10 Countries With The Cleanest Water In The World
Freshwater is the single most useful substance known to humanity – but it’s also rapidly disappearing.
We use water to cook our food, refresh and hydrate our bodies and minds, and even spin turbines in power plants.
So which countries have the freshest water in the world?
By using new and evolving technologies and following policies that lead to accessible clean water, nations struggling to keep up with growing demands are trying to close the gap.
Let’s first briefly talk about what clean water is and why we really need it, before diving into where you can find the best tap water.
Why do humans need so much water?
Without drinkable water, our fragile human bodies wither away within a matter of days.
This constant need for hydration is due to our excessive sweating; while we share roughly the same hair follicle density as chimps, our fur has miniaturized over time – giving way to nearly ten times the number of sweat glands of other great apes.
It’s not clear why humans evolved to be this sweaty. Some speculate it has something to do with a move towards persistence hunting as a species, where we would chase hunting until they collapsed from exhaustion – but this isn’t backed up by concrete evidence.
Others argue that our smarts had more to do with our success than our ability to run long distances.
Regardless of why we need so much freshwater to thrive, humans have evolved to become one of the neediest animals when it comes to drinking water, making it both our most precious resource and biggest weakness.
So getting our hands on clean water is a high priority for all of us – but not everyone has equal access to it or even the same definitions of what clean water is.
What defines the world’s best drinking water?
Terms like pure and natural come to mind for most when imagining water they might like to drink.
But neither of these words means much if you want to understand what’s needed to distribute water to billions of people.
So what criteria exist if we want to get a baseline for the cleanliness of water?
There are a few effective systems already in use for categorizing water, such as the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), developed by Yale University.
Using data collected from water supplies in 180 countries, this system ranks global water quality by country based on the number of life-years lost per 100,000 persons, due to unsafe drinking water.
While it isn’t the most-detailed ranking system, with some countries sharing the top spots, it does allow for a wider scope of countries to be considered and draws attention to the important differences between high and low-ranking countries.
Here’s how they stack up:
Which countries have the best water in the world?
Using data taken from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study, here are the EPI rankings for the purest water in the world.
1. Austria, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, UK
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 100
The top spot for drinkable water is actually shared by 10 different countries, all of which are celebrated for their clean water.
Iceland in particular ticks a lot of boxes for its water quality, as the island nation’s water travels through volcanic earth and is both naturally low in bacterial contaminants and high in minerals by the time it reaches Iceland’s aquifers.
Requiring minimal treatment before supplying water to homes in Iceland, passing chemical quality checks with more than 99% compliance – these are a few reasons Iceland’s water is so coveted, aside from its delicious taste.
An interesting note to make is that Nordic countries often don’t have any water quality organizations at all, or much political interest in clean water either, due to how abundant clean water is within these regions.
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 98.4
Germany has some of the best tap water in the world, and in contrast to other nations, the nation has a very low per-capita amount of water usage alongside very robust groundwater protections and advanced wastewater treatment systems.
According to WISE Freshwater, Germany treats 100% of its discharged sewage in line with EU legislation – a huge win for fans of clean water.
However, when it comes to Germany’s overall use of water, a sizable portion of what the country actually uses comes from lower-income nations – not always directly, but through various industries and forms of consumption.
This is a common trait shared amongst all developed nations, but it’s important to point out that Germany still relies on the water resources of lower-income nations.
3. Sweden and Luxembourg
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 97.7
A single sandstone aquifer supplies the majority of Luxembourg’s water, with the rest coming from the Upper Sûre Lake dam system; treated with a combination of methods like sand bed filtration, deacidification, and disinfection – Luxembourg’s taps pour out some of the best drinking water in the world.
In Sweden, a majority of drinking water comes from the numerous freshwater lakes dotting the landscape, some of which are even safe to drink from directly.
It wasn’t always like this, though – Sweden has spent around $600 million since the 1970’s adding lime to its many lakes, which were once polluted enough to threaten fish stocks and other plants and animals living near them.
Deacidifying their lakes was both a costly and long process, but the 314 lakes treated are now considered to be around 90% pristine.
