The ‘Free Tap Water in Belgium’ initiative is the force behind major changes that benefit the health of people and the environment: from encouraging bars and restaurants to expand their offer to promoting the installation of water fountains within important transport hubs.
This article analyzes the key factors behind these successes and reveals how a dedicated leader and a handful of motivated volunteers using a wide-reach social network and a fair amount of “respectful pestering”, built a citizen-led initiative that improved access to the most important public commodity: drinkable water.
KEY SUCCESS FACTORS
· Patience and perseverance | Water reshapes a stone drop by drop
· From individual to collective action
· Adaptability | Changing the focus as the pandemic hits
· Forging strategic partnerships
· Using robust research to convince
· Changing mentalities through social media
February 17th, 2019, in Bruges, Belgium. Sarah Ehrlich and her best friend are having a great time at Pain Quotidien, a café in Bruges. At some point, her friend requests a glass of tap water, just to be refused – it is a policy used by restaurants across the country: if you want to drink water, you must buy it in a bottle.
“Don’t you worry, I’ll get it changed for your next visit”, Sarah said.
The same evening, she reaches out to her Facebook network and posts a message to ask who else strongly feels that tap water in restaurants should be a given. Seeing many positive reactions to her post, Sarah creates the page “Free Tap Water in Belgian Restaurants” the following day, later renaming it to “Free Tap Water in Belgium”. Today, it counts 12 400 subscribers.
The average Belgian drinks 130L of bottled water per year, 12L more than the European average (Statista, 2021). The production, transport, and recycling of plastic and glass bottles are energy- and resource-consuming processes; fossil fuels are burnt and greenhouse gas are released. Many hazardous substances have been found in plastic such as heavy metals or phthalates which, among others, are responsible for the reproductive disruption.
On land or in the sea, plastic waste is responsible for the death of countless animals which often mistake it for food, causing obstructions, stomach ruptures and starvation. Besides, as plastic slowly decomposes, it breaks down into microplastics (or tiny plastic particles), contaminating soil, water and, ultimately, every level of the food chain, including ourselves. Multiple studies have found microplastics in fish and seafood, but also in the water we drink.
Thus, the key argument behind the ‘Free Tap Water in Belgium’ initiative is that improving access to tap water gives consumers a choice to be healthier and more environmentally friendly.
The HORECA sector is not an easy ground to instigate a large scale change, as Belgian taxation and property rent prices make turning profit is a serious challenge – and offering free tap water is associated with less income from the bottled water sales. Also, HORECA means hundreds and hundreds of separate bars, hotels and restaurants, so transforming it is a very different challenge to advocacy towards a single institution, for example, a parliament.
One could seek to change the law, to mandate that free tap water has to be offered to consumers, but this is a story of creating positive impact through another route: by convincing rather than legislating. We have interviewed Sarah to uncover the success factors behind this initiative – let us now look into them one by one.
Patience and perseverance | Water reshapes a stone drop by drop
A couple of weeks after its creation, and as the Facebook page was quickly gaining likes – especially among the Millennials – Sarah Ehrlich reached out to Exki, an international restaurant chain, asking to talk to the founder and owner.
“He was extremely nice and respectful and listened. Really a model founder!”, Sarah recalls.
Convinced by Sarah’s argument that having the choice between mineral and tap water would be an improvement not only for the consumers but also for the planet, he made the decision right away. That same day, a corporate memo was issued and the day after, as Sarah’s husband and daughter happened to be at Exki for lunch, they were able to cheer her first success with glasses of tap water.
Sarah quickly shared the good news on the Facebook page with a picture of a glass of tap water, a coffee and a fruit, captioning “You can now ask for free tap water at Exki”.
From then on, driving the change meant getting the word out, online and in real life, as well as some nerve and many patient conversations with waiters, waitresses, and managers.
From individual to collective action
After that, many people joined the initiative, most of them young international students. Pam Miller from the United States “did an unbelievable amount of work on social media, organizing and campaigning”. Another volunteer, from France, wrote “some really powerful pieces about politics and philosophy”, whilst Vlatka Matkovic created the logo overnight.
Charlotte Van Campenhout and Morgane Vander Linden from Antwerp wrote all the posts in Flemish. “It was very important to have both languages”, specified Sarah. Indeed, publicity in both French and Flemish, the two official languages in Belgium, enabled Free Tap Water in Belgium to reach a bigger audience.
A young woman named Axelle Basselet created an interactive map on Google Maps in March 2019, which indicated the restaurant and bars which offered free tap water option. In the following months, many individuals took it upon themselves to continue what Sarah had started: “politely and respectfully pester” restaurants and cafés for free tap water to be added to the beverage options. And when that would (finally) happen, they would post a picture, just as the one Sarah did originally, and add to the map yet another place that was now serving tap water to its customers.
It reached a point where restaurants themselves would reach out and asked to be featured on the map. “Our campaign has operated on a policy of ‘Name and Fame’, never name and shame”, said Sarah in a Brussels Express interview.
By the summer, Pain Quotidien, the place where it all had started, wrote to Sarah to inform her that, from now on, tap water could be served with a meal. After that, many more victories ensued.
Seeing the success of the movement with more and more places being added on the map, the ‘Free Tap Water in Belgium’ app was launched in June 2019 at the initiative of Martin Boegarts (Belgium) and Itay Mayerovitz (Israel), who turned the interactive map into an application that can be found both on Play Store and Apple Store.
Free Tap Water in Belgium is a good example of ’in unity there is strength‘. Sarah has let the volunteers contribute with their creativity and skills in the areas where they had the energy and willingness to act – and even when their proposals went beyond her original plans, she trusted younger people. This is the power of a truly participatory grass-root initiative.
