After hearing many sources (news reports, articles, everyday conversations, etc.) use the term "agua potable" when they really just mean "tap water that you still can't drink" I told someone to look up "agua potable" in the dictionary. And lo and behold.. it has become so common to call any type of running water in certain parts of South America "agua potable" that the RAE itself has a second definition of the term which just means that it's water that is acceptable or "pasable". Several native speakers in Lima, Peru confirm that such descriptions as "pasable" and "aceptable" do not to them denote that the water is drinkable, just that they can bathe with it which fits their understanding of "agua potable" as well. So I guess the term actually is accurate.

For me this was an eye opener. In English potable definitely always means "drinkable" and it seems to have come from the latin "potare" where it meant to drink as well. The "pasable" definition also mentions that it's colloquial. I guess my point is that initially at least it seems that they kept repeating inaccurate information calling water potable because that's what other countries had. Perhaps eventually it became so common to use the term this way that even the RAE then amended the definition to match the new reality with the consequence that now one cannot depend on the term meaning anything about the drinkability of the water (possibly dangerous in translation situations).

I am kind of just guessing here with this last theory, so my question is: Is there more to this story or am I misunderstanding what this term has traditionally meant in South America?

As an aside, is there any way to tell when the RAE may have added to or altered their definition of a given word / term?

  1. RAE definition: http://dle.rae.es/srv/search?m=30&w=potable
  2. Example of prominent news report using the term "agua potable" for water you still shouldn't drink without further cleansing: http://elcomercio.pe/peru/apurimac/dia-mundial-agua-potable-agua-cano-174852
  3. As mentioned below, another news report: https://peru21.pe/lima/arequipa-agua-potable-apta-consumo-humano-186878

Update: Just wanted to add a piece of the SEDAPAL bill (Servicio de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado de Lima). First of all, "agua potable" is part of their name, and second, what they charge you for (tap water, shower water, etc, not bottled water) is clearly called "agua potable": https://i.sstatic.net/UXKSe.jpg

So for Peru we can clearly see why tap water is known as "potable water". So now just ask someone from Peru if you can drink straight tap water. They will overwhelmingly say that that would not be a good idea. A SEDAPAL employee doing an inspection also told me no, trying to discuss the meaning of the term "potable water" with him went nowhere.

  • Think of the newspaper headlines as: "can you drink drinkable water?" You can argue about the abuse of language in journalism, but the meaning of "potable" is drinkable.
    – Miguel
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:22
  • As miguel states it's a journalist making noise to make you read the article. By the official rae potable aplied to water means safe to drink, the article is talking that mayby the tap water that is told to be drinkable isn't as drinkable as the goverment/industries say when it reaches households because the distribution or household tanks are faulted
    – xerido
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 8:25
  • Wow, that's pretty eye-opening to me as well! I had always assumed that "potable" was safe. That explains a number of unpleasant experiences over the years!
    – Danimal
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:38
  • Just anecdotal, but I went ahead and asked several more native Peruvians if "agua potable" was a common name for water that came from the tap and they all said yes. I then asked if one can drink it straight out of the tap and they mostly said, "you can..., but I don't and wouldn't recommend it." Other news reports that also seem to use contradictory language are not hard to find: peru21.pe/lima/arequipa-agua-potable-apta-consumo-humano-186878 Still totally agree though, the definition is that "agua potable" is drinkable, it's just often used wrong, at least in Peru.
    – Haven Hash
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 1:39
  • I think this is a case of systematic misuse of the word, or "hype". Consider the English "you are pre-qualified to apply for this credit card." Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 23:32

6 Answers 6


In many parts of Mexico, water as it flows through the municipal water mains is often referred to by the government as "agua potable", but people do not generally take this to mean that the municipal water is safe to drink as is. (There may be some specific urban areas where water treatment has reached reliable sanitary levels, but I personally have never lived in one of these areas.)

So what terminology can one use instead to talk about safe drinking water in Mexico?

  • Agua purificada (purified water) is the general term for water that is safe to drink.
  • Agua de garrafón large bottles of water delivered in all urban neighborhoods in a truck garrafón

  • Agua embotellada small, single-use bottles of water, often found in restaurants alongside the soft drinks

agua embotellada

  • Agua de filtro (filtered water) is tap water that has been filtered
  • Agua hervida water that has been boiled after it comes out of the tap

  • Agua hervida de filtro Many people prepare their drinking water by first filtering it as it comes out of the tap, and then boiling it

Bonus tips:

  • If the garrafón has been sitting around for some months, its water is no longer safe to drink.

  • Be careful with ice cubes in restaurants and friends' homes -- either avoid ice cubes (cubitos) or ask what water was used to make the ice. There is no shortage of people who mistakenly think that freezing water will purify it.

  • Ditto with the tasty shaved ice (e.g. nieve de piña) and smoothies (agua de fruta, for example agua de melón, agua de sandía, etc.)

  • In the countryside, if you draw your water from a well or a river, you'll need to boil it too.

  • Cultural note: do not worry about offending your host or restaurateur by asking where the water or ice came from. It is always okay to cast your eye around to look for one of the big jugs of purified water, or to ask, for example, "¿El agua es de filtro? ¿O de garrafón?"

