Monday, July 5, 2010

Water by Peter H. Gleick

By now most people are aware of the huge growth in the consumption of bottled water since 1976 both in the U.S.( 9 billion gallons per year in 2009) and around the world ( 45 billion), and the many problems associated with it, including the approximately 160 million barrels of oil required to make the bottles and how few of those bottles are recycled ( at best around 40% even in the eleven States that have enacted container-deposit laws- though a handful of European countries have obtained better results).

Many will have heard that in the U.S. regulations governing the testing of bottled water for contamination and content labeling are very loose, minimally applied and without any of the strict public notification and consumer warnings and recalls that apply to public water supplies. Nor have any of the rules against deceptive marketing and false advertising been exercised consistently or on a broad base against this highly lucrative product.

Some people may even be aware of the possible and sometimes already established long term negative environmental consequences- especially local- of massive withdrawal of ground water resources for commercial purposes.

In blind taste tests ( on non-mineral, non carbonated water) most subjects end up preferring municipal water (whose chlorine content can be removed quickly by taking simple measures), and chemical tests invariably show that the tap water has fewer biological or heavy metal contaminants. The author of this book, an expert in such matters, and a popular media consultant, covers all this ground quite thoroughly- and moderately- in this book.

The author concludes his lengthy report in the following manner:

All our engineered water-treatment processes that flocculate, coagulate, precipitate, condense, and distill water are mechanical imitations of the natural process. We build massive sand or charcoal or mechanical filters that mimic the purification role played by soils. We run water through reverse-osmosis membranes that imitate the way cell walls separate salts from solution. We pass water under high- intensity ultraviolet lamps that replicate the purifying effects of the sun. We grow vats of naturally occurring waste-eating bacteria that take the biological products we excrete and consume them, producing fertilizers, oxygen, and energy. We use fossil fuels to distill water in massive boilers and condensers that are concentrated mechanical reproductions of the hydrologic cycle.

All of these artificial interventions are necessary because the population of the planet has outgrown the ability of nature to provide adequate water for our needs and to purify our wastes. They have been of enormous benefit but have ultimately proved inadequate the growing need. Billions of people still suffer unnecessary water-related diseases because they lack safe water and sanitation.

Aquatic ecosystems are dying due to our use, diversion and contamination of the fresh water they need to survive. The risks of political, economic and military conflicts over water resources are growing. Climate change is already starting to alter basic hydrological conditions around the world. The technological “hard path” fixes we have so far applied seem less and less likely to solve these problems by themselves. The growing and wasteful use of bottled water is evidence that the old ways of managing water challenges are putting us on the wrong side of history.

Bottled water is a consequence of the failure of the “hard path” approach and the growing backlash against it is a symptom of the need for a new paradigm. We must do more than just “more of the same” if we are going to truly address our own and global water problems. I have called for a new “soft path” approach for the management and development of water resources.

If everyone on the planet had access to affordable safe tap water, bottled water would be seen as unnecessary. If government regulatory agencies actually worked to protect the public from poor-quality water, false advertising, misleading marketing, and blatant hucksterism, the sales of magic elixirs would be halted. If public sources of drinking water ( i.e. fountains) were more common and accessible, arguments about the convenience of bottled water would seem silly. And if bottled water companies had to incorporate the true economic and environmental costs of the reduction and disposal of plastic bottles, as well as the extraction and use of sensitive groundwater, into the price of their product, sales would plummet.

Machiavellian motives can be inferred from the dramatic expansion of bottled water in the last decade: Some claim that it is an orchestrated effort to privatize precious water resources and to turn water from a natural right into a luxury, a commercial product. Certainly, the bottled water industry is successfully capitalizing on, and profiting from, the decay of our comprehensive safe drinking water systems, or, in the poorer countries of the world, their complete absence. But motives aside, society must not abandon municipal systems, or let the rich fall back on individual point-of-use systems that purify water just for those who can afford it, or try to provide everyone with bottled water for their potable water needs.

The answer is to continue to build new and innovative water and wastewater systems, expand and maintain the remarkable systems we've already got, get the failing pipes and lead contamination out of the old building, and learn to manage water for the long-term future, not the next quarterly earnings period.

