I don’t want to be a bothersome imp, tugging at your elbow and telling you not to buy that bottled water. But I’m going to do it: the industry that helps you slake your thirst is really harming communities and ecosystems worldwide.
One billion people around the world do not have access to drinking water. Japan and Haiti are just two countries where lack of clean water following an earthquake has caused a humanitarian and medical disaster. The bottled water industry, controlled by three major multinational corporations – Thames Water, Vivendi, and Suez – promise universal access to clean water. But their actions tell a different story.
These companies do two abominable things: they take control of water sources in foreign countries and then charge citizens to buy it back, excluding those who cannot pay the price for a life-giving resource. Second, these companies displace people from their homes in order to make way for dams used to collect water for bottling.
According to “FLOW,” an independent documentary released in 2008, Anna Debwese Mape, a woman from the African highlands of Lesotho, was forced to leave her home when a dam was built in Maetsisa, where her family had been living for generations. They had no choice but to uproot to a new, more arid home, where there were no fields to grow fresh vegetables and establish new livelihoods. The Katse Dam, completed in 2009 by the Lesotho Highlands Project, displaced 17,000 people from their homes.
Lesotho is not alone. In other bottled water developments, the Xiaolangdi Dam in China displaced 200,000 people and the Big Gorges Dam displaced and impoverished a total of 1.7 million. Such dams also block organic matter that was once moved by rivers, producing methane gas that contributes to global warming.
But perhaps the worst problem with bottled water is what you throw away. Once you’re finished with your drink, your plastic bottle becomes part of the global waste stream, with 80 percent ending up in landfills or in incinerators, where they are burned, releasing harmful pollution. You might ask, don’t we already throw soda cans and other plastic bottles into landfills? The answer is yes — but you can’t get Coke from your tap.
Thirty years ago, bottled water wasn’t big. Only in the past two decades have companies decided to market water as a delicacy. Now, on average an American buys one bottled water every second. Advertising reflects images of beautiful mountains and trees and hints that tap water is impure. Ironically, the companies destroy these pristine places by pumping water out of them. Even more ironically, in many cases, when you drink bottled water, you’re imbibing water you already own: Beginning in 2000, Nestlé water (which owns Perrier, Arrowhead, Calistoga, and countless other brands) began pumping water from Michigan streams, bottling it, and selling it back to Michigan residents who could have just drunk it from the tap.
The question we need to ask is: Who owns water? Bottled water companies have a right to use it, but that doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to sell it and upset lives and the environment in the process.
Maude Barlow, the author of Blue Gold, a book about the world’s water wars believes that “you really need to compare [water] with oil. It’s about power. It’s about which sectors of society – which countries, governments, corporations — are going to control the blue gold of the future.”
So, I don’t apologize: I’m going to keep tugging until we realize that personal thirst isn’t a reason to pollute the planet. What seems like a small choice has a damaging impact. Even cutting down by a water bottle per week is an improvement. Water is necessary for communities to survive. Should we jeopardize people worldwide in exchange for a quick convenient sip? You decide.