boy drinking bottled water

Bottled water market masks lack of water infrastructure in poor nations, UN warns

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Efforts to provide safe drinking water across the globe are being undermined by the rapidly-growing bottled water industry, a United Nations report has found.

Based on an analysis of literature and data from 109 countries, the report says that in just five decades bottled water has developed into “a major and essentially standalone economic sector,” experiencing 73 per cent growth from 2010 to 2020. Sales are expected to almost double by 2030, from $270bn (£224bn) to $500bn (£415bn).

The report concludes that the unrestricted expansion of the bottled water industry “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.”

It finds 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.

While richer countries typically perceive bottled water as more of a luxury good than a necessity, sales in developing nations are mostly driven by the absence of reliable public water supplies.

In mid- and low-income countries, bottled water consumption is linked to poor tap water quality and often unreliable public water supply systems – problems often caused by corruption and chronic underinvestment in piped water infrastructure.

Beverage corporations are adept at marketing bottled water as a safe alternative to tap water by drawing attention to isolated public water system failures, said the report’s lead author Zeineb Bouhlel.

“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,” she added.

Furthermore, the quality of bottled water varies significantly depending on its source, as well as how it’s produced, treated and stored. Contaminants such a microplastics and heavy metals can be found in the final product if the production methods are not robust enough.

The report lists examples from over 40 countries in every world region of contamination of hundreds of bottled water brands and all bottled water types.

Co-author Vladimir Smakhtin underscores the report’s finding that “bottled water is generally not nearly as well-regulated and is tested less frequently and for fewer parameters. Strict water quality standards for tap water are rarely applied to bottled water, and even if such analyses are carried out, the results seldom make it to the public domain.”

Bottled water producers have largely avoided the scrutiny governments impose on public water utilities, and amid the market’s rapid growth, it is “probably more important than ever to strengthen legislation that regulates the industry overall, and its water quality standards in particular,” he added.

With respect to the industry’s environmental impacts, the report says there is “little data available on water volumes extracted,” largely due to the lack of transparency and legal foundation that would have forced bottling companies to disclose that information publicly and assess the environmental consequences.”

By country, the USA is the largest market for bottled water, with around $64bn in sales, followed by China (almost $45bn) and Indonesia ($22bn). Together, these three countries constitute almost half of the world market.

Kaveh Madani, a director at the UN’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said: “The rise in bottled water consumption reflects decades of limited progress in and many failures of public water supply systems.”

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