Bottling aquifers

Sales of bottled drinking water have been growing at a rate of up to 10% annually since the mid-1990s, and are now approaching 0.2 cubic km each year, or 200 billion litres with a retail value of about US$100 billion.

Bottling corporations have focussed on acquiring water sources, usually groundwaters so the product can be sold as ‘spring’ water, and in marketing it as being ‘purer’ than tap water.  In 2006, about 32% of all bottled water was sold in Europe, 30% was in North America, and 26% was in Asia.  In 1999-2004, national consumption doubled in China and tripled in India, while the fastest-growing rates of consumption per person were in Lebanon, the UAE, and México, at 44–50% each.

The phenomenal rise of bottled water sales worldwide spawns a number of social and environmental issues.

First, the whole point of bottling water is to export it from an aquifer or water catchment, which must contribute to drying local wells and wetlands.

Second, bottled water may or may not be safer to drink than water from taps, wells, rivers or lakes, but it is always much more expensive.  If national élites can afford to drink safely from bottles, while the poor have to use taps and wells, then some of the motivation for societies to clean up public water supplies is removed.

Third, up to three million tonnes of plastic are used to bottle water each year, most of which could be recycled but more than 90% is not.

Fourth, making that much plastic uses at least a million tonnes of oil, and the plastic in each one-litre bottle uses five litres of water in its manufacture.

Fifth, while tap water flows through pipes in an energy-efficient way, bottled water is transported by sea, rail and road over long distances, which involves burning a huge amount of fossil fuel.

Finally, meeting the UN goal of halving the proportion of people who lack a secure water supply by 2015 would need an extra investment of US$15 billion per year, so spending US$100 billion a year instead on bottled water seems rather perverse.

So think before you drink bottled water!

These concerns have prompted calls for consumer boycotts of bottled water, or even prohibition of its sale and use.  In 2006, the mayor of Salt Lake City in Utah asked city staff to use tap water instead of bottled, and in 2007, the city authorities of Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and San Francisco in California both decided to prohibit the use of bottled water in municipal offices.

Meanwhile, a number of church groups in the USA and Canada have called on their members to consider the ethical implications of using bottled water.  And the Danish government decided to charge deposits for water bottles from November 2007, which should reduce waste and the impacts of manufacturing and transport.

But the key point about bottled water is its effect on the availability of safe water for all.  From that point of view, it would make more sense to tax bottled water as a way to finance the world’s safe water programme.

Back to: Ground water.

Back to: The Water Respect Campaign.