Contradictions in the water debate
February 21, 2011, 2:42 am
Filed under: Editorializing, Research | Tags: ,

Bottled water is a favorite target of environmental opprobrium, as is corporate ownership of (and profiting on) water sources and infrastructure. But it’s complicated.

Bottled water
If people are drinking water in bottles instead of drinking tap water, well, that’s a shame. But if people are drinking bottled water instead of sugared soda or beer or coffee, then that’s a net positive. According to, it takes 200 liters of water for one glass of milk, 140 liters of water to make one cup of coffee, 120 liters for one glass of wine, 75 liters of water to make one glass of beer, 30 liters of water for one cup of tea, and a little more than one liter to make one liter of bottled water. [Please note that this is oversimplified — the source of water matters, so these numbers just provide an order of magnitude comparison.] So in comparison to these other beverage choices, bottled water has a lower environmental footprint and (compared to sugared soda at least) is healthier to boot. [I’m not the only person to think so — here’s another.] I couldn’t find a more recent figure, but as of 2006 a financial analyst was quoted in the NYTimes with an estimate that 64% of bottled water sales were switches from soda.

The further objection that 40% of bottled water comes from municipal systems anyhow is, in my opinion, not something to complain about but a number to celebrate and grow: The other 60% is coming from “spring” water (or the less popular “artesian sources”) and could be doing much more harm to the ecosystem (e.g. by changing the temperature of streams that affect fish, frogs, and others who depend on a constant temperature).

I’m not saying there aren’t problems with bottled water, or that there aren’t easy and better alternatives that already exist, but I am saying that there are worse options as well.

The price of water
The prime (non-philosophical) objection to corporate ownership of water seems to be the fact that corporations then charge more for that water. I will address only the price criticism here: I don’t understand how (at least seemingly) the same people get upset over high prices (of water or of oil, incidentally) but then complain that we consume too much (water and oil). Higher prices (should) lead to reduced consumption. Protections can be put in place to assure a minimum affordable supply to poorer people, as with housing, but that doesn’t mean the market price shouldn’t be high.


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