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Essay on Water
Janice delos Reyes -Talan (c) 04-2011

Saving the World , One Plastic Bottle at a Time

Water is needed for survival and should be available to everyone. Yet, today’s society is pushing for the commodification of water. Water is now being regarded as a product to be bought and sold to anyone who can pay. Why does Society allow this?

There are two things we absolutely need in order to survive – air and water. Luckily, we all have free access to air. But water is a different story; it is not easily accessible to everyone nor is it totally free. Our planet is made up of 70% water, more than 97% of it is saltwater which is useless for drinking or irrigation. Less than 3% of freshwater is frozen in polar ice and mountain glaciers. This leaves us with less than 1% of unfrozen freshwater available for human consumption. It is important to note that half of the world’s freshwater can be found in only six countries -- Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Indonesia, and Russia. In theory, the available freshwater should not run out because it is continuously replenished as it passes through the water cycle. But freshwater supplies are being polluted, diverted, and depleted at alarming rates , faster than they can be replenished.

United Nations predicts that water demand will exceed supply by more than 30% in the next thirty years . These factors lead to the water crisis we face today as population continues to grow. Private corporations, including bottling companies, control and deplete our water supply and resources. Bottled water is a big and profitable business and leaves a trail of pollution.

Water is a gift from Mother Nature. It is tragic that this gift is turned into a commodity.Bottling companies promote the commodification of water with little regard to social and environmental consquence. Isn't it about time for the US to take a stand against these companies if it wants to save whatever is left of our once abundant water resources?

Integral to the issue of water commodification is the concept of water rights. There are those who believe that water is a natural right because it is essential to life. Water is meant for human consumption and not a commodity for sale. Water belongs to the Earth and no one has the right to appropriate it for profit.

The Eastern US adheres to the riparian principle based on the tenet of sharing a common water resource. Under this law, a landowner has a right use the water from lakes or rivers that is adjacent to his property; he shares this right with all property owners on the lake or river . The western US, on the other hand, rejected this principle and instead practices prior appropriation which means “he who is first in has first right”. This principle encouraged the development in the West where there is a dearth of rivers. In the early days, farmers and miners were hesitant to develop their fields or mines without assurance of reliable water supply. Under prior appropriation, a landowner is given absolute rights to use as much water as needed for any beneficial purpose. This created an incentive for landowners to divert water and develop far from streams and to hoard water since the government was practically giving it away for free.

In Texas, this law encouraged farmers to compete for water, pumping as much as they could before someone else beats them to it. This appropriation included the right to sell and trade water , thus transforming water from a public resource to a commodity.

The bottled water industry has been successful in promoting water as a commodity. In the US alone, it is a $15 billion business with one in four Americans drinking bottled water. The US experienced a 20-fold increase in annual bottled water consumption from 1.2 gallons per person in 1975 to 26 gallons in 2005. Clever marketing and advertising convinced US consumers to turn to bottled water. As well, carrying a bottled water became a fad. People buy bottled water for a variety of reasons but there are more compelling arguments against them. Why do people buy bottled water: Firstly, people buy bottled water for its convenience. It comes in a portable and disposable container, ideal for today's “throw away” consumer. However, convenience is not an excuse for wastefulness. Most of these bottles are not recycled and take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Secondly, there are those who think that bottled water tastes better than tap water. This is subjective, highly debatable and a misconception. In November 2007, a blind taste test conducted by CBS News in Chicago reveal that two-thirds of its participants preferred tap to bottled water and could not even tell the difference.

Thirdly is the mistaken perception that bottled water is cleaner and safer to drink than tap water. On the contrary, in “Bottled Water: Pouring Resources Down the Drain”, Arnold and Larsen share that the water quality standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are more stringent than those set forth by the Food and Drug Administration for bottled water.

Tap water testing is mandatory and is done more frequently compared to bottled water. In 1999, a survey on bottled water by the National Resources Defense Council found that some brands were in violation of state standards on bacterial contamination .

Fourthly, there are those who consider bottled water to be a healthier alternative to soda and other sugared beverages- so is tap water. In fact, tap water even has an advantage because it contains fluoride which helps prevent tooth decay. Perhaps the most compelling reason against bottled water is its detrimental effect to the environment.

