Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bottled Water Alternatives

Kampung Pulo neighborhood in Jakarta Indonesia -- See the water on the ground? That's drinking water.

So here's an article on Shaun Phillips (of Shaun and Julie, subjects of another post here), who is working to educate people about the stupidity and pointlessness of bottled water.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I can't hide the fact from most of you (especially if you've known me the last six years) that I have drunk a lot of bottled water in my time. Yes, evil Nestle and Coca-Cola branded water! I had it delivered to my apartment by the barrel in China, and in Thailand I (gasp) bought bottled water by the case because I was too cheap to buy a water cooler for 65 USD. So yes, I am part of the problem. But thanks to projects like Shaun's, I am waking up and changing my evil ways.

Having lived in several places where access to clean water is a huge issue (as you can see in the photos above), Shaun's cause is one close to my own heart. So if you'll indulge me for a moment, I'll hop on my soapbox -- and try not to bore you to death =).

First of all, in defense of tap water ...

I know it sounds crazy, but one of the greatest things about being home in the States is the ability to drink yummy tap water 24 hours a day. (Mmm, chlorine!) When you consider that less than half the world's population has access to improved sanitation, and that the ancient Romans had better water quality than half the people living today, the fact that we can just turn on the tap and drink clean, high-quality water is, well, rather miraculous in my mind.

If you're convinced that tap water is the root of all chronic illness and won't touch it, I invite you to live in rural Kyrgyzstan for a few months. Not only is the tap water undrinkable, if you even have running water, it's rarely on. Yup, we used to leave the taps on all the time with catch buckets underneath, waiting for the water. During the wetter months, we'd have maybe two hours of running water each day. We'd have to filter or boil the water we collected, but seriously, that's not bad as far as the world water supply goes.

In the drier months, no one had running water and we had to walk a mile to the only working well in the center of town and haul water back in buckets (our neighbor eventually took pity on us and started bringing us extra water on his donkey).

While this wasn't fun, it was a vastly better water situation of many people around the world. It was mildly labor intensive, but we had water and the means to purify it. (We did have to give up luxuries like a flushing toilet.)

Contrast this with urban Jakarta, where millions of people in the so-called "informal settlements" (er, slums) drink swamp water from the reclaimed land that's contaminated by fecal matter, pesticides, and everything kind of crap that runs off from the city.

Gross, eh? OK, so now you know why I have so little patience with people who insist that our U.S. tap water is tainted and filthy. It's all a myth perpetuated by the bottled water industry.

(For more water facts, check out

On to bottled water ...

Ever been to Bali after a winter storm and seen the miles and miles of plastic water bottles that wash up on Kuta Beach? Blech. There's so many they bring in bulldozers to clean them up. But the whole bottled water industry has other bad effects that aren't so visible.

** Puts on geology major hat **

When you sink a well anywhere and start pumping tons of H2O out of the ground in mass quantities, the entire region is affected. Levels are reduced in aquifers, rivers and lakes. Less water becomes available for farmers and for household use in areas where people rely on wells. Regions may dry up, making agriculture impossible.

Remember our Kyrgyzstani village? If Nestle, Coca-Cola or Pepsi (all big bottled water providers in Asia) ever sink a water well in the Chuy Valley, that little well could run dry, or become so low that it can't supply our village of 5,000 people. It's a situation that's becoming more and more common around the world.

Besides being expensive and bad for people and the environment, there's no guarantee that bottled water is healthier than tap water. Many popular brands including Dasani and Aquifina ARE tap water with a few extra stages of cosmetic enhancement. And tap water is much more closely regulated and goes through much more stringent quality control than most bottled water.

Consider also the amount of oil involved in mining and transporting bottled water. Not to mention making all those plastic bottles that wash up later on the beach.

Okay, so to be a more savvy water consumer:

1. If you live in the developing world (or you simply don't trust the water supply in your area), consider a water filter rather than relying on commoditized water.

Yup. One tip only. Though it takes some set up, a filter is more convenient and cheaper in the long run than taking a refillable jug to a health food coop or ordering Nestle water by the barrel for your water cooler.

And if you want to join Shaun in advocating for improved water supplies straight from the tap, here's a petition you can sign with Corporate Accountability International.

And here's another article called Illusions of Purity.

How's the water quality in your area of the U.S.? Here's Forbes on the best cities for drinking water.

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