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Old 03-16-2006, 02:55 PM   #1
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Would You Spend 10% Of Your Income On Bottled Water?

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World Water Forum Opens in Mexico

By MARK STEVENSON
The Associated Press, March 16, 2006


MEXICO CITY -- Failing public water systems have forced more and more people in poor countries to buy bottled water from private companies, a form of privatization that has created a sharp divide among activists and officials gathered in Mexico City for an international water summit. As delegates from the 121 countries gather Thursday for the 4th World Water Forum, demonstrators plan protests against privatization, dam projects, and water extraction from impoverished Indian communities. The goal of the 7-day forum is improving water access for the poor-- an effort that has failed in the past. The poor pay vastly more money to private corporations for their water today than they did when the first Forum was held in 1997.

Privatization of water systems has been a hard sell since 2000, when thousands of Bolivians protested rate increases in water contracts held by foreign companies. The protests left 7 demonstrators dead and forced the companies out of the country. Bottled water, on the other hand, has earned good profits and little attention. "It's in some ways sort of a stealth privatization," said Janet Larsen, research director for the Earth Policy Institute, a private, Washington-based environmental group.

Once a First World health indulgence or symbol of European epicures, bottled water is fast becoming a staple of the Third World, dominated in many regions by giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. Mexico--where about 40% of the nation's 103 million residents live in poverty--is a poster child for the phenomenon. The country is now the second-largest consumer of bottled water in the world, just behind the US in terms of volume and Italy in per capita consumption. Sales of bottled water in China jumped by more than 250% between 1999 and 2004. They tripled in India and almost doubled in Indonesia, according to a study released by the Institute. Worldwide, the industry is now worth about $100 billion per year.

It's not because people can suddenly afford the luxury; it's because tap water in some countries is so bad people are loath to use it, sometimes even for bathing. "You can't even brush your teeth without fearing that you're going to get who-knows-what infection," said Javier Bogantes, director of the Latin American Water Tribunal, which is holding mock "trials" of water-rights violations in Mexico City during the forum. "You can't take a shower, thinking about what the stuff in the water could do to your skin."

In Mexico, bottled water is distributed by vendors in roving bicycle carts for as little as 80 cents for a 4.5-gallon jug. Usually, it's just filtered tap water. Still, it's a hot seller in Mexico City slums such as Iztapalapa, where the yellow-brown tap water is tainted by magnesium and iron. Juana Maria Bautista--like many poor around the world--said she often spends as much as 10% of her income on water sold in bottles or delivered by water-tank trucks. "We usually buy 3 or 4 jugs a week but sometimes, there isn't enough money," said the 42-year-old factory worker, who earns about $66 a week.

Mexican officials, stung by criticism that bottled water costs consumers thousands of times more than tap water would, announced a quixotic campaign in early March to persuade people to drink from the tap. Two days after the announcement, the government's Health Department conceded that, given tap water quality, people should boil it before drinking it. "The problem isn't that these companies are supplying people" with bottled water, Bogantes said. "The question is, given that governments have invested millions of dollars in water treatment and distribution systems, why aren't they supplying the population?"

One problem is that many people are accustomed to paying little or nothing for municipal water in many developing countries, said German Martinez, director of the water system in Mexico City, where only about 40% of customers pay on time. "What we really have to do is get people to pay for their water," he said. And when authorities construct dams to provide more water for the population, "people come and demonstrate" against them, added Jesus Campos, assistant director of Mexico's National Water Commission.

The World Water Forum, which meets every three years, is examining these issues. It will also address harnessing water for growth, providing water more efficiently, using it in a more environmentally conscious manner, and preventing it from causing natural disasters. But Bogantes has doubts about whether the forum will consider noncommercial solutions. "The current that is trying to solve water supply through privatization has been strong at past forums," Bogantes said. "And it appears to be the tendency here at this forum."
"People are accustomed to paying little or nothing for municipal water"...I wonder if they might be willing to pay more (seeing as how they're doing it already for the bottled stuff!) if the supply and quality of it were better. I'm not familiar with local water supply in all these countries (though the description of Mexico City's "yellow-brown tap water" doesn't suprise), but from what I've seen in India, a lot of city dwellers drink bottled water much of the time simply because the municipal supply is so unreliable. No major Indian city is able to maintain a 24-hour supply of adequately pressurized water, and 20% of Indian municipalities get piped water only every third day. And of course slum dwellers don't have their own supply at all, bottled or otherwise--they use municipal taps, the water from which from must be either filtered (forget that--too expensive) or boiled; which most do...or if they don't, then they often get dysentery or typhus. Much of this failure to deliver is caused by insufficient funding of municipal water boards--despite the fact that even by the most pessimistic estimates, it would be far, far more cost-efficient to improve these than to keep on subsidizing bottled water to the point where it could meet everyone's needs.

Not that bottled water is working out beautifully as a solution anyway. For one thing, it doesn't seem to be much "healthier." A recent government study of 100 different brands sold in Delhi, from (Indian-sourced) Coca-Cola's to the local pushcart vendor's, found that all but one brand (imported!) had levels of pesticide contamination far exceeding the government's already high allowances--and I'm talking 20, 30 times the allowed levels. It's also a hell of a lot more expensive than tap water (in fact, more expensive than gasoline in many places). And then there's the staggering packaging waste--we could fuel 100,000 cars a year with the oil used to make plastic water bottles here in the US alone...and 90% of those bottles wing up getting tossed. And they ain't too biodegradable.

