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Bottled Water: A Sustainable Alternative?

CEBU, Philippines - The theme of this 2010 World Water Day which is celebrated on March 22 is “Clean Water for a Healthy World”. By this theme “we reaffirm that clean water is life, and our lives depend on how we protect the quality of our water.”

The quality of water resources is increasingly threatened by pollution due to human activity over the past 50 years. Impacts of climate change – such as frequent/prolonged floods and droughts – pose further challenges to water quality; in addition to the growing sources of pollution. The problem is worse in developing countries where 90 percent of raw sewage and 70 percent of untreated industrial wastes are dumped into surface waters.

Water quality and socio-economic issues such as poverty, livelihoods, health and equality are closely linked. Providing and maintaining safe drinking water and sanitation are central to alleviating poverty and improving the quality of life for billions of people. Unfortunately, we do not yet have reliable current figures of how much of the present Philippine population don not have access to affordable clean water and adequate sanitation.

Many will still argue that bottled water is an alternative to achieving water security especially for health reasons. But, to what cost? According to a U.S. estimate it can cost up to 10,000 times more than tap water. As much as $2.50 per litre ($10 per gallon), bottled water costs more than gasoline! What is our local reality of comparative cost of bottled water with tap water? Locally, we can distinguish between those strictly bottled water by manufacturers like Nature Spring, a San Miguel brand, and others and purified water supplied in five-litre demijohns by so-called water refilling stations. Prices of bottled water and tap water supply can fluctuate because of competition, so we have to choose some average rates. 

On the average a 1-litre Nature Spring bottled water is now sold at P22.00 per bottle which cost could escalate to beyond P30 to as nearly doubled in price as bottled water is transported to farther localities and across to other islands when transport cost is added, an input cost of burning fossil fuel. Now, consider that Metro Cebu Water District supplies water at average domestic rate of P30.00 per cubic meter (1000 litres), or P 0.03 per litre. In actuality, basing on the price of Nature Spring, using bottled water could cost roughly 800 times than tap water. That’s how much more we are paying for using bottled water, in reality that’s also the amount the poorest among us pay to be able to survive for the need of drinkable water. Water has become a precious commodity! Yet, no one cannot live without water.

Purified water supplied by water refilling stations is sold at between P25.00 to P30.00 per 5- gallon (17.5 litres) demijohn at approximately P 1.45 per litre within Metro Cebu. This comes to paying about 7.5 times the cost of tap water. And almost 98 percent of this water begins as tap water. Without close monitoring of these water refilling facilities, the quality of some water produced could even be not safer than tap water to begin with.

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What we are sure about is that people always demand safe drinking water. Studies show, however, that consumers associate bottled water with healthy living. But bottled water is not guaranteed to be any healthier than tap water. In fact, roughly 70 percent of the bottled water supplied locally in Cebu begins with tap water serviced by so-called water refilling stations which are not closely monitored by DOH. Often, if ever this is done, the only difference is added minerals just to enhance taste yet with no marked health benefits. Nevertheless, demand for bottled is increasing.

This increasing demand of bottled water especially those dispensed by quarts or litre bottles produce unnecessary garbage and consume vast quantities of energy. Let’s take for example the United States which is the leading consumer of bottled water. Americans drink 26 billion litres in 2004, or approximately one 8-ounce glass per person every day. One has to take into account that packaging of bottled water use fossil fuels. The most commonly used plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (quite a mouthful) shortened to PET, which is derived from crude oil. Now, making 29 billion plastic bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires 17 million barrels of crude oil annually, enough to fuel more than a million U.S. cars a year! “Bottled water is an incredibly wasteful product!”

 One effect of climate change is drought, the El Niño phenomenon, as we are experiencing now. Surface water is particularly almost non-existent in Metro Cebu and nearby places, deep water aquifers are either drying up or intruded by seawater, so water extraction will be in farther places making it necessary to transport raw water to bottling plants for processing, another input cost for added fossil fuel use, or using the reverse osmosis to purify brackish or recycled water also with additional cost of power.

After the water has been consumed, the plastic bottle must be disposed of. Again, currently we have no figures how much PET bottles Filipinos discard as garbage and what percentage of this is recycled, but certainly as one looks at the garbage now being disposed, PET bottles constitute a good amount that go to the garbage dump if not become flotsam that litter our seas and seashores. Disposing PET bottle by incinerating them produces toxic by-products such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals. Buried used bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. 

Considering all that, can we say that bottled water is a sustainable alternative for the future to satisfy the need for drinking water? There is no question that clean, affordable drinking water is essential to the health of our local and global community. As we have discussed the crucial factors that affect sustainability, bottled water is not the answer in the developed world, nor does it solve our local problem and for the estimated 1.1 billion people the world over who lack a secure water supply.

Water quality is a shared responsibility. “We all live downstream and, therefore, protecting water sources from pollution is every one’s responsibility. It cannot be left to public authorities alone. All sectors, public and private, must take appropriate and adequate action to prevent pollution. It demands the open engagement of all stakeholders, from individuals and local communities to international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. Action could be differentiated according to type of water use and the actors i.e. whether as individual person or as corporate body.” 

Restoration of water quality that has been degraded usually is expensive, and more costly than prevention since the rehabilitation of a degraded ecosystem actually means to re-establish the natural environment in all its complexity to the original one.

Both in terms of sustainability as well as of investment and affordability, prevention should be the preferred option. Prevention of water pollution must, therefore, be the first priority to sustain water quality. The other two options are treatment and restoration. Improving and expanding existing water treatment and sanitation systems, is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term. (cf. Singapore’s New Water project). In villages, rainwater harvesting and impounding system for artificial recharge areas creating underground water storage to be availed later as wells can create more affordable sources of water. Ecosystems, such as natural or artificial wetlands can filter high level of nutrients and toxic substances. So reclaiming wetlands is actually a bad option. Of course, for even still longer term, the protection of upland river ways and afforest the watersheds.

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