As soon as I found out that I would have the opportunity to interview Michael Washburn, the new Sustainability Director of Nestlé Waters, I decided to make that the centerpiece of a new series on The Future of Drinking Water, featuring a number of interviews and guest contributors. Because this issue of clean, safe potable water for everyone is so important, so confusing, and often so passionately argued, particularly around the question of bottled water, it seemed like a great time to take a carefully considered look at the issue from a triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) perspective. I think if we peel apart the issue and some of the feelings associated with it apart, we will find a number of issues: ecological, political, social, economic, medical and psychological all mixed in with what is often portrayed as an environmental question.
There is no question that we are facing an impending water crisis. As human populations continue to increase dramatically with expanding appetites for water-intensive food products and as climate change is radically transforming the distribution of water around the planet, substituting floods and droughts in many regions where rains had once been dependable, there is no question that it is only a matter of time, unless we begin taking action now, before we will be facing a full-scale crisis. Indeed one of the nine planetary boundaries listed by Johan Rockström and his team in Nature is global freshwater use.
To put a little perspective on this, as Michael Washburn correctly points out, 70% of human water usage goes into agriculture, as compared to 0.5% for beverage production. Yet, when we talk about water issues, bottled water seems to get more attention. (More on agricultural water use later).
Peter Gleick, the author of Bottled and Sold, calls the growth of the bottled water industry, “a story about twenty-first century controversies and contradictions: poverty versus glitterati; perception versus reality; private gain versus public loss.”
He opens the book by saying, “Those of us who have the good fortune to live in the industrialized world now take safe drinking water entirely for granted. We turn on a faucet and out comes safe, often free fresh water.”
And yet in Irena Salina’s award-winning documentary film “For Love of Water (FLOW),” which argues strenuously against the many forms of water privatization, including bottled water, they cite estimates of somewhere between 500,000 and seven million people getting sick in this country every year from drinking tap water. This is exactly the point of entry that bottled water companies use to try to elevate their product from a soft drink to a necessity.
It’s like the story of the five blind men and the elephant; each one describes what he has come into contact with (leg, trunk, side, tusk, tail) and each recounting an entirely different creature. In this sense, there are at least two different bottled water industries. One sells a product that is a no-fat, sugar-free, nominally healthy alternative to high-calorie soft drinks laden with either sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or some form of artificial sweetener. As such, it is in many ways a superior product, (though it still carries many of issues that are common to all soft drinks which include the questions concerning the containers and their environmental cost both before and after use, and those about the social and environmental implications of the massive withdrawals that the companies make from the commons that is our collective water supply). When viewed from this perspective, there is certainly no reason why a bottle of water that is often the subject of so much vituperation, should suddenly get a free pass once a certain amount of food coloring, calories and bubbles are added.
But there is another bottled water industry that is not so user-friendly. That is a bottled water industry that is trying to insinuate itself between people and their fundamental need for clean, safe water while claiming to be the only viable solution. And they do it using fear as their primary tool. Bottled water companies love to represent themselves as belonging entirely to the first group, but as Gleick clearly documents in his book, their actions often indicate otherwise. They have not hesitated from casting aspersions on public water supply, whether deserved or not. And, in doing so, they have met with great success. Not only is bottled water an enormously successful industry, likely one of the most successful ever, but a substantial portion of that success comes at the expense of tap water.
Which raises what might be the $64,000 question, or at least one of them: is tap water safe to drink? The answer varies, of course, depending on which public water you’re talking about and what you mean by safe. It is regulated by the EPA and as such is guaranteed to meet a certain minimum standard of purity or be shut down, which is more than can be said about bottled water. But in our contemporary society, into which new chemicals are being enthusiastically released by the FDA, USDA and others on an almost daily basis, it is impossible to keep the test protocols entirely up to date. Of course that is also true for bottled water as well.Indeed, many bottled water brands are nothing more than tap water put into bottles. Erik Olson, former senior attorney at the NRDC, appeared in “FLOW” saying that they tested over a hundred brands and found problems with about a third of them.
So while bottled water companies like to portray themselves as pristine, they often aren’t. What I find it puzzling is their near-universal resistance to regulation or some other form of transparency that involves testing and independent verification of the water’s purity and safety. It seems to me that it would separate the truly concerned companies from those who are just out to make a buck. If they are truly taking such pains to make sure their water is pure, why wouldn’t they want everyone to know about it?
When you turn to developing countries, the picture gets even uglier. By forcing people to pay for clean water when they have no money leaves them no choice but to either steal water or to drink dirty water.
The desired state is clear: In an ideal world, clean safe water is readily available everywhere, and not in disposable bottles. This is plainly stated in the Millennium Development Goals: to reduce by half the number of people without access to clean drinking water by 2015.
Stay tuned for what I hope will be a very interesting series. If nothing else, I am pretty sure it will quench your thirst for knowledge.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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