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Bottled Water: Here's a Thought

Last week's piece (at The Speculist) about the surprising origins of the sushi craze led to an interesting discussion in the comments of the subject of bottled water. Like sushi (only to a much greater extent), bottled water is one of those ubiquitous features of routine daily life that seemed to emerge from nowhere.

At Fast Company, Charles Fishman provides a fascinating overview of the bottled water industry, noting that bottled water is expected to generate $16 billion in revenue in 2007, while "one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water "varieties" from around the globe, not one of which we actually need."

Fishman goes on to provide a fairly balanced (although it's not hard to guess where his biases lie) overview of the industry and its impact, with an interesting case study of Fiji Water. Fiji is one of those places where the locals don't all have access to clean drinking water; Fishman notes that "more than half" of the people living in Fiji don't have reliable access to clean water. Meanwhile, drinkable water from the island's aquifer is bottled and shipped ridiculous distances in order to please the sophisticated water palates of American consumers.

The obvious solution is to close down the plant and redirect the water to the island's inhabitants. But it it's not that simple. Fishman writes:

Of course, the irony of shipping a precious product from a country without reliable water service is hard to avoid. This spring, typhoid from contaminated drinking water swept one of Fiji's islands, sickening dozens of villagers and killing at least one. Fiji Water often quietly supplies emergency drinking water in such cases. The reality is, if Fiji Water weren't tapping its aquifer, the underground water would slide into the Pacific Ocean, somewhere just off the coast. But the corresponding reality is, someone else--the Fijian government, an NGO--could be tapping that supply and sending it through a pipe to villagers who need it. Fiji Water has, in fact, done just that, to some degree--20 water projects in the five nearby villages. Indeed, Roll has reinvested every dollar of profit since 2004 back into the business and the island.

So the success of the bottled water industry can actually play a positive role in helping those who don't have adequate access to clean water. Those government agencies and NGOs that Fishman mentions need to get funded somehow, don't they? Since we in the US all have access to clean drinking water pretty much irrespective of our use of bottled water -- there is a convenience factor there, I realize, as well as at least a perceived distinction in quality between bottled water and tap -- one idea might be for the water bottlers to get together and start a World Water Fund, which they could create by an across-the-board 10% hike in the price of their product.

Bottled water is almost by definition ridiculously over-priced, so how big a deal would that 10% increase be? But that $1.6 billion could go a long way towards helping people in many areas of the world get access to clean water. And that's applying the increase just to the US market -- not to the worldwide $50 billion bottled water market. It wouldn't really make sense to look at the worldwide market -- a lot of people in the world are buying bottled water because they don't have access to clean drinking water; giving them the 10% hike would be adding insult to injury. Making the price hike more or less of a luxury tax makes sense. Even if only the more high-end waters participated-- Poland Springs, Fiji, etc. -- that would still probably pony up half a billion or so per year to improve global drinking water conditions.

Plus, these water bottlers could then add the fact that they are part of the solution to their marketing. Another good project for water bottlers would be for them to lead the way in plastic bottle containment. But that's a topic for another day.

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