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Water: A Right and a Risk

Thirsty by greekadman on flickr

I've grown up with a love of water. Swimming in it, boating on it, relaxing near it, drinking it. Water brings me peace and gives me life. I've often taken water for granted -- both the free water that I have such easy access to and the affordability and convenience of bottled water.

I've made a lot of changes in terms of my relationship with water and I could be more vigilant yet. To motivate myself and hopefully to educate and motivate others, I've decided to share what I've learned along the way as part of the Healthy Child Healthy World blog carnival on clean water and air solutions.

Water as a human right

In July 2010, the United Nations declared clean water to be a fundamental human right. According to a BBC article on the topic "about 1.5 million children under five die each year from water and sanitation-related diseases" (many of them drinking infant formula that has been mixed with dirty water) and "884 million people have no access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation."

According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) publication The right to water, ensuring that access to clean water is a human right is essential to ensuring that it becomes a reality. Water as a right should mean that:

  • fresh water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity or service provided on a
    charitable basis;

  • achieving basic and improved levels of access should be accelerated;

  • the “least served” are better targeted and therefore inequalities decreased;

  • communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision-making

  • the means and mechanisms available in the United Nations human rights system
    will be used to monitor the progress of States Parties in realizing the right to water
    and to hold governments accountable.

Canada, apparently out of concern over its sovereignty over its natural water supply, abstained from the vote on the United Nations motion (which did pass), despite the fact that Canadian water activists say the resolution does not put Canada on the hook for sharing its water resources (source: Montreal Gazette).

This United Nations resolution is important because the availability of a clean water supply is still so uneven around the world, as can be seen in this graph from the WHO's The right to water:

Access to clean water "on tap" is something we take for granted. According to the WHO, when water is provided through a tap in the home, water consumption is around 50 litres per person per day and many households use, for example, up to 30 times more water for child hygeine compared with communities where people have to collect that water from a communal source. Our household consumption of water from our taps could certainly decrease (see Crunchy Domestic Goddess' Five Minute Shower Challenge if you want to try to decrease water consumption in your home).

Although we should reduce our household consumption of water overall, there is one exception. We should be turning our taps on more often to drink up instead of reaching for a bottle from the fridge.

Risks of bottled water

There is a huge market for bottled water. People now understand that it is healthy to drink water and they are decreasing their intake of other beverages in favour of water. Bottled water is convenient and people assume it is better and safer than what comes out of their taps. However, just like the promotion of infant formula (versus breastmilk), the promotion of bottled water comes with a huge advertising budget and a vested interest in trying to convince you that the free stuff isn't good enough. But just because an argument has lots of advertising dollars behind it, doesn't mean it is true.

According to the Mother Nature Network's (MNN)article 5 reasons not to drink bottled water, bottled water sales worldwide amount to between $50 and $100 billion annually and are increasing at an annual rate of 7 percent. This is shocking considering the downside of bottled water.

According to MNN's article, the 5 reasons (described and substatiated in detail in their article) not to drink bottled water are:

  1. Bottled water isn't a good value

  2. No healthier than tap water (and in some cases may even be riskier)

  3. Bottled water means garbage

  4. Bottled water means less attention to public systems

  5. The corporatization of water

There are other great articles on this topic too, including Food and Water Watch's Get the Facts on Bottled Water (includes a great video) and the New York Times Bad to the Last Drop by Tom Standage.

Better than bottled

We should be drinking water. Adults and children alike should be decreasing their consumption of sugary and caffeinated beverages and replacing them with water. We should decrease our consumption of bottled water, but that doesn't mean reaching for a bottle of Coca Cola or even a bottle of orange juice instead.

As an alternative to buying bottled water, people should consider the many benefits of purchasing a refillable stainless steel water bottle. Not only will you save money and avoid the other risks of bottled water mentioned above (such as endocrine disruptors leaching from plastic bottles), but you'll be making a much smarter and more sustainable choice. If you like your water colder than it comes out of the tap, purchase several stainless steel bottles so that you can keep a few in the fridge.

Some people may worry about the pollutants that are in their tap water and in some cases they would be right to worry (more action is needed on this front). But if you educate yourself about the water quality in your area (U.S. only) and look into water filtration options, you'll be much better off than purchasing a bottle of water than could come from an unknown tap source and be contaminated with unknown substances.