Pursuing these goals won't eliminate the bottled water industry. Consumers will always seek a diversity of choices, including the choice to buy in convenient, single-serve containers. But the bottled water industry itself is in need of serious reform and comprehensive regulation in order to safeguard human health, reduce the impacts of bottling and transporting water, and protect the public from misrepresentations and lies about unproven health benefits of bottled water.

Support and expand state-of-the -art tap water systems
Develop, pass and enforce smarter water regulations
Require truthful labeling
Protect consumers fraud and misrepresentations
Reduce bottled water's environmental impact

If we are thoughtful we will see bottled water for what it is – the result of a failure to provide satisfactory public water systems and services for everyone- and realize that our obsession with bottled water can be overcome if we address the reasons people seek it out.

The Author's Blog:

[ Maintaining and developing our water and wastewater systems both at home and abroad is exactly the sort of public works project that provided the economic stimulus and and growth that settled the huge national debt that the United States labored under in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as represented among other things by the interstate highway development program under President Eisenhower, only better, of course.

What economists call the positive “knock-on” effects of such a program are virtually incalculable- opening all kinds of opportunities for sound and environmentally sustainable economic growth and development.

The idea that the sorts of government programs and regulations envisioned by the author to achieve his goals would “unnaturally” and “dangerously” stymie the “free-market” forces that “made America great” and vouchsafes a prosperous future for all its citizens is patently absurd and, in light of all that has occurred in this country in the last thirty years leading up to the collapse of the housing bubble, the extremely slow pace of recovery, massive unemployment and the devastating oil-platform blow-out in the Gulf, defies the real record of the entire history of this Republic and verges on willful blindness if not mendacity.]


  1. Island Press Book, Center For Resource Economics; Washington, D.C., 2010

  2. I drink bottled water because I have gout and high uric acid and because it seems like the healthy thing to do. Drinking water doesn't come easy to me. Psychologically it's easier to do if I drink by the bottle.

  3. What Should I Do?, What should I say?

    So here's a conundrum- the book issues some-warnings about bottled water, in regard to the leaching of chemicals from the plastic into the content. There is a lot of thought and debate about the question. " Don't drink water out of a bottle that's been sitting all day in the back seat of your car on a hot day" ... Sensible enough rule, and not likely the deprive anyone of a great pleasure. And few credible studies have ever claimed to have found a risk of leaching with the commonly used PET .

    What about the plastic in those large bluish commercial dispensers, like when you push a button and fill up a paper cup at the office or studio?

    "bottled water sold in large sizes for offices or home coolers, packaged in polyycarbonate ( PC), under some conditions- such as abrasive cleaning and long term storage appears to release bisphenol A (BPA).. a potentially serious health hazard."


    "Cautious customers can now find newer polycarbonate bottles made without BPA."

  4. The girls who run the pilates studio with one of these dispensers probably know their business, they are very scrupulous about their diets, practice alternative medicines, and are easily interested in new-old age spirituality.

    Probably the whole water situation down there conducted under State Law and the terms of their lease. All that is likely to require potable water apart from the bathroom sink and putting in a fountain, even a plain one without elaborate filters would present design, code, prior- agreement and capital problems.

    What is the likelihood that they aren't using the new polycarbonate? Even with a bad liver my feeling that taking an occasional cup at the Pilate's studio is going to do me any harm is not strong. Nor anyone else for that matter. Why is this any of my business anyway?

  5. Following each question mark is a vast array of thoughts, images, feelings- any even a few formal propositions- in sometimes random but nearly always in unresolved motion which only time and changing circumstances can quiet.

    To be sure, another problem comes along, the old problem sinks into the sea for a time, then, later, often surprisingly, they will rise up and and settle the issue in a happy, diplomatic fashion without further ado.

  6. Perhaps the way the literary solution- sending out messages about the dangers of bottled water- so infrequently settles the matters of social conscience- if there is one- and some will even question this- is reason why some writers are so prolific, or have a tendency to gloom and despair?

    When it comes to knowing or even solving the world's problems we could all be on the same page without making a single effective change. It all takes a lot of lengthy and patient thinking, not only for the world at large - History, Literature, Science and Religion- but also in the crystal palaces and garbage dumps of life every day.

  7. One must admire the good fortune,skill and wit which allowed Herman Melville to embody, represent, allude to and symbolize these thoughts- and motions of the soul -in the epic, iconic adventure "Moby-Dick'.