sudan seized thousands of bottles of drinking water in Wad Madani, and calls were made for an investigation into water production in Khartoum state, noting ‘reports about drinking water sources contaminated by sewage, as well as the rapidly growing number of kidney failure cases and “other, unusual diseases” in the country.’  Are you aware of the diseases that can be contracted from contaminated drinking water?
- In March 2016 the independent Russian consumer standards organisation Roscontrol reported that testing of 10 mineral water brands had shown that two used recycled water and two more breached the permitted levels of radioactivity.  Would you prefer radioactive or recycled refreshment?
- In April 2016 bottled water contaminated with Norovirus affected more than 4,000 people who had drunk from office coolers, in a single outbreak in Catalonia, Spain.  How safe is the bottled water supplied to your overseas workplace?
- In May 2016 local news media reported that the Kenyan Bureau of Standards (KEBS) had released a list of 386 companies (out of 600 registered water bottling firms in the country) that had had their permits for bottling water suspended for violating standards as they “lacked valid permits from the agency, failed to comply with the code of hygiene, used suspect water sources and had poor and misleading labeling”.  Would you know how to check if the bottled water you buy is a safe brand?
- In May 2016 Egyptian health ministry inspectors were reported to have found levels of bacteria (including E. coli) in water “unfit for human consumption” at bottling plants, leading to a recall of Nestlé Egypt’s 330 ml & 1.5 l Pure Life and PepsiCo’s Aquafina 600 ml & 1.5 l water bottles.  Would you assume that famous brands are always the safest?
- In June 2016 a Brazilian mineral water producer in Patos was shut down for producing bottled mineral water that was unfit for human consumption.  How would you have known it was unsafe if you’d been buying water produced by this company before they were closed down?
- The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources routinely samples in excess of 100 commercially available bottled water brands from cities around the country, and produces quarterly reports  on the results of testing for chemical and microbiological contaminants. In the period between January 2015 and March 2017 there were multiple instances of sampled brands that were found to be unsafe for drinking. Unfortunately for travellers these reports are retrospective, and don’t tell you which bottled water brands might now be unsafe during your visit.
- In October 2016 the head of the National Mineral Water Association of Liberia called for “the speedy shut down of substandard mineral water companies that are operating in the country” stating that “a big percentage of the mineral water companies in the country are not up to standards and as such put the lives of many people to risk.”  What percentage of local bottled water would need to be substandard before you decide not to take the risk?
- In January 2017 Indian researchers found that five out of nine collected samples of bottled water being sold in the town of Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, contained faecal coliform bacteria, showing “that the manufacturers did not follow the standard water purification techniques of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).”  Would a failure rate of more than 50% cause you to think twice about local bottled water?
- In April 2017 70 bottled water brands in Myanmar were granted licences, despite failing to meet the national standard of containing no more than 100 bacterial colonies per ml, which is the same as EU and US standards. A number of the failed samples had over 300 colonies per ml, so the solution of the Myanmar authorities was to change their standard to 500 colonies per ml.  Ask yourself… no, don’t even think about it. There’s really no decision to make here.
2. COULD YOU IDENTIFY ‘FAKE’ OR COUNTERFEIT WATER?
- In July 2005 employees fled a police raid to avoid capture when a fake mineral water factory was closed down in the Mohakhali district of Dhaka, Bangladesh. 
- In July 2006 Tajikistan banned imports of counterfeit water bottles of the Georgian Borjomi brand that were being produced in Kazakhstan and which failed to meet sanitary requirements. 
- In August 2007 police in Kosovo raided a private, unlicensed property, and confiscated production equipment and more than 3000 litres of fake Heba branded mineral water. 
- In February 2009 Vietnamese bottled water manufacturer SAPUWA warned customers to beware of counterfeit copies of their product. 
- In June 2010 the Association of Mineral Water Distributors in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul announced that police were investigating a gang selling tap water in branded bottles in the regional capital of Teresina. 
- In July 2010 a fake water factory with the capacity to process 2,000 litres in 15 minutes, and which was counterfeiting reputable brands, was shut down in Ghaziabad, New Delhi, India. 
- In September 2010 a state-controlled news agency reported that “Sales of mineral water in Russia stood at almost $1.9 billion last year. On average, about 30% of all mineral water sold in Russia is counterfeit, but for some brands the figure exceeds 70-80%”. 
- In September 2011 police in Bogotá, Colombia made “three raids on illegal facilities located in San Felipe, El Muelle and the center of the country’s capital [where they] seized more than 500 bottles of water from different brands and 250 empty bottles with false markings.” 
- In February 2012 it was reported that Gurgaon police arrested members of a gang that were counterfeiting Pepsico India’s Aquafina bottled water brand. 
- In March 2012 fourteen foreign nationals were arrested in South Sudan for producing counterfeit copies of local bottled water brands. 
- In April 2012 28 companies producing fake and unhygienic water were banned from operating by authorities in Karachi, Pakistan. 
- In November 2012 a newspaper survey in Tanzania identified a number of leading bottled water brands in the market that were not registered with the Tanzanian Bureau of Standards (TBS), despite have their products marked as accredited and bearing the TBS logo. 
- In January 2013 police in Asuncion, Paraguay detained three men in a truck leading to the seizure of 128 containers of fake branded and unbranded mineral water. Local authorities advised against buying drinking water from such vendors. 
- In March 2013 authorities in Uganda warned the public to be vigilant in their choice of bottled water as there were more than 48 brands on the market but only 30 were certified. 
