Thursday, December 3, 2015

Bottled water-A necessity, convenience or wasteful practice?

Water is essential for survival of life in this planet and human beings need about 1-2 liters of water every day for managing all the metabolic activities in the body and as a means of replenishment of lost water through all excretions. After all human body contains about 53% water, 25% fat and 21% bone and practically every metabolic reaction in the body is mediated in an aqueous medium. Dehydration beyond a limit can be fatal and therefore water intake regularly both direct as well as indirect is a must for survival. Americans have the 8x8 rule for water consumption which means one must drink 8 servings of 8 ounce water daily working out to approximately 1.8 liters. Interestingly the indirect water up take can be substantial as most fresh foods have water content varying from 60-90% and therefore serves the minimum need for water without much risks of dehydration. Water can also be toxic if taken in quantities higher than that which the body can cope up with, the most common consequence being draining of electrolytes through urine. Therefore there has to be a reasonable limit on water consumption while minimum quantity required by the body must be met with through direct consumption. 

Plain but safe water was consumed during earlier years and even to day in many American and European cities from piped water supply which was considered safe as a potable source of water. In fact they are so proud of their water supply systems, in a country like Italy attempts were made to brand the water supplied in some towns so that people could use it straight without looking for commercially bottled water! to quench their thirst. In sharp contrast in countries like India water supply systems are a sham and apology for what it should be! Practically no where in India one can drink from piped or the so called protected water supplies because they are neither treated properly nor sanitized fully with potential to spread water borne diseases like cholera, jaundice and dysentery. Funnily Government of India has launched its much touted Food Security Act to ensure that people get their daily calorie needs practically free through massive subsidies from the public exchequer. However it never occurred to this political rulers that water is equally crucial for ensuring healthy living style and the focus was never there on modernizing the water supply infrastructure in this country. Worst sufferers are rural people accounting for about 67% of the 1.3 billion population where even unsafe water is not available to manage their daily chores.

Bottled water industry globally is a major money spinner and in many societies holding a branded bottled water is a sign of modernity! The promotion of bottled water has been so intensive many kids in modern times are unaware as to the source from where water comes! It is like the dairy industry which offers pasteurized packed milk or UHT milk in laminated cartons and no wonder many kids are unaware about the existence of cows and buffalos which are the major sources of milk in the world. There was a time when mineral water was the rage because of the mistaken notion that these waters were coming from health spas and springs containing valuable and essential trace minerals required by the body. From such a situation where only a few major players were manufacturing bottled mineral water products, the scenario has metamorphosed to day when there are thousands of bottlers across the world packing just potable water conforming to well laid down standards with safety guaranteed. Probably to day's over dependence on bottled water by humanity can be attributed to the failure of governments to safeguard the urban water supply system year after year!
Look at a country like the United States of America where water intake by the citizens has been mostly through the sugar sweetened soft drinks route which also pumps in lot of sugar whether it is refined sugar or high fructose syrup. That is the beginning of the era of obesity in that country which is there for every one to see! Bloated and distorted bodies of people dot the landscape in the US with its own terrible consequences such as wide prevalence of diabetes, hyper tension, heart disease etc. Though from time to time demands were raised to tax these beverages heavily in order to reduce the consumption of soft drinks, nothing much was done at the government level through any orchestration of restrictive policies. The soft drink intake increased year after year and this "addiction" to these drinks was found to be very difficult to be curbed giving unlimited scope for the beverage industry to make a bonanza in terms of high volumes of sale and enormous profits. If there are a few giants in this area dominating the beverage landscape across the world, thanks are due to the benign attitude of the governments as well as increasing demands from the consumers, mostly youngsters who identified themselves as the "pop soda generation"! 

What is indeed alarming is that if the water market is restrained through restrictive policies, the consumption of sugary drinks is bound to increase as non availability of bottled water forces consumers to go for the unhealthy pop soda type of products. This has been borne out by the disappointing results of efforts made to ban bottled water in the school premises which ended with the disastrous consequence of a rise of 33% in the consumption of sugary drinks in the US. In 1998 Americans were drinking about 54 gallons (180 liters) of fizz beverages per capita on an average while this figure was just half in the year 1977. Shockingly the obesity among Americans doubled between 1077 and 1998 indirectly establishing a relationship between soft drink consumption and obesity. Increasing evidence about the bad consequences of sugar based drinks and heightened awareness about this among the consumers arrested the growth of soft drink industry in 1998 and then emerged a trend of declining intake of sugary drinks. Amazingly without the government there doing any thing significant to discourage consumption of soft drinks, the per capita consumption started going down and in a stunning reversal of the past trend, actual consumption fell down precipitously from 54 gallons to 44 gallons to day! 