Fill up at the tap and put your money somewhere better

I mentioned above that the worldwide spending on bottled water is between $50 and $100 billlion annually and growing at 7 percent each year. I also mentioned the water crisis facing much of the developing world. Consider this:
Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year.  (ref:  Standage, Bad to the Last Drop, New York Times)

Imagine how much good we could do if instead of increasing our consumption of bottled water by 7 percent each year, we found a way to decrease it by 7 percent each year? What if we took the money we would have spent on bottled water and instead donated it to water and sanitation projects in countries in need? All it should take, theoretically, is one year of reversing the trend to ensure that clean water and improved sanitation is available around the world.

We should do this, as individuals, but our governments should be doing this too. According to Inside the Bottle, the Government of Canada spent over $5 million in a five year period buying tap water for locations that have access to safe tap water. The government's purchase of bottled water increased about 70 percent between 2003 and 2009.  Just as individuals could opt to spend less on bottled water and put it towards water projects in developing countries, so too could the Government of Canada.

So grab a reusable water bottle. Fill it up at the tap. You'll be doing your health and finances a favour, you'll be doing the environment a favour, and if you do find a way to donate some of the money you saved to water projects in the developing world, you'll be helping those less privileged than us access the most basic of human rights.

I already try to do this, but I'll be trying even harder. I already use a stainless steel water bottle or a glass all the time at home and at work and I send them with my kids to school and carry them in my bag when we go out. But there still are times when we'll crack open a bottle of water because we forgot our own or because we weren't thinking. I'd like to eliminate those scenarios as much as possible and I'd also like to reduce my purchase of non-water bottled drinks (e.g. juices, soft drinks).

I'll be trying harder. Will you join me?

Image credit: greekadman on flickr

P.S. - Do you know a Mom on a Mission? Healthy Child Healthy World wants to honour special and inspiring women in the United States who are dedicated to creating healthier and happier environments for children and families. Nominations close very soon! Get your entry in by August 31, 2010.
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Reader Comments (19)

excellent article. you could also have added the virtual water (water footprint) arguments on top of all that - for example, would like to see a comparison of virtual-water:water-delivered ratios between a plastic bottle over its useful life (single-purpose) and a water fountain in a public space (years).
Switzerland has many public water fountains in their cities. Beautiful and practical.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermarc

Great post! There have been some concerns raised in an area near my home town, about water bottling facilities affecting municipal water supplies (changing water tables, etc.). I don't know if any of the concerns have been substantiated, but for me, it's another compelling reason to avoid bottled water (they're essentially bottling and profiting from the same water I drank from the tap when I lived there). I'm lucky to live in a city with great water (though I do need to use a filter thanks to the lead service pipes the city has not yet gotten around to replacing - they said 8-10 weeks in April), and usually carry a stainless bottle, but sometimes still forget and end up buying bottled - I'll definitely be joining you in trying harder.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I like this post a lot- I have read recently about the risks associated with drinking water from plastic bottles, and I've tried to cut down my consumption of bottled water for those reasons, but it's harder to cut out some of the juices and teas that I like. Glass bottles always seem to come with higher prices, which makes it harder to swing sometimes. It's a work in progress :)

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSara

Comprehensive and wonderful post! I'll add one more link, to Annie Leonard's "Story of Bottled Water" http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/ - great video with startling facts (like quotes from internal documents from bottled water manufacturers about how they needed to make people fear tap water.)

I did a phone interview with Dr. Peter Gleick (a global water expert) a few months ago and he is so brilliant (and has a new book out on bottled water). He talked about how we have the technology to provide everyone with clean drinking water - we just have to choose, as a society, to do it. (And it would cost less than what we're collectively paying for bottled water - AND it's the only socially just solution, since not everyone can afford bottled water.)