  • If you are visiting a rustic home in the countryside where there is no clear understanding of the importance of boiling water for health reasons, I recommend asking for tea instead of water. For example, a few leaves from a lemon tree will make a nice herbal tea.

  • 1
    As for the first sentence of this answer it is good to emphasize (and l think we all agree) that "tap water" is NOT a synonym of "drinkable water" (in the hispanoamerican context) but "agua potable" IS "drinkable water". However as @walen said "only if you can trust the label" and it depends on who is telling you that it's potable. In Colombia the tap water is potable and you can trust it in all mayor cities, but again tap water does not mean drinkable in 3rd world countries.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:16
  • 2
    Unless authorities in Mexico are saying that "No deberías beber agua potable" this is a misguided answer. "Agua potable" means "Drinkable water", the fact that some people lie and qualify as "potable" water that isn't does not change the meaning of the word, it just mean that some people lie. Oh, and "tap water" is "agua de grifo" (or in Mexico, "agua de la llave"), not "agua potable".
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 14:56
  • 1
    Odd. I've lived all my life in Mexico and this is the first time I hear someone say that "agua potable" equals tap water. In the handful of states I've lived in, tap water is "agua de la llave" or "agua corriente".
    – Roflo
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 16:02
  • 1
    I agree @SJuan76 If people lie that's another thing. If the question is "is potable water drinkable in hispanoamerica?" Then it is off-topic here and should be asked in the Travel SE.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 16:12
  • 1
    What I'm saying is that one should not take the word "potable" literally, and in many parts of Mexico, "agua potable" as delivered does not mean water for drinking, without boiling or treating in some other way. Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 3:11

I can't answer your question in terms of all South America, but it definitely seems to be regional. I'm from Dominican Republic and I've only ever heard of "agua potable" with the meaning that it's drinkable.

  • 6
    I absolutely agree. I can not speak for Perú or other countries but as in Dominican Republic in Colombia it also means drinkable
    – DGaleano
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 2:11
  • 1
    I´m from Cuba, and this mean the same "drinkable"
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:25
  • 5
    Same in Spain, potable is always drinkable. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:05
  • 1
    In Chile is the same
    – Lamak
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:15
  • 1
    No @MauricioAriasOlave If it says is potable in means is drinkable regarding the origen. It could be from a natural source that is already clean or it could be from any source and then treated. I'm NOT talking about "tap water" (agua de la llave/canilla) since I would not drink from the tap let say in Yopal. If is says potable it could be water from the tap in Medellin (treated) or water "crystal" in a bottle that supposedly comes from a páramo source.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 16:17

"Agua potable" is indeed drinkable water. Take into account that the second meaning that you see in the diccionary is a coloquialism.


  1. adj. coloq. Pasable, aceptable.

In contrast with the other meaning ("Que se puede beber" meaning, "that can be drunk; that it is safe to drink") the second one means "is OK"

Es un actor bastante potable.(wordreference)

La relación con la oposición es ‘bastante potable’ dijo Mujica (uy.press)

The article that you provide basically says that the tap water, which should be drinkable, is very crappy and low quality, but still was expected to be drinkable (and safe).

Indeed, "agua potable" refers to "drinkable", not just "tap water or running water". It seems that more and more places are actually having really serious problems related to the access to drinkable water.

  • 2
    About the second meaning, note that I would never use it for water, since the meaning of "agua potable" is very precise. The examples in this answer are fine.
    – Miguel
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:18

This might depend on region, probably more due to different availability of water than to cultural or linguistic reasons. For practical purposes, tap water is always safe in Spain, so some distinctions that might be useful in other places aren't useful there.

In Spain, a fountain labelled "agua potable" clearly means that it's safe to drink, while "agua no potable" means that it's not safe to drink.

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Furthermore, nowadays some springs are labelled as "agua no tratada" o "agua sin garantía sanitaria", meaning that nobody guarantees that it's safe, although there isn't a particular reason to suspect it isn't - so, drink it at your own risk.

  • In Cuba, the tap water is safe too, but for reasons of the many diseases(and this word doesn´t mean "dead"), like stomach ache or conjunctivitis is recomended to boil and/ or filter the water, but steel been drinkable.
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:36
  • With "safe" I mean you can drink it without further treatment (no boiling, no filtering) and be reasonable sure not to get any disease from it. If you can get stomach ache or conjunctivitis if you don't boil o filter it, it isn't safe in the way I'm using it, and therefore you need more words than "potable"/"no potable".
    – Pere
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:42
  • yes, you can drink it, maybe I do not explain my self to well, and you don´t get any of this diseases for drink it. This are more becouse the dust or tuch your eyes with your dirty hads, that is recommendable, ** for treatment**, like another things, boil the water.
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:47

Just an opinion: I think that generally, in any Spanish speaking country, we use the expression "agua potable" to denote the "drinkable water", but maybe at some rural areas where some people could not fully understand the term "potable" they take it as applied to any running spring where you can drink from whether it is treated water or not.

  • In Mexico it is not just rural areas where it is not safe to drink the water as it comes out of the tap. Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 3:12

The word potable comes from the Latin potabĭlis, which means "it can be drank". But in my understanding, potable water might not be safe drinking water. I mean potable water is not treated water. Which can cause problems to some people, I think this is what the different meanings refer to. For example when I go trekking I found a lot of potable water sources, but they are not totally safe to drink if you have a weak stomach.

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