- In May 2013 “Food supply inspectors in Ismailia [Egypt] […] apprehended workers at an unlicensed factory in Abu Suweir that had been selling bottles filled with tap water and labelled with trademarks of established mineral water companies.” 
- In February 2014 Russian police discovered the illegal production of fake mineral water was being coordinated on site by an official at the Teberda Tuberculosis sanatorium. 
- In July 2014 police in Rwanda arrested a man in possession of fake mineral water. The detained individual admitted counterfeiting two legitimate brands, Nil and Inyange. 
- In October 2014 Chinese police discovered a huge operation counterfeiting the popular C’est Bon brand of bottled water. 
- In March 2015 the director of the Department of Justice and Vigilance in Guayaquil, Ecuador, stated that people should not consume water purchased on the city’s streets, urging the municipal health authorities to take action on the matter and analyse the quality of water. 
- In March 2015 it was reported that police in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, had “busted a factory used to bottle and market regular tap water as having been taken from the Zamzam well inside the Grand Mosque”.  Further raids on fake Zamzam producers in Mecca were reported  in July that year, but this would not be the end of such practice.
- In April 2015 police in Indonesia raided two fake Zamzam water ‘producers’ on the same day. This followed two separate arrests the previous year for similar fake Zamzam water operations, one of which had been conducting business since 2009.  The sale of Zamzam water was prohibited in Malaysia in May 2015. 
- In July 2015 officials in Rwanda warned against buying bottled water from street hawkers who were refilling old bottles collected from bins with unpurified water. 
- In July 2015 police in Laos arrested four Vietnamese nationals who were refilling old bottles with tap water and repackaging them as the local Tigerhead bottled water brand.  Subsequent warnings from the Lao PDR Ministry of Health  show how difficult it might be for travellers to identify the counterfeits.
- In October 2015 there was another demonstration of how unscrupulous individuals will exploit your faith in bottled water when police in Medina, Saudi Arabia, raided another fake Zamzam water facility. 
- In February 2016 the Indian Bottled Water Manufacturers Association registered a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the “production and sale of spurious packaged drinking water by companies that have their plants on the outskirts of Mumbai. 
- In February 2016 it was reported that personnel at the Danone-owned Bonafont brand, which had 38.1% of the Mexican bottled water market at that time, had acknowledged a problem with ‘pirate’ water after various authorities in the country were said to have identified over 11,000 litres of bottled water as having been produced by criminals filling branded bottles with water of “unknown origin” in 2015. 
- In April 2016 the Kenya Revenue Authority stated that 60% of bottled water in the country was “illicit” , and the same month KEBS “shut down five water firms in Mombasa for selling counterfeit water and urged caution after several cases of hepatitis in the region. The surveillance department said samples were found to contain coliform bacteria – a confirmation of faecal contamination and poor hygiene standards.” 
- In April 2016 the ongoing problem of fake bottled water in China forced Nestle to take action: “China wins innovation award for its anti-fake system Nestlé Waters China wins an innovation award for its revolutionary, 4-layered “antifake system”, which helps prevent counterfeiting of 5-gallon bottles. The new system allows consumers to clearly identify a genuine Nestlé Pure Life product, in a Chinese market where bottles of drinking water with inferior quality and fake branding abound. The anti-fake system helps boost consumer trust and serves as a strong example of food safety in the Chinese market.” 
- In June 2016 a counterfeiter of Aqua brand bottled water was caught by police having supplied bottles re-filled from unsanitary wells in Depok, south of Jakarta, Indonesia. 
- In June 2016 Saudi authorities seized and destroyed “about five tons” of fake Zamzam water being sold at the roadside on the Jeddah-Mecca Expressway. 
- In September 2016 Indian railways fined 50 vendors for selling fake bottled water in railway stations. 
- In September 2016 the vast scale of dangerous bottled water supply in Nigeria was reported under the headline “That bottled water may quench your thirst or kill you.” 
- In October 2016 the Zambia Bureau of Standards warned the public not to buy bottled drinking water and drinks from street vendors and unknown sources. 
- In November 2016 the South African Police Service raided a fake Valpre-branded bottled water operation in Johannesburg, with a value of R10 million (approx. £600,000), which was reportedly sourced from a fire hydrant. 
- In May 2017 it was announced by Interpol that more than 266,000 bottles of counterfeit mineral water were seized in Italy’s Lazio region during the international OPSON VI anti-counterfeiting operation. 
- In May 2017 it was reported that Saudi authorities had found more instances of fake Zamzam water in Buraidah, Hail, Mecca and Medina. 
- As of June 2017 security travel advice for Tunisia from Intelligent Protection International Limited stated that “There have been a number of cases of bottled water being refilled with tap water and re-sold which has led to avoidable illnesses.” 
We believe that the above reports represent the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to bottled drinking water safety for travellers. Don’t be the person who finds out the hard way.
Additional cases (not referenced on the map):
July 2017: “Shanghai police arrest man for selling ‘fake water’ to unsuspecting residents”
July 2017: “Beware of fake bottled water” [Bangladesh]
August 2017: “Greater Jakarta: Police arrest men for fake bottled water”
November 2017: “Saudi Authority warns against drinking Rokan and Al-Dar bottled water”
December 2017: “Businessman arrested for selling fake water” [Uganda]
March 2018: “Sip of deceit: Up to 70% of bottled water may be fake” [Kenya]
March 2018: “Scam is back in summer: Used bottles refilled with tap water at railway stations” [India]
March 2018: “Bogus bottled water sold in southern Taiwan for 10 years”
April 2018: “Chinese firm’s fake mineral water scam exposed in Zambia”