Bottled water costs us the earth

The botted 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.

Sunita Narain