In 2017, the International Organization For Standardization (ISO) even awarded Stockholm, Sweden’s water with a Certification of Quality in recognition of its high water quality standards.
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 97.7
Around 96% of Italy has reliable access to clean tap water, and for a nation known for its stellar cuisine – it makes sense that their standards for drinkable water would be high.
Despite this, Italians drink the most bottled water out of all European nations.
And this may only increase as climate-related droughts are starting to impact Italian freshwater supplies – a scary reality for these pasta-loving folk who apparently use around ten times more water than required to meet basic human needs.
Oddly enough, other reports show that overall consumer water use is declining throughout Italy, although the reasons for this remain unclear.
Either way, if you’re a carbonated water connoisseur – Italy may be your dream destination.
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 95.7
Denmark has a decentralized water supply structure, where local water treatment plants distribute tap water that’s 99% sourced from groundwater.
These kinds of treatment systems are thought to lower energy costs and have fewer environmental impacts, and are used throughout around 2600 public waterworks in Denmark.
Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, has a more centralized water system – but in general, Danish water has a low concentration of microplastic pollution, comparable to amounts commonly found in natural environments.
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 94.6
While ranking highly, Spain is actually quite a thirsty nation, geographically speaking. The country boasts an incredibly diverse range of climate zones, with some of its more arid areas being particularly sensitive to water shortages as of late.
Its majestic Pyrenees Glaciers are rapidly vanishing due to climate change, posing an issue for the future of clean Spanish water.
In recent years, Spain has been criticized by the EU for its falling standards of water treatment and reuse – but the country still has one of the best wastewater reuse systems on the planet.
7. Israel and France
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 94.6
You may not know that between 50-80% of Israel’s drinking water is desalinated seawater – a source of water known to be much more corrosive than freshwater and one that can even cause chemicals to leach from piping and other materials.
Israel is at the forefront of water desalination technology, and has even begun piping desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea back into the Sea of Galilee, a lake in northern Israel that has historically suffered from climate change related droughts.
In France, efforts to confront water scarcity have led to a newly formed International Strategy for Water and Sanitation. Included in their strategy, which focuses on bolstering regulations in the fields of water and sanitation – are policies that continue the French tradition of extending global aid to developing nations.
However, new reports in June 2023 revealed widespread pesticide contamination in French tap water sources, with over 50% of 136,000 water samples containing trace amounts of the fungicide Chlorothalonil – a suspected human carcinogen.
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 92.9
Compared to its European neighbors, Belgium is pretty low ranking; part of this is due to a recent European Commission report that suggested Belgium tap water is associated with a higher risk of certain illnesses.
Met with harsh criticism, the battle between regulatory agencies and Belgium is ongoing, but one suggested solution is a general upgrade of water treatment infrastructure – which would reduce overall energy costs associated with cleaning water of easy-to-miss micropollutants.
Overall, Belgium still ranks highly when it comes to drinkable water – with nearly 100% of Belgians having easy access to some of the best water quality in the world.
9. Japan and Cyprus
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 91.6
Despite a history of nuclear disasters, like the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident caused by a devastating tsunami – Japan still has a reputation of readily available, clean water, and there have even been studies that assessed the dosage of radiation from bottled water in Japan.
Compared to many other countries, Japan has relatively soft water with low-mineral content, which means Japanese tap water may have a slightly salty taste compared to harder water.
Cyprus, being a relatively dry Mediterranean island, has some of the lowest water availability per capita – it’s actually Europe’s most water-stressed nation.
However, one thing the island does have access to is unlimited amounts of seawater, and 70% of its drinkable water comes from desalination plants. Desalination is one of the best ways to produce clean water, although it comes with a large energy footprint and produces lots of excess salt brine which can damage ecosystems it accumulates in.
Unsafe Drinking Water EPI Score: 90.8
It’s hardly surprising that a country with over 2 million lakes and nearly 20% of the world’s freshwater has excellent access to clean drinking water.
One reason for Canada’s low-ranking (22nd by EPI score) position relates to the neglect of its First Nations people.