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanelle

Speaking of which, Nestle getting an award for a plastic bottle....UGH


August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I've used a pitcher water filter for the last 2 years, i take short shower (except on the very rare cold days we have in Florida), and I close the water faucets when I brush my teeth, etc. I even starting using the dishwasher for the only reason that it saves water. It is indeed one of our vital resources and I hope I'm helping conserve it. Sometimes I get scared at the idea that my kids, if not them the grandkids, might leave in a world where essentials like water, clean air or fuel/energy will not be enough. I hope that will never happen but yeah, you're right, it's up to us. Wishful thinking is OK, action NOW is better. Thanks.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenter@mychildsmommy

Oh, no! You forgot one of the most important aspects regarding water: one of Nestle's CEOs oppinions
"there are two different opinions on the matter; the one opinion I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. And the other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other, and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value"

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdiana
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdiana

My husband is raising $1000 to help drill a well (covers 1/5 of the price) for 250 people for 20 years in Central Africa for non-profit organization "Charity: Water" Seeing dirty water in baby bottles and watching kids fill containers from puddles is so heartbreaking. Far too many people in this world die from drinking water. Die from drinking water. Let's take the money we would have spent on bottled beverages and donate it. Here is his personal site but you can also get information online. http://mycharitywater.org/geoffwood

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHope

We don't buy bottled water in my family except for emergency supplies. Beyond that, my husband, my kids and I all have stainless steel water bottles which come with us on trips pretty regularly. The cost of the stainless steel is made up really quickly if you compare what it costs to buy bottled water.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

We've been carrying metal water bottles (first Sigg, then Kleen Kanteen after the Sigg/BPA issue emerged) for over 4 years now. We've lost 2 and destroyed 1 in a car-door-slamming incident. We have a couple of extra bottles with sippy lids for when toddler friends are visiting, and we keep our bottles in the house and car and take them everywhere with us. I'd guess we've spent probably $200 on bottles over these 4 years, including replacing all the Sigg ones - we've saved money and the planet, one of my favorite combinations. :)

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

I appreciate this post and ask that all of you take 3 minutes to sign the petition to ask the US Gov't to stop harming our planet through their use of Plastic Water bottles at http://goo.gl/0Xea .


August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShane

Great article. We installed a filtration system to our tap, and use it for drinking now (with glass cups or reusable bottles). You're right, there's really no need for bottled water.

August 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Anne

Wow, so thorough. It is a bit depressing to think how we waste water in this country. I wish utilities charged us more for water so that we would be more thoughtful consumers, and that we all used gray water for lawns, etc. Lucky for me, I prefer water to all other beverages b/c it's what I grew up drinking. Being from a large family, it was too expensive to have purchased drinks, esp. when eating out. We were never allowed to order drinks and even as an adult, I find it difficult to pony up the money for a beverage, even a fresh-squeezed juice. So I don't have to bread the juice/soda habit. I love how frugality is often green.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy (Eco-novice)

[...] Drink tap water: Don’t buy bottled water. The energy used in cleaning and bottling the water and shipping it to you is ridiculous. Instead, [...]

[...] August, I wrote a detailed post called Water: A Right and a Risk. I talked about water being a human right.  I explained the risks that billions of people face due [...]

As a former hydrogeologist, I appreciate this article. It blows my mind how clueless the general public is about where their own drinking water comes from - though I certainly don't mean to lay all blame on them but perhaps it's the sadly standard lack of consumer awareness.

That said, I do disagree with the end of the following sentence:
"But if you educate yourself about the water quality in your area (U.S. only) and look into water filtration options, you’ll be much better off than purchasing a bottle of water than could come from an unknown tap source and be contaminated with unknown substances."

In the US, bottled water is regulated differently than municipal water, certainly less stringently. But it is far better than "unknown tap source" or "contaminated with unknown substances."

That aside, I fully agree with avoiding bottled water in favor of public tap water.

(And Sara, I cut my juice 50/50 with (tap) water... I still get my flavor/juice fix, but significantly less sugar, water, and cost. Now, if only I could break my husband of his soda fix... ick.)

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSally


Thank you for your comment.

When I said "unknown tap source", I meant that you do not know which tap water it is and therefore can't look up information on the quality of it in the same way that you can with the tap water in your area using the link I provided.

When I said "contaminated with unknown substances", I was referring to things like the endocrine disruptors that leach from the plastic. However, it could be other things too. Here is one study on the issue of contaminants in bottled water: http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] written before about Water as a Right. Now, I want you to start thinking about Food as a Right. More than 7 million children under five [...]

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