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Monday, August 27, 2007

More on Bottled Water! - Sunita Narain

In my Independence Day post, I had mentioned 'Freedom from Bottled Water' as one aspiration statement for an Independent Nation. Here is Sunita Narain, Editor of Down To Earth on the same subject in the recent issue.


Editorial: Bottled water costs us the earth


By Sunita Narain

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?

In the water and 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.

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 us, 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.

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 realise the sheer stupidity of
paying dearly for something that is cheaper and readily available.

Bottled water is also growing big time in our world. India is said to be
the 10th largest bottled water consumer in the world. The demand has
increased from two 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 that
public utilities don't meet. People are paying prices that they cannot
afford because they have no alternative.

In India, this water does not come from municipal taps but from
groundwater. Companies simply drill a hole in the ground, pump and clean
(some-times) to bottle it and then transport it to cities. Simply put,
this is the privatisation of drinking water.

The business is a rip-off. Take for instance the case of Coca-Cola's
bottling plant in drought-prone Kala Dera near Jaipur. Coca-Cola gets
its water free except for a tiny cess (for discharging wastewater) it
pays to the state pollution control board: a little over Rs 5,000 a year
during 2000-02 and Rs 24,246 in 2003. It extracts half a million litres
of water every day-at a cost of 14 paise per 1,000 litres. In other
words, raw material costs of the Rs 12 per litre Kinley water sold to
you and me is just 0.02-0.03 paise.

Add to it treatment costs. Even with the state-of-the-art treatment
system with reverse osmosis and membranes, the cost of treatment is Rs
0.25 per litre at the most. Plastic bottle is what costs the
company-between Rs 3-4 for a one-litre container. Transportation-from
the bottling plant to our cities and homes-adds significantly to the
costs as does all the sales and advertising pitch. But add up all costs
and it is still a dream business, especially in a country with failing
public water supply.

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. But, while the Indian rich can afford to buy
bottled water, the poor cannot. The rich have the choice and they opt
out of the failing municipal systems. What is forgotten is that Indian
water systems are failing because the rich in the country-who can afford
bottled water-are still supplied water at a 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 the rich, who have options to drink
bottled, who are failing the system.

I am not even talking here of the mountains of plastic waste, the
disposal of which isn't paid 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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