Is Bottled Water the Option

By Satyagraha Reporter

While the quality of water in South Africa is said to be among the best in the world, we nevertheless see bottled water being consumed extensively in the country. Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment in India recently spoke on 'Water, climate change and the development of cities' at the royal colloquium in honour of H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

She said, “The bottled water industry is global in nature. But it is designed to sell the same product to two completely different markets: one water rich and the other water scarce. The question is whether this industry will have different outcomes in these two worlds. Or will we, for two opposite reasons, agree that their business costs us the earth and that it is not good for us?”

Arguing about the advisability of continuing to allow industry to produce and sell bottled water Narain recounts the history of bottled water, “In the economically-rich world, bottled water started as a luxury-a non-essential item of desire, health and status. The water came from fancy mountain streams: they were packaged and sold as mineral-filled sparkling water. It was different from tap water and a healthy (and snobbish) alternative to sweet and street smart colas. But soon, the industry grew. In most cases, the companies sold water that was not sourced from mountain springs but from public water: municipal water sources. Once the snob habit was formed and the market created, the companies simply packaged tap water in most cases into plastic bottles and sold it from supermarkets.

Like nobody said the emperor had no clothes on. Nobody asked why they were buying water for ten times the municipality's price. Call it a great advertising success, but this non-essential industry is growing exponentially. In 2006, Americans paid over US $11 billion to buy 31 billion litres of bottled water, and they are thirsting for more.”

Narain goes on to say, “But the bubble is bursting. Last month, San Francisco's mayor banned the use of bottled water in government buildings, incriminating billions of disposed plastic bottles that filled landfills. In the use, a staggering 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away each day, a miniscule proportion of them are recycled. Greenhouse gas emission from trucks which transported the bottles across the state-and often across countries-was also a reason for the ban.

But equally importantly, the mayor stressed that his city's municipal water came from pristine sources inside a national park. This was as good, if not better, than the bottled water sold by companies, he said.

He is not alone. Last year, Salt Lake City's mayor asked public employees to stop supplying bottled water at official events. New York has launched a US $1 million campaign to encourage people to drink its famously clean public water. Another slap has come from top-notch restaurants, which-in reverse snobbery-are refusing to serve bottled water. The worst is coming. Last week junk food giant Pepsi was forced to admit in the US that Aquafina, its bottled water, is nothing more than tap water. It has agreed to label its bottles to say what it doesn't want to: that Aquafina is tap water from a public water source.”

Narain explains, “The fact is that bottled water is no different from water that should come from our taps. The only difference is it is packed in plastic and not conveyed in pipelines.”   

Narain goes on to make three important points:
1. While the rich can afford to buy bottled water the poor cannot and hence are dependent on tapped water.   But the rich can afford to pay rates and the poor cannot so the municipality receives less returns when the rich who use bottled water.  The municipality becomes cash strapped and so the quality of water deteriorates the poor suffer.
2. The plastic used by the bottling companies, causes environmental hazards.
3. The bottling companies use up the water from rural areas and thereby deprive the rural communities of their water supplies, whether they obtain water from the ground, or from the mountain sources, the damage to rural communities remains a problem.    

The question for us is whether we should continue to drink bottled water.  If we stop consuming it the industry will have to stop bottling it.  But also will our City fathers take a lesson from those states in the USA where the authorities took a decision to stop this harmful practice.  As we approach the latter end of the millennium goals these are some of the important questions we need to grapple with in order to ensure that the people of our planet have access to fresh clean drinking water.  Is bottling water the option?