Water, water


By: Suzanne Elston


Water, so abundant, so essential for life, has become the marketing success story of the century. Specifically, bottled water sales now top $ 100 billion annually, making water the world's fastest growing beverage industry. Clearly, we are no longer the Pepsi generation.


And while the rich get richer selling designer water to consumers who clearly have more cents than sense, the UN reports that 1.1 billion people don't have access to any safe drinking water. The UN report, compiled for the Fourth World Water Forum being held this week in Mexico City, states that the death of 1.6 million people could be prevented if they had safe drinking water and sanitation. The UN's Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without clean water by 2015 has a price tag of $ 15 billion, a fraction of what we spend on bottled water.


This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots on this sorry planet, and begs the question, "What the heck are we thinking?"


Clearly, thought has little to do with it. The majority of people who consume bottled water also have access to clean tap water. The only really difference between the water that pours from the faucet and bottled water is the cost. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times more than municipal tap water. And while we rant and rave if gas prices go above the $ 1.00 per litre mark, most of us routinely pay twice that amount for half as much water.


If price isn't a big enough deterrent, then perhaps the environmental costs should be. Where tap water is delivered efficiently without any unwanted packaging to be disposed of, the distribution of bottled water is both costly and elaborate. In many cases, water is bottled and shipped halfway around the world from places with such exotic names as Perrier and Evian. Having been to Evian, I can attest that it isn't anything magical. Evian is just a small French town on the south side of Lake Geneva and Evian water tastes remarkably like the generic club soda that can be purchased in bulk from the local grocery store. And while we're busy buying up water from Europe, Canadian bottled water is being shipped elsewhere around the globe.


In addition to the large amount of fossil fuels that is consumed shipping water around the world, there's the little problem of the bottles that contain that water, most of which are made from polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), a plastic made from crude oil. According to Emily Arnold, a researcher with the Earth Policy Institute, this translates into 1.5 million barrels of oil annually in the US alone, or enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. On a global scale, we use 2.7 million tons of plastic just to bottle water, very little of which is ever re-captured through recycling programs. The remaining bottles are tossed into our landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Seems like a ridiculous waste of a finite resource for a simple drink of water.


And there's more. A recent study by Dr. William Shotyk, a Canadian-born researcher, has found that antimony, a chemical used to make PET bottles, leaches into the drinking water that they contain. The longer the water sits, the higher the concentration of antimony. Small exposures to antimony can cause depression and illness, while larger quantities can induce violent vomiting and even cause death. While ground water contains approximately 2 parts per trillion (ppt) of antimony, freshly bottled water averages 160 ppt. Samples left up to six months had levels as high as 630 ppt. While these levels fall below international standard of 6 parts per billion, they do beg the question, "Why bother risking it in the first place?"


Dr. Shotyk's study, which will be published later this month in the Royal Society of Chemistry's journal, is just the latest example of exactly how high a price we are willing to pay for the convenience of bottled water.


So let's re-cap: $ 100 billion industry based exclusively on a commodity that is readily and (almost) freely available from the tap while millions die without; millions of wasted barrels of finite fuel oil; millions more tonnes of unrecycled wastes and toxic chemicals to boot. This is an extreme example of exactly how far out of balance our world has become.




The Fourth World Water Forum


The Earth Policy Institute