By Fazila Farouk, executive director of the South African Civil Society Information Service.
Date posted: 27 March 2009
View this article online here: http://sacsis.org.za/site/
The next time you find yourself reaching for bottled water, consider the implications of your actions. Purchasing and drinking bottled water is not only pricey for your pocket; it affects the sustainability of our planet and undermines the right to water as a public good.
Unless you find yourself in a rural outpost with dubious water infrastructure or in an industrial town where the 'big factory' is pissing its by-products into rivers and streams, there is little basis
for the argument that bottled water is safer than tap water in South Africa.
Nevertheless, South Africans and millions more around the world are duped into accepting the perversion that bottled water is safer and even healthier than tap water.
This is simply not true. "Bottled water is one of the most unregulated industries in the world," argues Canadian water activist Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water.
This lack of regulation has implications both for the health of consumers as well as for the protection of water as a resource that should remain in the public domain as a common good.
In 2004, Pretoria University's Department of Medical Virology argued that little is known about the microbial quality of bottled water in South Africa. Concerned about the situation, the department undertook a study where ten different brands of bottled water were tested over a
three-month period. Researchers were looking for faecal bacteria.
From the specific sample tested in this study, it was concluded that bottled water "generally complied with drinking water regulation." However, two of the ten brands tested were contaminated. It is noted that poorly cleaned equipment and bottles as well as handling by workers, are among the factors that cause contamination. The shelf life of bottled water is also a contributing factor. With improper or prolonged storage of bottled water, bacteria can grow to levels that may be harmful to human health.
The Pretoria University study categorically states, "Consumers should be aware that bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water."
Bottled water regulations have since been introduced in South Africa by the Department of Health, in 2006. However, question marks still hang over what passes for 'spring water' in South Africa, including its quality.
Early last year, Engineering News reported that despite stringent laws governing the bottled water industry, there have been reports that companies are bottling tap water and marketing it as natural or spring water.
John Weaver of the South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) is quoted in the Engineering News article as saying that "one of the biggest challenges facing the bottled water industry at the moment is the perceived low cost of entry into the business of bottling
water. To the inexperienced person, bottling water is seen as merely holding an empty bottle at the spring discharge, putting a cap and label on the bottle and making a small profit."
Meanwhile in a 2006 journal publication of the Water Research Council, it was reported that of the estimated 100 bottlers countrywide, the majority are small hand-bottled operations that employ unskilled workers.
If one starts connecting the dots from the low barriers to entry, to the fact that the industry is dominated by small hand-bottled operators employing unskilled labour, to the fact that regulations have already been circumvented by some companies, then the picture that emerges of our bottled water industry is without a doubt different to the one fed to us by the slick promoters of healthy lifestyle brands. Far from being the healthier option, our bottled water may, in fact, be quite the opposite.
With the enforcement of regulations posing a challenge, what guarantee do South African consumers have that 'clean-room technology', which is a regulatory requirement, is being applied across the board in our bottled water industry?
Still, the myth that bottled water is healthier continues to penetrate our consciousness.
The corresponding reality is that the water industry is growing at a phenomenal rate. Water is a $400bn global industry, coming in third after oil and electricity. "The water sector is going to grow 2-3 times the global economy over the next 20 years." says Rod Parsley of Terrapin Asset Management in the documentary FLOW (For Love of Water).
The bottled water sector makes up an important segment of the overall global water market. Barlow says that something like 50 billion litres of water was put into plastic bottles throughout the world in 2007. This spelt bad news for our environment, as only 5% of those bottles were recyclable.
In South Africa, it's been reported that the bottled water market grew by an estimated 33% during 2005, following on a consistent annual growth trend in excess of 20% since 2001. Industry experts are astonished by this growth and even more surprised that it is taking places despite the fact that, as they put it, "South Africa is one of few countries where tap water in most places is still good enough to drink."
Clearly the growth of the bottled water industry presents us with the classic "people versus profits" dilemma.
As bottled water companies harvest as much water as they possibly can to drive up their sales, they are also increasingly tapping into ground water, impairing the hydrological cycle and affecting the water system's ability to replenish itself. We're already staring 'peak oil' in the
face; 'peak water' is around the corner, if not already here.
According to Barlow, the demand for water is growing while the supply is decreasing. As water becomes scarce, the question about who owns it, is becoming increasingly important.
Barlow contends that every drop of water in the future is going to be corporately owned. However, the market is amoral, she says and it is going to lead companies to taking advantage of pollution and to selling 'clean water' to those who can buy it and not to those who need it.
More specifically, Barlow refers to bottled water as a corporate take over. It makes people think that what comes out of their taps doesn't matter. This in turn leads to people not prioritizing paying their taxes for infrastructure repair, which is extremely important for the future of clean, accessible, safe public water.
It appears that Barlow's work is making inroads in her native country. According to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has asked its members to ban bottled water.
"It's not a (real) ban, we just try to educate our citizens that the water that you pay for in your city is good - use it," said FCM president Jean Perrault in the CBC report.
The expense to consumers was also highlighted as a significant reason behind the move. "Buying a bottle of water costs approximately $2.50. The cost to produce water in the city? I can fill up 6,000 little bottles for the price of $2.50," Perrault said.
Twenty-seven Canadian municipalities have already phased out the sale of bottled water on their properties, while 21 universities and colleges have created bottle-free zones.
It's high time South Africans followed the Canadian example. There is nothing wrong with the water flowing out of the taps in much of South Africa. We're just being sold a misleading lifestyle choice. This may have been fine if our world had unlimited supplies of water, but it doesn't. Public vigilance is what is needed to save our water, our planet and our people.