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The bottled water industry has recently come under the scrutiny of environmental organizations and special interest groups. Most often, these activist groups are attacking bottled water as being unfriendly to the environment and asserting that consumers are being taken in by bottled water’s advertising and “myth.”
I believe there is a benefit from all means of access to drinking water, whether tap or bottled. The issue being debated today in Europe and North America is that of a modern, western society where consumers have a choice of beverages, whether it be beer, milk, soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juice or bottled water.
In much of Africa and Asia, including India, where two-thirds of the population lacks access to safe drinking water in any form, the issue of whether bottled water makes social, environmental or economic sense does not rage. The overriding need for safe, healthy water is paramount and must be met by whatever delivery system is most effective for each particular geographic area. No one system can solve the safe drinking water problem worldwide.
Blindness is a common infantile problem in India, in part spawned by microbiologically contaminated water from rivers, groundwater resources and unmaintained distribution systems. The annual infant death rates in Africa can exceed 184 per thousand in some countries, while in the developed world, such as Europe, four deaths per thousand is not uncommon. Much of the infant mortality rate is a result of the lack of safe water, or even the availability of water.
The United Nations (U.N.) has not achieved its millennium goal of halving the number of people worldwide who do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The organization certainly recognized the global need for water decades ago, but due to the lack of donor support or general government disinterest, safe water is still a dream away. In addition, many of the private water utilities that enter developing nations experienced a political and economic environment that led to their pulling out. The U.N. forecasts that 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages by the year 2025. By this same date, it forecasts that another 2.5 billion people will face a growing shortage of freshwater, and this could be experienced in the more developed nations.
As a geologist, I certainly understand the limitations of the natural environment, and as a practicing economist specializing in international economic development, I understand the limitations of local and national budgets to address the massive urbanization and regionalization occurring in the world today, especially in Asia and Africa. In North America and Europe, billions of dollars are spent installing and maintaining massive sewage and water infrastructure systems that have been important to economic development and the muting of the resulting impacts of urbanization. However, even public water supply systems in modern nations are at risk.
It has been reported that Europe’s public water supplies are at risk and may not meet contemporary safety standards due to aging infrastructure and the cycling of freshwater supplies, which are those supplies that are returned time and time again to the water recharge areas and rivers. In poorer nations, the installation and maintenance of these massive urban systems often would exceed annual national budgets; such infrastructure development therefore does not occur. This results in populations suffering health and economic impacts that are not experienced in developed regions today. So, where is the balance of function and need?
Approximately 1% of all municipal water is actually used for human consumption in America. The other 99% of public water supplies in the U.S. are used for other purposes, yet millions of dollars are spent annually to ensure that these public water systems are in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards. We are fortunate in the U.S. to have urban water supply and wastewater treatment systems in place to service our nonrural populations.
When one examines the bottled water industry’s role in contemporary western society, it is reasonable to assume that 100% of all water in bottles is used for human consumption. It is also clear from market research that the consumer is often using bottled water as a refreshment beverage and not necessarily as a replacement for tap water, unless the quality and taste of the tap water available are undesirable.
Bottled water is usually consumed during a sports activity or simply as a healthy alternative to other beverages. Many consumers of bottled water also drink tap water and, depending on the situation, may choose bottled water for convenience or to eliminate or moderate their intake of sugar, calories, caffeine or other additives. The important point is that consumers are drinking more water in pursuit of good health.
The source does not matter.
In the developing regions of the world, with accelerating urban population growth and a lack of sanitary and water infrastructure, bottled or otherwise packaged water is the only reasonable and economic solution for a safe and healthy drinking water supply in an effort to meet what is otherwise an impossible goal, as proven by the failure of the U.N.’s millennium goal.
It is inappropriate for those of us who live in advanced economies to deny bottled or packaged water as an alternative source in those developing regions of the world where sickness and death are daily reminders of this crucial need, and where the majority of the world’s population resides.
The U.N. has learned just how difficult it is to accomplish the drinking water standard on a global basis in the execution of that noble effort. For centuries, man has used the world’s rivers and lakes as a waste disposal system, and in many emerging economies this is still the case. We are now paying a price for this behavior.
There is a balance in both the developed and undeveloped world in that there is a need for municipal and packaged water at every level. The environmental aspects of both municipal and bottled water systems bring their own special requirements. Bottlers and municipal authorities both have implied stewardship obligations in the protection and management of their respective water resources, the reduction of the global carbon footprint and the conservation of material resources.
No single solution exists today for improving the world’s drinking water supply, and although each method of delivering safe water has its social and environmental impact, both have a valid and appropriate purpose in meeting human needs. We must all assess and respond to the human requirement for drinking water, in whichever form, in a rational and humanitarian manner.