UN Report: Bottled Water Industry Undermining Safe Water Access
The rapidly-growing bottled water industry is undermining progress towards a key sustainable development goal: safe water for all, according to a new report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Released just days before World Water Day (March 22), the report finds that the unrestricted growth of the $270 billion 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.”
In richer nations, where clean tap water tends to be widely available, bottled water is often seen as something of a “luxury” purchase, regarded as healthier and tastier than tap water. The US, China, and Indonesia are the biggest consumers of bottled water globally. Approximately 60% of the market is comprised of countries from the Global South. The report says 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, and calls for nations to start to manage water as a global common good.
The report also notes that the bottled water industry generated roughly 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021, resulting in around 25 million tons of plastic waste – most of which is not recycled and ends up in landfills. It underscores that “bottled water is generally not nearly as well-regulated and is tested less frequently and for fewer parameters” than tap water, and that sources, treatment processes, storage conditions and packaging can all potentially alter quality.
At the same time, a global survey conducted in the run-up to the UN 2023 Water Conference showed that 58 per cent of people from 31 countries are seriously concerned about freshwater shortages, whereas 30 per cent claim to be greatly impacted by it.
Co-author Vladimir Smakhtin, past Director of UNU-INWEH, said: “The rise in bottled water consumption reflects decades of limited progress in and many failures of public water supply systems.” Lead author Zeineb Bouhlel added that “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.
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