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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Sunita Narain

Bottled water costs us the earth

August 14, 2007

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 if 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?

In the water- and economically-rich world, 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 US state. In the US, a staggering 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away each day, a minuscule proportion of them are recycled. Greenhouse gas emission from trucks which transported the bottles across the state -- and often across countries -- was also cited as 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 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. And now New York has launched a $1 million campaign to encourage people to drink its famously clean public water. Another slap has come from top-notch restaurants, who in reverse snobbery, are refusing to serve bottled water. Only tap water makes it to their expensive menus.  

But the worst is coming. Last week, junk food giant Pepsi was forced to admit in the US that its brand of bottled water, Aquafina, is nothing more than tap water. Under pressure, it has even agreed to label its bottles to say precisely this.  

The bottled water industry is in damage control mode. But I believe that this scream could easily become a shout as people realise the environmental cost of this product and more importantly, they see the sheer stupidity of paying hugely for something that is readily available. 

In our world too, the bottled water industry is growing big time. The demand has increased from 2 million cases in 1990 to an estimated 68 million cases by 2006. But in India, bottled water is growing as an item of necessity: private industry is meeting the drinking water demand left increasingly unfulfilled by public utilities. In most cases, people are paying prices that they cannot afford to because they have no alternative source of clean drinking water.

In India, this water does not come from municipal taps. It comes instead from groundwater that invariably is also used by villagers. Companies simply drill a hole in the ground, pump and clean (sometimes) the water before bottling and then transport it to cities. Simply put, this is the privatisation of drinking water.

The only real cost in this business is the container -- plastic bottle and the cost of transportation. The fact is that bottled water is no different from water that should come from our taps. The only difference is that it is packed in plastic and not conveyed in pipelines. But while the rich in India can afford to buy and drink bottled water, the poor cannot. In other words, the rich have the choice and they opt out of the failing municipal systems.

However, what is not said is that water systems in India are failing because the rich in the country, those who can afford bottled water, are still supplied water at tenth of what it costs the municipality. Worse, our wastewater is conveyed and pumped from our homes and even treated (at times). None of this cost is recovered. In other words, it is our subsidy which is leading to poorer and poorer delivery from water agencies. It is we, who have options to drink bottled water, who are failing the system.

I am not even talking here of the mountains of plastic waste of this industry, which we use but don't pay for. I am talking here of the imperative that we should fix water for all in all taps. Water in bottles costs the earth everywhere.

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