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The Growing Bottled Water Industry Hinders Global Progress to Universal Access to Safe Drinking Water

The United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) released a report that links the growth of the $270 billion bottled water industry to the diminishing progress towards providing universal access to safe drinking water. The report warns that the industry’s growth is “not aligned strategically with the goal of providing universal access to drinking water or at least slows global progress in this regard, distracting development efforts and redirecting attention to a less reliable and less affordable option for many, while remaining highly profitable for producers.”[0]

Consumption of bottled water is on the rise in the US, China, Indonesia and other countries in the Global South.[1] The UN report states that providing safe water to the roughly two billion people without it would require an annual investment of less than half the $270bn now spent every year on bottled water.[2] The UN is calling on nations to manage water as a global common good and reform the governance of water at an international level, including water in trade agreements.

The report also highlights the environmental impact of bottled water. In 2021, the bottled water industry generated roughly 600 billion plastic bottles and containers, resulting in around 25 million tons of plastic waste, most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills.[3] In addition, sources of bottled water, treatment processes, storage conditions and packaging can all potentially alter quality.[4]

Dr. Vladimir Smakhtin, past Director of UNU-INWEH, noted that “bottled water is generally not nearly as well-regulated and is tested less frequently and for fewer parameters” than tap water.[4] Furthermore, there is “little data available on water volumes extracted,” largely due to the lack of transparency and legal foundation.[5]

Lead author Zeineb Bouhlel pointed out that beverage corporations are adept at marketing bottled water as a safe alternative to tap water by drawing attention to isolated public water system failures, and that “even if in certain countries piped water is or can be of good quality, restoring public trust in tap water is likely to require substantial marketing and advocacy efforts.”[4]

The report serves as a warning that the unrestricted growth of the bottled water industry is a significant barrier to providing universal access to safe drinking water. Nations must start to manage water as a global common good, and reform the governance of water at an international level, for the sake of the planet and its people.

0. “Bottled water market masks lack of water infrastructure in poor nations, UN warns” E&T Magazine, 16 Mar. 2023, https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2023/03/bottled-water-masks-lack-of-water-infrastructure-in-poor-nations-un-says/

1. “‘One of the biggest scams’: Study uncovers the downsides of bottled water fad” The New Daily, 16 Mar. 2023, https://thenewdaily.com.au/life/health/2023/03/17/bottled-water-environmental-toll/

2. “Run-up to UN Water Conference: Bottled water masking world's failure to supply ‘safe water' for all, says report” Down To Earth Magazine, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/water/run-up-to-un-water-conference-bottled-water-masking-world-s-failure-to-supply-safe-water-for-all-says-report-88288

3. “The plastic water bottle industry is booming. Here's why that's a huge problem” NBC Palm Springs, 17 Mar. 2023, https://nbcpalmsprings.com/2023/03/16/the-plastic-water-bottle-industry-is-booming-heres-why-thats-a-huge-problem/

4. “Bottled water fuelling famine around the world: Study” inForney.com, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.inforney.com/news/national/bottled-water-fuelling-famine-around-the-world-study/article_3d9ee57e-7bee-5859-be08-93773cdf35e7.html

5. “The plastic water bottle industry is booming. Here's why that's a huge problem” KVOA Tucson News, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.kvoa.com/townnews/food_industry/the-plastic-water-bottle-industry-is-booming-heres-why-thats-a-huge-problem/article_587cb7b1-ae41-5574-85d3-4c91eaeb7763.html

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