Also, regarding the dams comment...while I've certainly seen some ill-advised anti-dam campaigns, and the hard reality *is* that mushrooming populations means more dams will be needed...what they're not telling you here is that not only do the rural villagers who usually comprise these protesters not benefit from the resulting water supply, but worse, it often comes at their local water supply's expense. The same thing happens with larger bottled water companies, who pump or collect their own water (hey, at least it's not glorified tap!)--Coca-Cola alone, for instance, has been hit with lawsuits from over 50 Indian villages which suffered water shortages as a result of their water being effectively siphoned off for middle-and-upper-class urbanites.

Anyone want to make the case for why it's not a problem that so many poor people in developing countries are spending 10% of their income on water? Or drinking yellow-brown stuff that comes on tap twice a week because they can't afford 10%? For that matter, why do so many of us drink bottled water?
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Old 03-16-2006, 07:48 PM   #2
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This is a long-time interest of mine. People shouldn't have to pay at all for clean water. Period. Why should they have to run the risk of a terrible infection if they can't afford bottled water? People who live in poverty can ill afford to spend 10% of their income on bottled water, but they have no choice if the tap water is full of horrific diseases. This is an intolerable state of affairs.
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Old 03-16-2006, 08:23 PM   #3
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I think bottled water is a rort. It doesn't have fluoride, which has made an immense difference to childrens teeth in my area. But we've got big dam issues from the drought. So it's rather localised. All of Australia has it's own issues, but I'd imagine that this is a localised issue to everyone the world over due to things like poverty, dams, drought, all depending on what effects any or all have on your location.
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Old 03-16-2006, 09:04 PM   #4
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Yes. I've known for years that only an idiot drinks the tap water in Mexico. It's natural that they'd be discussing this.
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Old 03-17-2006, 06:58 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally posted by Angela Harlem
rort.
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Old 03-17-2006, 08:19 AM   #6
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My favorite water (Dasani) is supposedly just tap water

I usually drink water out of one of those Brita filtered pitchers and it tastes fine to me
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Old 03-17-2006, 01:57 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally posted by verte76
This is a long-time interest of mine. People shouldn't have to pay at all for clean water. Period. Why should they have to run the risk of a terrible infection if they can't afford bottled water? People who live in poverty can ill afford to spend 10% of their income on bottled water, but they have no choice if the tap water is full of horrific diseases. This is an intolerable state of affairs.
How do you make clean water appear?
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Old 03-17-2006, 01:59 PM   #8
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Clean water and bottled water are two different issues.

Bottled water, in addition to the specious health claims, also creates a mountain of trash.

Clean water, a common place thing in the US, is a luxury for many - especially in places like India.
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Old 03-17-2006, 03:25 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by nbcrusader


How do you make clean water appear?
We're not making clean water appear. We're building wells that provide a village with clean water. I'm not an engineer, but they are providing people with clean water.
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Old 03-17-2006, 03:28 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally posted by nbcrusader
Clean water and bottled water are two different issues.

Bottled water, in addition to the specious health claims, also creates a mountain of trash.

Clean water, a common place thing in the US, is a luxury for many - especially in places like India.
True. I've been told to stick to bottled water in Turkey.
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Old 03-17-2006, 04:10 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally posted by verte76


True. I've been told to stick to bottled water in Turkey.
That is just good advice to any traveler, anywhere in the world. Our bodies are not use to the local water.
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Old 03-17-2006, 08:27 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by verte76
We're not making clean water appear. We're building wells that provide a village with clean water.
While this is *part* of the solution on a national level, bringing up wells is--somewhat--to mix unrelated issues here. My impression is that both you and nb (me, too) are involved in supporting projects to build wells in undersupplied rural areas--while this is definitely an important and praiseworthy goal, it is also, in the big picture, too piecemeal to fully constitute an adequate solution to the full sweep of water-supply problems faced by villagers in developing countries. Dam politics, other land-use politics, bottled-water-pumping politics, traditional social hierarchies, and much more are also involved in the problem. I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that bottled water might have *some* supporting role to play in relieving certain kinds of rural water shortages--for example, in already water-starved regions of India, a temporary failure of the monsoon can have devastating consequences which might in some cases be more cost-effectively addressed by delivering bottled water (plus temporary financial breaks for farmers, etc.) than by just sitting back and watching as yet more villagers flee to the already saturated, resource-strapped cities.

However, an equally important issue at hand is how best to supply clean water to the developing world's mushrooming urban population. Wells are not what's needed here--better funding of municipal (piped) water supplies is. In many urban areas of India, inadequate reservoirs are not so much the problem--it's more inadequate financial support of the pumping, pressurizing, filtering, and treatment equipment needed to ensure a reasonable supply of clean tap water. Building more dams to supply these areas won't fulfill the goals it's meant to if the resulting water supplies aren't treated properly.
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Old 03-18-2006, 01:33 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by foray


http://www.anu.edu.au/andc/res/aewords/aewords_hr.php

Quote:
rort
A fraudulent or dishonest act or practice (a tax rort). Also used as a verb (to rort the system). Rort comes from standard English rorty meaning ‘boisterous, jolly’, and, in the late nineteenth century, ‘coarse, of dubious propriety’. The second sense of rorty disappeared, but has been retained in the Australian rort. First recorded 1919.
I must say I wasn't aware this was an uniquely Australian word
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Old 03-18-2006, 02:18 PM   #14
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Yolland, I'm not suggesting that our well charity is going to solve the problems of clean water in underdeveloped countries. This would involve a massive effort that's beyond our means and scope. Rather, it is to give clean water to a few thousand people who don't have it. It's not the same thing.
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Old 03-18-2006, 04:31 PM   #15
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OK, I see that now--sorry, I probably came across more lecturing than I intended. I was looking at your post in light of what I took to be nb's far more general question, but looking at your other posts in this thread, I can see that wasn't really what you were getting at.
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