More water, and mea culpa

My sporadic campaign against bottled water continued this week in The Guardian, on Marketplace, and on KQED in San Francisco. My Guardian piece was a good opportunity to take in some of the ideas (such as water taxes and “ethical” water) that were suggested to me after the New York Times Op-Ed appeared. I was also able to make it clear that if you don’t like the taste of your tap water, the next step should be to try filtering it, rather than simply giving in and buying bottled water.

So far I have yet to hear a good argument in defence of bottled water, and I’m not surprised, since there isn’t one. One industry executive suggested to me that the bottled-water companies are really selling “portable hydration” rather than water. But even if this were a good reason to sell water in bottles (drinking fountains also provide portable hydration, as does tap water in a bottle) this does not account for all the bottled water sold. Yes, people buy water in small bottles on hot days. But the bulk of the industry’s sales surely come from people buying big bottles, six at a time, in the supermarket, to drink at home instead of tap water. Surprisingly, nobody has yet advanced what I consider to be the best argument in defence of bottled water, namely that in a consumer-capitalist economy, people should be free to make dumb purchasing decisions: buying dodgy personal-fitness equipment from late-night infomercials, for example. This, of course, is the argument advanced by the tobacco industry. And it’s true: people should be allowed to smoke themselves to death if they want to, or buy water that costs 10,000 times as much as tap water but is really no different, but only if they have all the facts. In the case of bottled water, most people don’t have all the facts. I am doing what I can to remedy that, and if the e-mails I’ve received are anything to go by, people who have more of the facts think again about buying bottled water.

Now for the mea culpa. When writing the Guardian piece I found an error in my NYT Op-Ed. I wrote: “Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year.” In fact, these figures are not to provide water and sanitation to everyone, but to meet the UN’s target of reducing lack of access by half by 2015. I should have written, as I did in the Guardian: “The UN’s goal of halving the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation by 2015 could be achieved for an outlay of around $11 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute.” Mea culpa.

Finally, I have to share a story sent to me by a reformed bottled-water drinker. When living in Paris with her husband, she used to keep a bottle of Evian in the fridge, and refill it from the tap when it ran low. One day her husband complained. “Damn it,” he said, “I wish you’d stop doing that. I can’t tell if it’s the good stuff or if…”. A funny look came over his face as he realised what he was saying, and after that they stopped buying bottled water.


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