Bottled Water: Neither Pure Nor Safe

Tapped

by Stephanie Soechtig and Jason Lindsey (2009)

Film Review

Tapped is about the negative health and environmental effects of bottled water, and the obscene greed and dishonesty of multinational bottling companies like Nestle, Coke and Pepsi. With the recent decline in soft drink sales (owing to health concerns), the world’s biggest soft drink companies have latched onto the bottled water scam. According to the filmmakers, 40% of bottled water is actually bottled tap water. Acquafina (bottled tap water) is the major Pepsi brand. Dasani is made by Coke.

The Citizens Movement Against Water Mining

The film opens with a snapshot of citizen campaigns in Maine, Colorado and Michigan trying to stop the Swiss food giant Nestle from emptying their fresh water aquifers – free of charge – and selling it back to them for 1900 times the cost of tap water.

It goes on to feature Raleigh and Atlanta residents who were ordered to restrict water usage during a recent drought – while bottled water companies continued to remove hundreds of thousands of gallons from their shrinking aquifers.

Health and Environmental Hazards of PET Plastic

In addition to the depletion of aquifers, rivers and streams by the $800 billion bottled water industry, the manufacture and disposal of plastic bottled water containers is even more hazardous to human health and the environment.

In the US, all the paraxylene used in water bottles is manufactured (from petroleum) at in Corpus Cristi Texas. An extremely dirty industry, the Flint Hills factory releases benzene and other toxic contaminants to the surrounding air, water and soil. Accordingly, Corpus Christi has a far higher rate of cancer and birth defects than anywhere else in Texas.

Neither “Pure” Nor Safe

Contrary to all the advertising hype, unlike tap water, no federal or state agency is responsible for monitoring the purity or safety of bottled water. Independent testing of major brands has revealed contamination with bacterial pathogens, arsenic and cancer causing chemicals such as vinyl chloride, benzene, butadiene, styrene and toluene.

This is in addition to the phlalates and bisphenyl A that leach into the water from the plastic. The National Institutes of Health has linked bisphenyl A, one of the most toxic chemicals known to man, to childhood diabetes; obesity; breast and prostate cancer; liver, ovarian and uterine disease; and reduced sperm counts.

The Disposal Nightmare

Along with plastic bags, a large proportion of discarded water bottles (which never totally degrade) end up in the ocean, where they have resulted in enormous dead zones in the central and south Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

In view of all these concerns (and the refusal of Nestle, Pepsi and Coke to address them), some cities and universities have taken the bold step of banning bottled water sales. Six states have introduced a container deposit charge on plastic bottles to ensure they are recycled.

The Water Emergency

blue covenant

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

by Maude Barlow

The New Press (2007)

Book Review

Although it receives less public attention, fresh water scarcity is far more urgent and deadly than climate change. With no choice but to drink contaminated water, millions of children under five are dying from infectious diarrhea. Growing water scarcity is also the major driver of illegal immigration. In Mexico alone, nearly 600 farmers a day abandon their land when their wells dry up.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of global sickness and disease is caused by contaminated water. In the global south, where only the rich can afford clean water, the poor die of hepatitis, cholera, polio, botulism, salmonella, e coli, campylobacter, viral gastroenteritis and other infectious illnesses transmitted by human feces. In the global north we die at unprecedented rates of cancer and autoimmune disease from drinking water contaminated with endocrine disrupting herbicides and pesticides, industrial toxins, heavy metals, drugs and nanoparticles.

The Cause of Freshwater Scarcity

Barlow identifies seven major factors contributing to the rapid depletion of clean drinking water:

1. Total failure to regulate the massive increase in toxic runoff (animal waste, herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics) from factory farms and industrial sites.

2. Unregulated corporate mining of fossil water from aquifers that are too deep to be replenished by rainwater. Corporations siphon off millions of gallons a day at zero or minimal charge to mass irrigate deserts, manufacture cars and computers, mass produce bottled water* and extract oil from tar sands and oil and gas from shale (aka fracking).

3. Reduced rainfall due to destruction of water retaining landscapes from rapid and haphazard urbanization. Rain that falls on pavement runs off (and ends up in the sea), rather than being absorbed and evaporated.

4. Rapid glacial melting (due to climate change) of glaciers in the Himalayas, Alps and Andes. The Himalayan glaciers are the primary source of water for nearly half of humanity (India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and Cambodia).

5. Loss of water from the “virtual water” trade, thanks to International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policies that force poor countries to sacrifice their scarce freshwater by growing and exporting water intensive crops (eg avocados, citrus, wheat, coffee, cut flowers and biofuel).

6. Ill-conceived technological fixes, such as mega-dams, water diversion and desalinization that reduce, rather than increase, access to clean water. Desalinization is the most destructive, owing to the massive of toxic waste (from chemicals used to clean reverse osmosis filters) discharged to the ocean.

7. Water privatization by powerful multinational corporations. Most of the world’s freshwater is controlled by the French Companies Suez and Veola and the British/German company RWE/Thames.