“Where Has All the Water Gone?”

Maude Barlow warns us of the water crisis that is plaguing many parts of the US. In terms of freshwater supply, California has 20 years, New Mexico has 10 years. Arizona has none left, so it needs to import its drinking water. In the US, most of the freshwater supply is stored in underground water reservoirs known as aquifers. Since groundwater use is still largely unregulated , bottling companies take advantage of the law and siphon unsustainable amounts of groundwater. Overpumping of aquifers not only causes water levels to drop to critical levels but it can also create sinkholes.

Excessive groundwater pumping has caused springs, rivers, and lakes to dry up and has led to the death of trees and wildlife. It has also ruined fisheries, altered flora and threatened fauna . There are reports of water shortages in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America where bottling plants are located . When we buy bottled water, we become partners in crime with these bottling companies. We encourage them to continue with their business of making money and destroying our planet.

What role should the government have:

The government plays a crucial role in protecting our environment and our water. A review of the laws concerning water rights and water use is in order . Existing laws are outdated and are very permissive. When the law giving landowners the absolute right to pump water was formulated, it did not take into account current technologies which now allow groundwater to be pumped by millions of gallons daily.

In Florida, Nestle is permitted to pump an average of 1.61 million gallons of water per day even though the flow of Madison Blue Springs has already been reduced to record lows . In Michigan and Wisconsin, the laws are so lax that government has no choice but to grant permit to companies like Nestle. Government must set limits on groundwater withdrawals that allows bottling companies to pump only sustainable amounts of water. Government should levy heavy tax on large bottling companies and consumers. In doing so, it will drive home the point that water is not free for them to abuse and deplete. Government should eliminate any tax exemptions and impose stiff penalties for overpumping (especially during periods of drought). Consumers should be made to pay additional tax for the purchase of bottled water -- the smaller the size of the bottle, the higher the tax. Hopefully, the higher cost will eventually discourage them from purchasing bottled water.

Robert Glennon pointed out in his article “Bottling a Birthright?”, consumers will not change their water habits unless the cost of water rises high enough to force them to change . It will benefit the government to reduce bottled water consumption because it does not have to spend as much public funds to treat the related environmental impact . Tax money collected can be used to treating bottled plastic waste.

I thought I was saving water when I opted to buy smaller sized water bottles. It did not occur to me that water is also used in the manufacture of these plastic bottles, and that the amount of water used in producing these bottles is actually more than their actual content . This validates Opel’s claim in his article “Constructing Purity: Bottled Water and the Commodification of Nature” that consumers often fail to see the hidden environmental costs of purchasing bottled water. Government officials must be more vigilant in reviewing the negative impacts to the environment of bottled water consumption and come up with laws to diffuse them.

Government must act to change the public’s negative perception on the quality of tap water since the public distrust is not entirely unfounded. There have been incidents in the Midwest where freshwater supplies have been tainted with traces of herbicides and pesticides compelling people to turn to bottled water. EPA maintains that they have strict standards for all public drinking water .

The issue on water quality must be addressed by investing in water infrastructures to ensure consistently clean and safe water whether in urban or rural areas. As a side note, US consumers spend billions of dollars on bottled water annually, which is half of what cities need to spend to improve current water infrastructures . Improving the quality of municipal water and disseminating this information might encourage consumer to use tap water instead of bottled water.

In their article “A Battle Against the Bottles: Building, Claiming, and Regaining Tap-Water Trustworthiness”, Parag and Roberts suggested that government officials must lead by example as they might cast doubt regarding the safety of tap water if they espouse tap water’s benefits yet are seen drinking bottled water in government events . Banning the sale of bottled water in government facilities and schools where tap water is proven to be of good quality should also be considered.

What is the responsibility of Bottling Companies: The bottled water industry must also do its part in addressing our nation’s water scarcity problems. It should cooperate with the government to find and implement sustainable water policies. It should refrain from insinuating in their advertising campaigns that tap water is inferior. They should also limit production of smaller sized bottles and instead concentrate on the sale of bigger bottles which are ideal for emergencies.