Does it mean that overall water intake of the population has suffered any grievous blow with undesirable consequence? Not at all as the bottled water industry capitalized on the travails of the soft drink industry going for massive production increase since then. The loss of soft drink industry is proving to be a gain for the bottled water industry. From a meager consumption rate of less than ten gallons of bottled water per capita in 1998, it jumped to 21 gallons per capita in 2014. Taken together the decline of soft drink industry and the phenomenal growth of the bottled water sector it is expected that the latter will overtake the former within the next 10-12 years. Another intriguing factor is the renewed affinity of the consumers to piped water source and of the 58 gallons of water an average consumer drinking to day more than 60% comes from the public water supply taps. It will be very difficult to precisely predict how far people will switch their loyalty from the tap to the commercially bottled water. But the trend is that the bottled water industry is growing impressively in countries like the US and according to some estimates in the US alone the production is around 10 billion gallons per year to day.

There are two crucial issues that cannot be overlooked when we talk about bottled water industry. These are the wide scale use of PET bottles and dependence of many in this industry on public water supply. Use of PET bottles raises the inevitable question whether the safety of bottled water can be uniformly assured across all the countries because the difference in the quality of bottles can be significant and therefore the extent of leaching and safety credentials of the residues leached out can also be different. Already there are disturbing reports that liquid pharmaceutical products packed in PET bottles in India show abnormal levels of heavy metals like antimony, lead and chromium which were far beyond the safety limits prescribed by the WHO of the United Nations. Besides the contents packed in these bottles also showed high levels of the toxic chemical called diethyhexyl phthalate. This was brought out by tests at the reputed National Testing House in India, carried out as directed by the government. Though there are vehement protests and denials from the industry sectors including food, pharmaceutical and pet bottle manufacturers, this has become an issue that is not going to fade away soon.

The other issue is the indiscriminate exploitation of ground water by the water bottling industry causing water shortages in nearby communities. The bitter experience of a major bottling multinational company in Kerala a few years ago which resulted in shuttering its bottling unit in the face of fierce local agitation against over exploitation of the ground water cannot be forgotten easily. Such incidences of local opposition to setting up bottled water manufacturing units in many places in the country is likely to be a rule than an exception. Even sourcing the water from the public water supply system can distort the water availability in the urban areas. Of course it is a big dilemma for any government to ensure the industry has a sustainable source of water for their successful functioning. Desalination is thought to be the answer, at least in coastal area where sea water is available in abundance but there is reluctance to set up such plants by the industry because of cost considerations.

In India people seem to have resigned to a situation where water is going to be a scarce resource and even if available it is not safe to drink. This naturally has led people to go for domestic water purification gadgets based on technologies like reverse osmosis (RO), ultra filtration, resin treatment, UV disinfection, etc. Water treatment gadgets have become a foundation for establishing a roaring industry in India where there are many players catering to households with different income levels. Though RO based treatment is technologically sound, more that 65% of water intake is wasted to be flushed out and whether this is a sustainable approach is a matter of debate. From time to time simple gadgets not depending on power have been developed and one of the latest based on silver nano particle impregnated filters offers enormous potential for providing safe drinking water especially to rural areas.Though a liter of water in PET bottle costs about Rs 20, some feel that the organized industry's growth at 22% CAG cannot be easily wished away. Compared to the situation 15 years ago, on average the consumption of bottled water has increased from less than 5 liters per capita an year to more than 10 liters though this is much less than the global average of 25 liters. In spite of such impressive growth, the safety of bottled water, which is supposed to be assured through the safety certification and licensing by the BIS is under a cloud because of the mushrooming of hundreds of small plants coming up in smaller towns with neither a legal license nor any oversight by the concerned authorities. 

Ultimately a global debate may be needed to take a rational decision on whether bottled water supply or piped protected water supply  or purification of water at the house hold level is preferable in the long run. Some experts point out that the wide scale use of RO technology is not very efficient as more than two thirds of water received is wasted in the process. Others view is that the PET bottle based packed water also cannot be considered a solution due to some of the deficiencies highlighted above. Probably the most desirable option could be for a massive expansion of protected water supply system where ever it is feasible by investing in this sector as a top priority. Whether the governments in developing countries will adopt such a strategy remains to be seen!


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