A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch covered the abysmal state of failing infrastructure and degrading water sources within First Nation reserves – home to hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.
These issues not only affect modern water treatment and transportation systems, but also threaten to further destroy valuable traditional ecological knowledge native to these water-stressed areas.
What about low ranking countries?
Listing out countries with the cleanest drinking water in the world merely amounts to a pissing contest without including the lowest-ranking countries as well.
Clean water is a luxury enjoyed by most of the developed world – and at least within countries held to the standards of European Union water regulations, an essential aspect of human rights.
Comparing nations and pressuring them to stay above certain standards is a good thing, but it can also distract a bit from the conditions faced by over 100 countries that lack high-quality water.
Here are a few examples of countries with the worst drinking water in the world:
- Chad – EPI Score: 0
- Central African Republic – EPI Score: 0
- Niger – EPI Score: 1.6
- Nigeria – EPI Score: 4.2
- Togo – EPI Score: 4.8
28 of the 29 lowest-ranked countries are in Africa, a continent with a population of over a billion. Around one in three Africans are facing water scarcity, and as we start to surpass various climate tipping points, the situation will worsen.
But this isn’t only an issue in Africa. As the United Nations (UN) puts it, climate change is mainly a water crisis. Unpredictable, extreme weather events and water pollution are making it harder to find drinkable water – especially in areas without developed infrastructure.
The UN does have a nice list of proposed solutions, which are meant to be sustainable, affordable, and scalable.
Here’s a nice summary, if you’re interested:
Carbon storage needs to be in focus. Important forests, peatlands, and wetland ecosystems like mangrove forests can store immense amounts of carbon, and need to be protected at all costs.
Natural buffers need to be maintained and protected. Wetlands and mangroves also protect our coasts from erosion and flooding, and are much more cost effective compared to other kinds of barriers.
Rainwater should be captured more often. Rainwater capture is one of the better ways to solve small-scale water issues in regions where rainfall patterns are less predictable.
Groundwater, wastewater, and agriculture need to be optimized. Currently, we tend to waste immense amounts of water through monoculture farming operations – these need to be optimized using sustainable agriculture techniques that use much less water.
If you’re looking for easy ways to personally help tackle the water crisis, consider checking out this easy to follow list put together by the EPA, which covers some of the ways you can help protect your local drinking water sources.
Why do we drink so much bottled water?
Within this list, you may have noticed something: even those from wealthier, developed nations with instant access to clean water still tend to drink a lot of bottled water.
Why is that?
Relying on bottled water instead of clean tap water is a big issue – and unfortunately, it’s often due to misinformation about the safety of water in general.
The bottled water industry has a huge budget, and with that comes advertising campaigns that showcase water packaged in plastic as a safe, reliable way to meet your daily needs.
Think about it – when’s the last time you saw a reusable water bottle ad?
Even if the number of brands selling eco friendly water bottles has skyrocketed in recent years, the demand for plastic bottled water is also increasing – a concerning trend when you consider the waste and pollution that comes with it.
Anywhere you look, you’re likely to find global water supplies that have already been contaminated with things like microplastics, pesticides, and various other pollutants, including tap water. And bottled water is neither healthier or safer than tap water in most cases.
In fact, by drinking water packaged in plastic you may be ingesting even more of these difficult to avoid microplastic particles.
One study, which sampled 259 bottles from 11 different brands, found that 93% of sampled bottles were contaminated with microplastics of various sizes. Collected from nine different countries, these samples all varied in microplastic density and type.
Plastic bottles – even reusable ones – degrade over time and release hundreds of chemicals when handled in certain ways. Even recycling plastic (when it’s not sitting in a landfill) leads to more microplastics being released into natural environments.
In other words, bottling water in plastic is a big issue – especially for nations who have access to clean water already.
Clean, drinkable water is essential to human society and forms the foundation of a sustainable future – without it, we won’t last very long at all.
Well-regulated, clean, and distributed tap water is an essential right that everyone deserves and needs; but not everyone has equal access to clean water, and those who do often forget how lucky they really are.
Is your local water clean and drinkable?