Four large corporations control much of the world's booming bottled water industry and pose a threat to public water utilities, according to a report by the Canadian non-governmental Polaris Institute.
The business moves 50
billion dollars a year, and Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Danone
companies control the lion's share of the water market, according to
the study ''Inside the Bottle''.
''These companies harvest huge profits from water they either obtain
for free or at very low cost from public taps,'' Tony Clarke, the
author of the book-length report, told Tierramérica.
Up to 20 percent of the U.S. population and 17.5 percent of Canadians
now get their drinking water exclusively from bottled sources, Clarke
said. According to industry statistics, worldwide sales increased 40
percent between 2000 and 2003, when annual per capita consumption of
bottled water averaged 90 litres in the United States and 51 litres in
"Bottled water companies' marketing plays on fears about the health and
safety of public tap water," said Clarke, though he admitted that there
are numerous instances of illness and even deaths from drinking bad tap
water, but none directly linked to bottled water.
However, last year 500,000 litres of Coca-Cola's Dasani brand water had
to be recalled in the British market because of high levels of bromate,
a cancer-causing chemical, Clarke said. The Dasani water is tap water
that is filtered and treated.
"Similar types of contamination could be happening elsewhere, but no one is testing the water often enough," he added.
Bottled water is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
says Stephen Kay, spokesman for the International Bottled Water
Association. Inspections are conducted by local health authorities, and
independent annual inspections are made in each member country.
"We're not trying to discourage consumers from using tap water. People
prefer bottled water for it's convenience, safety and health
benefits,'' Kay told Tierramérica.
Furthermore, bottled water offers a healthier choice than sugar-rich
soft drinks, "which could help Latin America's obesity problem," he
If any industry should be nervous about the rapid growth of the bottled water industry, it's soft drink manufacturers, he says.
But Coca-Cola and Pepsi aren't particularly worried, says the Polaris
Institute's Clarke, since they have become dominant players in the
industry. Coca-Cola has publicly declared that bottled water will be
its biggest selling product in a few years.
The France-based Danone, meanwhile, produces the bottled water brands Evian, Volvic, Aqua, and Crystal Springs.
Catherine O'Brien, spokeswoman for Nestlé Canada, said no company
officials were available to speak on this issue prior to publication of
this issue of Tierramérica. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo did not return calls.
The real worry amongst water rights activists is a cultural shift
towards water being seen as a commodity that people should pay a lot of
money for, Clarke says.
"There is enormous corporate interest in selling water... Bottled water
plays a leading role in conditioning people for the privatisation of
public water utilities."
Public opposition to privatisation in North America is strong,
following some well-publicised problems with privatisation attempts,
says Wenonah Hauter, director of the 'Water for All' campaign of Public
Citizen, a U.S. NGO.
Less than 15 percent of water utilities are in private hands in the
United States, and the ones that are mainly provide sewage treatment,
not drinking water, Hauter said in a Tierramérica interview.
Hauter believes the bottled water sector is also hurting public water
utilities because it diverts funds and attention away from improving
public water services. "Instead of insisting on healthier tap water,
people waste their money buying bottled water," she said.
If there are legitimate concerns about local water, a home water filter
is a much cheaper and less wasteful solution, Hauter added.
The tens of billions of bottled water containers manufactured every
year have created a huge plastic waste problem. Although recyclable,
only a fraction go through that process in the United states. The bulk
ends up in landfills.
"We hide our bottle waste in landfills, but in the developing world
those bottles are everywhere, including littering the landscape and the
ocean," Hauter said. The industry invests huge amounts of money to
oppose any deposit system where people would get money for returning
their plastic bottles, she added.
But FDA spokesman Kay said "deposit systems are expensive to operate
and burden the retailer with having to store all those empty bottles,"
while curbside recycling programmes are better and easier for
As for places and countries that do not have such programmes, it is
their "duty" to "embrace recycling for the environmental benefit and to
feed the demand for recyclable material," he said.
"I feel that these groups that care about health and the environment
should be embracing the bottled water industry for what we do to
deliver safe, quality water with environmental stewardship at the top
of our list," Kay concluded.
(*Originally published Mar. 5 by Latin American newspapers that are
part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news
service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations
Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)
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