Adaptability | Changing the focus as the pandemic hits
Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, restaurants and cafés have been closed for the majority of the year. However, it did not stop the campaign of Free Tap Water in Belgium which shifted its focus towards public places.
Perhaps some of you remember a campaign from Brussels Airport called ‘Water with a cause’. The principle was simple: pay 1€ for a plastic bottle of water and all profits go to charity. One of the beneficiaries being… the World Wildlife Foundation, or WWF, an organization which protects nature and animals!
“Absolute nonsense” in Sarah’s words.
She proceeded to contact Brussels Airport to point out how ridiculous this was and simply asked them: why not install water fountains and sell reusable bottles instead? And of course, profits would still go to charity. Convinced, the Airport’s management agreed.
Free Tap Water also spoke to the Charleroi Airport about installing fountains. Unfortunately, the COVID19 pandemic has delayed both airports’ projects, but hopefully, the fountains will appear in their halls later this year.
By widening the scope of its action, Free Tap Water in Belgium has proven its consistency and engagement to democratize a necessary commodity (water) and its commitment to sustainability.
Forging strategic partnerships
In parallel, Sarah and other activists spent a lot of time persuading SNCB (the national Belgian rail company) and the Eurostar. For SNCB, the activists joined forces with the three Belgian water distribution companies: Vivaqua, Aqua Wallonia and Aqua Flanders as they are natural allies for the cause. They were ready to help subsidize the installations of the fountains, as it turned out.
In April 2021, fountains were progressively installed in main train stations across Belgium. This SNCB project will last 3 years. As for the Eurostar, a water fountain was installed in February 2020.
As the Free Tap Water collective heard that the sandwich chain Prêt À Manger was about to open in two main Brussels stations, Gare Centrale and Gare du Midi, the collective reached to the managers, asking them if they would install a fountain.
Their answer: “This is not how we do things in Belgium”.
Not discouraged, the activists turned to Twitter and directly reached out to the CEO of Prêt À Manger who, to their surprise, answered with a promise to do his best.
The result? When the shops opened, they had a water fountain accessible to all passengers, not just customers!
As we can see, Free Tap Water in Belgium has not been weakened by the pandemic, instead, it changed targets: train stations and airports. This adaptability has enabled the continuity of the movement, keeping activists busy.
Using robust research to convince
It is also fair to partly credit the success of the campaign publicising important pieces of research via social media, which raised awareness and debunked harmful myths.
Their perhaps most notable action tackled the widespread concern among people living in Belgium that the high calcium levels found in their tap water can cause kidney stones. What better candidate to answer this than an internationally acclaimed Professor of Medicine and Nephrology [the study of kidneys] at Gent University, Dr. Norbert Lameire?
After reaching out to him for a scientific opinion, the following was posted on Facebook:
“It can be concluded that there are no scientific arguments not to recommend drinking normal tap water even in so-called “hard” water environments, out of fear that this policy is associated with higher risk for kidney stones. On the contrary, there is strong scientific evidence that a normal dietary calcium intake, including the calcium provided by tap water, is protective against nephrolithiasis.”
“I think Professor Lameire’s conclusions definitely played a part in this process”, affirms Sarah.
A volunteer named Marianne Albert completed a thorough research review comparing the carbon footprint of glass bottles and single-use plastic bottles. Many people are unaware that water bottled in glass has a higher carbon footprint than one in plastic bottles, mainly due to their production and recycling process which involves melting materials at very high temperature. This was eye-opening for many, as glass is often seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic.
Publicising these two pieces of science-based information not only raised people’s awareness but also helped establish the credibility of Free Tap Water in Belgium.
Changing mentalities through social media
Besides using social networks as channels to share successes, the group also actively engaged with their audience to survey people about free tap water and the campaign, as well as to address persistent beliefs among consumers.
Thus, 14 polls were conducted with, on average, 500 respondents per poll. Some of the results showed that:
- 80% feel uncomfortable asking for tap water in Belgian bars and restaurants
- 77% of people would order a different drink than water if they were in a café that didn’t serve free tap water
- 69% think the Belgian government should offer tax incentives to restaurants that serve free tap water as an environmental policy
- 58% of people have stopped or reduced their bottled water consumption in the past 12 months
- 79% support this campaign for environmental reasons
Another part of the social media strategy consisted of pointing out contradictions in people’s behavior.
When asked “What type of water do you use for your coffee?”, several followers suddenly realized the paradox of refusing to drink tap water, for taste or health beliefs, but still using it in their tea or coffee.
By the same token, Sarah proposed a little experiment involving 3 glasses of water: one glass filled with water poured into a glass jug an hour before, another one with water filtered for 8 hours and the third one with water poured directly from the tap. 30 people were asked to identify what type of water they were offered to drink: … and no one got it right!
For Sarah, this experiment shows that “the taste of water is extremely subjective”. In both cases, she indicated that “the goal is not to make people feel foolish or tricked, but to challenge perceptions”.
Free Tap Water in Belgium already has a remarkable list of achievements. In 2 years, it helped to make tap water an option in 400+ HORECA places, debunked myths about the drinkability of tap water, raised awareness about environmental and health issues, called out green-washing behind bottled water marketing, and made major steps towards the installation of public water fountains in airports and train stations. The initiative has even crossed borders and is being replicated in Luxembourg.
When I asked Sarah about FTW’s future plans, she told me the following:
“I think we have to wait a long time for the HORECA industry to recover from the shock of the pandemic before we can consider asking them for anything. […] But eventually, we would like to see a situation where all restaurants offer a choice: both tap water and bottled water. We think that offering a paid-for jug of filtered water at a price where the restaurant will not lose out is the best solution.”
The Free Tap Water in Belgium initiative believes that this could be a win-win for all: the planet, the consumers, and the businesses that are now struggling in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.