Bottled water big business but bad for environment

A surge in the global consumption of bottled water may be good news for those who are selling it but all too often the picture is less rosy for the environment and communities in parts of the developing world where drought is already commonplace.

According to a report published by Washington-based NGO the Earth Policy Institute sales of bottled water have risen by 57% in the past five years and in the past year 154 billion litres were consumed around the world.

One third of the money spent on bottled water would be enough to halve the number of people without ready access to clean, safe drinking water.

The increase is a global phenomenon, with sales steadily rising even in those places where tests have shown time and again that tap water is equally safe – leading to unnecessary packaging waste and huge amounts of energy used in the extraction, bottling and transport of the water.

The situation is worse still for those living in the developing world, where water is a precious resource being taken by companies keen to profit from it.

In the southern Indian States of Kerela and Tamil Nadu, for example, soft drink giant Coca Cola has been engaged in a legal and PR battle for years over accusations it has been draining the aquifer faster than it can replenish itself (see related story).

“In addition to the strains bottled water puts on our ecosystem through its production and transport, the rapid growth in this industry means that water extraction is concentrated in communities where bottling plants are located,” says the Earth Policy Institute Report.

“In India, for example, water extraction by Coca Cola for Dasani bottled water and other drinks has caused water shortages for over 50 villages.

“Similar problems have been reported in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America, where farmers, fishers, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods are suffering from concentrated water extraction as water tables drop quickly.”

Demand for bottled water in India has tripled over the last five years, due to successful marketing and a growing economy.

The surge here, which is expected to be mirrored in China in the near future, will put increasing pressure on resources.

According to the institute it would take less than a third of the annual amount spent by consumers on bottled water – some US$100 billion – to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015.

“There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essential to the health of our global community,” said a spokesman for the Earth Policy Institute.

“But bottled water is not the answer in the developed world, nor does it solve problems for the 1.1 billion people who lack a secure water supply.

“Improving and expanding existing water treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term.

“In villages, rainwater harvesting and digging new wells can create more affordable sources of water.”

By Sam Bond

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