Sticker Shock

It’s been a chaotic couple of months since my last letter (from Charlottetown), and my apologies for that. Those of you who know and have met my mum will be sad to hear that she passed away on 9 January, followed a couple of weeks later (in an unrelated incident) by my brother Patrick. So, things have been a bit difficult recently.

During all that my work with the World Bank project has continued, and I am currently in Copenhagen with a group of senior educators from Kosovo. We are on a study visit to Denmark and Sweden, looking at how the school systems here plan and implement induction programs for new teachers, and then provide ongoing professional development to teachers throughout their careers. I’ll report on the study visit once it’s completed. But first, another story.

I went down to the hotel bar on the first night we were here and bought myself a beer and a burger, together with a cup of green tea for my colleague Osman. It was a pretty good burger, the beer was Carlsberg, and apparently the tea was great. Then I checked the bill on

I had no real idea how much 210 Danish Crowns would be and was more than a bit surprised to see that this comes in at over $45. For a beer and burger! [And tea]. Holy moly.

So tonight, we went looking for something a bit cheaper. We found a Japanese noodle and sushi place and discovered we could get a bowl of noodles for about 60 Crowns. Not too bad. Then we asked for a glass of tap water as well and were informed this was going to be 20 Kr. per glass.

$4.30 for a glass of tap water!

We went elsewhere and found a bowl of wonton soup for 75 kr., and not a drop of water to drink.

I’ve travelled to a number of places around the world, but I have never seen tap water for sale in a restaurant. That’s always the basic ‘go to’ drink for someone watching the pennies. So, I started to wonder why Denmark was different. I asked around and found people expressed a variety of reasons.

“If tap water is served with ice and lemon then it’s a prepared food and so has to be charged and taxed, according to the law.”

“Everyone has a water meter and so water is viewed as a ‘paid for’ resource and it’s only fair to pass that cost on to the customers.”

“It’s a social democratic society with a high baseline salary of 75 kr. per hour [just over $16 CAD] and those costs have to be recouped”.

“There’s no real profit in food anymore, you only make money on drinks so you have to charge for all of them, not just the alcoholic ones”.

“It’s Denmark, it’s all about the money”.

But when it came right down to it, nobody seemed to know. It’s just the way it is here. And yet, Denmark is a socially democratic society. There are high rates of progressive personal taxation, and the state provides free education and health care. So why can restaurants get away with selling tap water?

I find it interesting that in Canada our focus is on reducing plastic waste, and so we encourage people to drink tap water. There has been a focused policy reform effort to remove the psycho-trauma of Walkerton, where in 2000 some 2300 people got sick and 7 people died after the public water system was contaminated with a dangerous strain of e-coli. Although there is a high level of rhetoric, a similar policy and funding focus is lacking in efforts to address the 27 short-term Drinking Water Advisories (DWA) in place in First Nations Communities (Health Canada, 28 February 2018). Defining a DWA a little differently and claiming that “drinking water advisories include boil water advisories, water quality advisories, do not use/ consume advisories, precautionary drinking water advisories, and any other advisory for drinking water,” a recent Council of Canadians report (Lui, 2015) identified 1,838 drinking water advisories in Canada, of which 169 were on First Nations. So I accept that we can’t all drink the tap water.

In my home province, Prince Edward Island, we care about our ground water. PEI is basically a lump of sandstone sitting in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and sandstone is of course a very porous type of rock, so people get very sensitive when they hear of companies paying $3 or $4 per million litres extracted from the ground, and then selling that water at $2 per 500 ml bottle! At that price, water is nearly three times the cost of gas (petrol) per litre.

And yet I wonder, how soon will it be before the Danish habit is found to be more widespread?

It seems to me that this is yet another step on the road to a place where “quality of life” becomes a social cost, rather than a social benefit. The same idea permeates our understandings of the education system, the health care system, and so forth. In a tax environment where the focus is on tax reduction at both personal and business levels, who pays for the public good? But that’s a topic for another day.

Until then, raise a glass of free tap water, and enjoy it – it may not be around for ever.


Lui, E. (2015). On notice for a drinking water crisis in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadians. Online. Accessed from


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