Letter from the Publisher
by Vanessa Johnson
Posted on March 6, 2006
There’s more than a little irony in the fact that most of the Earth is made up of water. In issues that rank in global significance, freshwater availability and security is considerably major, and its importance is only growing. Paradoxically, one of the threats to freshwater supplies happens to be the bottled water industry.
Always an interesting lesson in consumer behavior, this industry commands prices of up to $10 per gallon for a product that is pretty close to free, at least in the developed world. I have no problem with people wasting money if they want to. But before they do so, they should understand that the $100 billion bottled water industry is one that is wasteful, environmentally destructive, and short-sighted. In contrast, the United Nations spends only about $15 billion on the global water supply and sanitation. The Washington D.C.-based think tank Earth Policy Institute (EPI) recently released a report showing that many drink bottled water in the mistaken belief that it is healthier and safer than tap water. [report] Again for the developed world, this is clearly false.
The report also details the high environmental costs of our behavior. First, you have sources that are being depleted from all over the world, by the concentrated bottling operations that take place. Coca Cola is a notorious example in the bottling of Dasani, which has depleted water resources in many villages in India. [article and chronology] Next, you have to actually transport the water from its source to the supermarket. EPI estimates that one quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders, burning a great deal of fossil fuels in the process. The EPI report cites Fiji water, which is shipped over 5,500 miles. It is marketed as healthier, exotic, and "untouched by man," since it is so far removed from industrialized societies. [fiji website]
Finally, a big part of the problem with bottled water is the bottle. Most water is bottled in plastic, specifically polyethylene terephthalate, which is made from crude oil. And once the water has been consumed, there is then the question of garbage. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that roughly 86 percent of all plastic bottles end up in garbage and dumps. However, of the remaining 14 percent, many of the bottles will be shipped again across the world to China to be recycled.
Moving towards a future that will be less energy wasteful, whether we like it or not, many aspects of our lifestyle will be forced to change. At least water scarcity is something for which we can plan. There are over 1 billion people in the world today who lack a safe water supply. In the developing world, the emphasis should be on constructing infrastructure and improving quality so we can eliminate water-borne diseases and ensure supply.
It is conceivable that water could be to the 21st Century’s oil, Canada the new Middle East (just kidding), and tomorrow’s water profiteers today’s demonized oil executives. The U.N. estimates that by 2025, close to two-thirds of the world’s population could experience water “stress,” defined as when consumption exceeds 10 percent of supply. [graphic] Western cities could revisit the era of “Chinatown.” In fact, El Paso businessman Woody Hunt has spoken of the need to incentivize the transfer of water. [npt interview]
Many environmental and consumer rights groups see water as a human right that should be free. Yet this ignores a basic human trait – that of squandering what is easily available and lacks value. Wouldn’t it be wiser, at the start of this new century, to actually plan for the shortages that we know are coming?
From its desert perch, El Paso in many ways has been ahead of the curve. The El Paso Water Utility’s conservation initiative has combined consumer education with rebates and other financial incentives. Ground recently was broken on what will become the largest inland desalination plant in the world. [link] But I think very few consumers today treat water with the value it warrants. Most don’t alter the length of their shower or the landscaping in their yard because of concerns over price. Just like gasoline, this will someday change whether we like it or not. For all the politicians and policymakers who, out of the ear of the public, privately endorse high gas taxes, I would ask them if it should not be the same for water. Send me your thoughts, and enjoy this issue of Newspaper Tree.
P.S. Be sure to vote in the March 7 primary if you haven’t already. Election information is available here. [link]
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