How consumers can help and win the battle As concerned citizens, we can also demonstrate our desire to be one with the government in battling these bottling companies.
*Instead of buying bottled water, start using tap water for our daily drinking needs whether inside or outside our homes. We can rest in the knowledge that water quality is generally excellent in the US .
*We can purchase reusable water containers and just fill it with tap water. Not only are we doing our part to save our planet and ultimately save money.
*Some people pay as much as $6-8 per gallon of bottled water when a gallon of tap water only costs about 1 cent a gallon; some bottled water even come from tap water.
* We can still keep bottled water at home but only for emergencies like natural disasters. If consumers consciously choose tap water, we do not fuel the demand for bottled water. Need to respect our water resources.

There are environmental and social costs to the commodification of water. Water is now regarded as a product to be bought and sold to anyone who can pay. It is true that the bottling companies’ role in the commodification of water is relatively small in the greater scheme of things, but it is a crucial role, nonetheless.

I agree with Opel that “the current commodification of water has raised the cost of water for everyone”. The government must take a strong and active role to protect our water resources. It should lead its citizens in going after the opportunistic bottling companies that are draining our lakes, rivers and aquifers. As citizens, we must also do our part by refraining from buying bottled water for our daily drinking needs. If we all work together, hopefully it will not be too late to save our environment and our water.

Reference:Works Cited
Arnold, Emily, and Janet Larsen. “Bottled Water: Pouring Resources Down the Drain” Earth Policy Institute. 02 Feb. 2006. Earth Policy Institute. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Barlow, Maude. “Where Has All the Water Gone?” American Prospect June 2008. Rpt. in Global Issues, Local Arguments: Readings for Writing. Ed. June Johnson. New York: Longman, 2010. 296. Print.

Cossi, Olga. Water Wars: The Fight to Control and Conserve Nature’s Most Precious Resource. New York: New Discovery Books, 1993. Print.

Glennon, Robert. “Bottling a Birthright?” Whose Water is It? The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Eds. Bernadett Mc Donald and Douglas Jehl. Washington: National Geographic, 2003. 9-24. Print.

Gunduz, Zuhal Yesilyurt. “Water—On Women’s Burdens, Humans’ Rights, and Companies’ Profits.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine. 62.8 (2011): 43-52. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Interlandi, Jeneen. “The New Oil.” Newsweek. 18 October 2010:n.p. SIRS Researcher. Web. 22 Mar 2011.

Jehl, Douglas. Introduction. Whose Water is It? The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Eds. Bernadett Mc Donald and Douglas Jehl. Washington: National Geographic, 2003. 9-24. Print.

Louaillier, Kelle. “Thinking Outside the Bottle.” Water Consciousness: How We All Have to Change to Protect Our Most Critical Resource. Ed. Tara Lohan. San Francisco: AlterNet Books, 2008. 59-71. Print.

Luoma, Jon, and others. “The Water Thieves.” Ecologist. March 2004:52-59. SIRS Researcher. Web. 22 Mar. 2011.

Opel, Andy. “Constructing Purity: Bottled Water and the Commodification of Nature.” Journal of American Culture< (011911813), 22.4 (1999): 67-76. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Parag, Yael and J. Timmons Roberts. “A Battle Against the Bottles: Building, Claiming, and Regaining Tap-Water Trustworthiness.” Society and Natural Resources. 22.7 (2009): 625-636. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.

Scully, Sean, et al. “War on the Water Front.” Time. 166.25 (2005): 60. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Shiva, Vandana. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. Cambridge: South End Press, 2002. Print.

Sterling, Eleanor and Erin Vintinner. “How Much is Left? An Overview of the Crisis.” Water Consciousness: How We All Have to Change to Protect Our Most Critical Resource. Ed. Tara Lohan. San Francisco: AlterNet Books, 2008. 59-71. Print.

Trento, Joseph. “Nestle: Draining America Bottle by Bottle: How Nestle Got Millions and Millions of Dollars from a $230 Permit.” 20 Jul. 2009. DC Bureau. Web. 24 Mar. 2011

Ward, Diane Raines. Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst. New York: Riverhead Books. 2002. Print.

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