The Global Water Cartel

During the late 19th and early 20th century, Europe (with the exception of France, where municipal water service has been privately run since the late 1800s), North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan adopted universal public water and sanitation services in all major metropolitan areas. This never happened in the global south, where cities only provided water service to the wealthy elite. This made it easy for neoliberal institutions like the IMF to force water privatization schemes on countries in the global south with debt problems.

Barlow slams the IMF and World Banking for forcing water privatization schmes on South America, Africa and Asia as a condition of development loans. She’s especially critical of former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan for supporting these policies, in return for major donations Suez and Veola made to UNESCO.

Over the last few decades, Suez, Veola, RWE/Thames and a few smaller corporate players have been targeting cash-strapped US cities with their water privatization schemes. Bankrupt cities like Detroit are being forced to sell their public water systems as a source of revenue.

Water Warriors

Barlow devotes the last third of her book to the “water warriors” around the world who are fighting for clean drinking water to be recognized as a basic human right. Among other reforms, there must be pressure on government to end the virtual water trade by promoting local sustainable farming, to ban private water companies from developing countries, to strictly enforce laws against surface and ground water contamination, to charge corporations full value for the water they take for bottling plants, fracking, manufacturing and flood irrigation and to promote urban planning that accommodates the need for rainwater to be captured and returned to the earth.


* The big three global bottling companies are Nestle, Pepsico and Coca Cola, though Starbucks’s water bottling company Ethos Water is sneaking up on them with their phony campaign to “help children get clean water.”

Blue Gold: World Water Wars

blue gold

Blue-Gold: World Water Wars (Sam Bozzo 2008)

Film Review

inspired by Canadian activists Maud Barlow and Tony Clarke’s book Blue Gold, this film opened my eyes to the reality that water scarcity is a far more serious and imminent problem than either fossil fuel scarcity or climate change. The film outlines three main areas in which public policy around water is urgently needed: run-off management, aquifer destruction and water privatization.

Water Run-Off

I previously believed that chemical and nutrient pollution was the greatest threat to our fresh water supply. However according to Blue Gold, run-off is actually the biggest problem – the loss of fresh water when rainwater winds up in the ocean instead of being trapped as groundwater. Fresh water only comprises  3% of global water (the rest is sea water), and much of it is so badly polluted it’s no longer useable.

The four main ways urbanization and development accelerate run-off include the construction of 50,000 dams worldwide, the paving over of soil with cement and asphalt, deforestation (destroying tree roots that normally trap water), and the destruction of wetlands (the destruction of mangroves and other plants that naturally purify water.

Aquifer Depletion

Aquifer depletion is largely due to industrial agriculture and the unregulated use of water in manufacturing, fracking and bottled water plants. Once the water from the aquifer is gone, it takes thousands of years to replace it. The film depicts several communities where citizens, across the political spectrum, have banded together to block Coca Cola and Nestle from taking their water. Some cases have involved long expensive court battles, with several corporations threatening individual activists with SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suits.

Water Privatization, Desalination and Water Wars

The last half of the film focuses on water privatization, water desalination, and water wars. In many developing countries, water privatization is already a life and death issue. In several African countries,  the private corporations that own the public water supply set the price so high that people end up drinking polluted water and die. The decision by Bolivia to sell its fresh water to Bechtel sparked a mass rebellion and ultimately the collapse of the Bolivian government.

In the US, an alarming number of city water have been privatized and sold to corporations.

The worldwide move to construct water desalination plants to reclaim water from sea water is closely linked to the issue of privatization. In addition to being extremely expensive, water desalination greatly increases climate emissions owing to the massive amount of fossil fuel it requires.

Water Wars

Blue Gold gives several examples of historic water wars (in the US) and predicts where the next water wars are most likely to take place. They point to strategic US military bases around the Great Lakes and in Paraguay (across the border from a Brazilian aquifer that is one of the largest in the world). They also offer a possible explanation why the Bush family have acquired massive amounts of property in Paraguay.

The film ends on a positive note with recommendations for citizen activists:

  1. Learn where your water comes from – the name of the watershed and (if privatized) the name of the multinational corporation that controls it. Local communities need to actively fight attempts by local government to allow water extraction or the takeover of local water supplies by multinational corporations.
  2. Kick the bottled water habit. This is a trick advertisers play on you. It is no healthier for you than tap water (and may be less healthy owing to phthalates and bisphenol A from the plastic that may be linked with breast cancer and low sperm counts). The nasty taste of tap water is easily masked with a little lemon juice.
  3. Lobby your local and state leaders to
  • Remove hydroelectric dams and replace with newer, more eco-friendly microturbine technology.
  • Adopt an active run-off management plan in which lost groundwater is measured and minimized through eco-friendly development planning. One example is the Blue Alternative (in which groundwater is replaced by digging small catchment pools in open spaces).
  • Pass local and state resolutions and constitutional amendments recognizing access to fresh water as a basic human right. Uruguay has adopted the right to water in their national Constitution.

Enjoy: