Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Water Water Everywhere

The Khaleej Times reported recently that water shortages are so bad in Somalia that children, in many cases, have had to drink their own urine. The article goes on to say that parts of Somalia, where temperatures rise to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, people have to survive on the equivalent of three glasses of water per day for "drinking, washing and cooking."

Perhaps it's true that most often it is the obvious that eludes us. This was brought home to me recently when I happened to read an article on bottled water. Over the past six or seven years global consumption has doubled. In 2004 approximately 154 billion liters (41 billion gallons) had been drunk throughout the world. This increase is expected to continue. It is a very big business, well over $200 billion a year. I certainly have been a consumer of this product.

For whatever reason, I can't remember when I started buying bottled water on a regular basis. More important, I'm not exactly sure why I started. My neighborhood supermarket, I "discovered" recently, has at least 40 different brands of bottled water! Once I began studying the shelves devoted to water I realized the packaging was ... well, remarkably compelling in many instances. Equally surprising was where a lot of this water came from. It almost seemed like another example of outsourcing America.

There was an attractive 25 oz bottle of water from the U.K. selling for only $3.29. Canada had a bottle that promised zero arsenic, absolutely no MTBAs, and was 100% glacier water. Germany had a six-pack selling for $6.00. The state of Hawaii was represented, a good 10-hour flight from where I live. Although the Hawaiian bottle was made out of plastic, it looked like Steuben glass--very chic. But the ultimate in fine water consumption had to be the stuff from Fiji, a great looking bottle and a pledge of pristine delight. It could have been mine for $12 a six-pack

We owe most of it to the French. In the 1850s they began to bottle cold spa water. In 1968 Vittel, a French company, came up with the plastic bottle. In the mid-80s science discovered recyclable plastics. The rest is history. But the real story is much more than marketing acumen, gullible people, and the usual corporate "hustle."

Less than 1% of water on our planet is fresh water. There is another 2 to 3% but it's frozen within glaciers and ice caps. Obviously an important question is how much potable water will be available for an increasing world population, as well as what might happen if climate change becomes more than a "slight" adjustment?

China, which much of the world has apparently decided will be the next "great" power, is now having serious water problems. Because of its rapid industrialization, this country of 1.3 billion has managed to pollute a large portion of its water supply. The World Health Organization estimates that around 700 million Chinese drink water that doesn't meet minimum standards, which is the total population of the U.S. and most of Europe. The sales of bottled water, however, are increasing dramatically.

In general, in the "developed" world, tap water is safe to drink and can be made even safer still if we decide to start paying attention to it. In the United States and Europe tap water is regulated more stringently than is bottled water. It's also energy-efficient, unlike much of the foolishness of shipping, for example, bottled water from Hawaii to the middle of the United States.

It takes a lot of fossil fuel to move water from Fiji in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles, to my supermarket in the mid-west. It also requires a lot of plastic, another oil product. The packaging is polyethylene terphthalate. Plastic bottles wrapped in plastic packaging, made from crude oil, which globally amounts to some 3 million tons of plastic and--last but not least--according to the Container Recycling Institute, only about 14% of plastic bottles gets recycled, at least in the U.S.

In the developing world bottled water consumption is growing, certainly among the upwardly mobile, especially in countries like China and India. A lot of wealthy corporations will likely get a great deal wealthier selling one of life's essential needs. A problem, however, is that the majority of people in the developing world cannot afford bottled water. As well, a growing concern is the fact there are water shortages in many communities, because water tables have dropped rapidly due to water being quite literally sucked up by the bottling companies.

Contrary to what the well-groomed, shiny suits may tell us, bottled water in the developed world is not any guarantee that it is any better or safer than the water we drink out of the tap. In the developing world in many cases, with little or no regulations, it's buyer beware. That water in the bottle may actually have come from the stream containing bacteria, parasites, and chemical contaminants.

Bottled water is clearly not the answer in both the short term and the long term, no matter how it is packaged and marketed. The United Nations Millennium Report says that about $30 billion will have to be spent on water supply and sanitation over the next fifteen years if we want to significantly reduce the number of people who do not have a safe water supply. A lot of money yes, but approximately $100 billion is spent each year on bottled water.

In the developed world it's a matter of using some small amount of critical thinking skills; not that we must not ever drink bottled water, but how much do we really need, and why are we drinking water that is produced several time zones away? Are we all that easy to fool?

In the developing world it is and will become a matter of survival. But we in the West, trying to decide between the Fiji water and some other bottle of imaginary delights, will ultimately find this problem reaching our own doors as well, if we aren't willing to address it now. Evian spelled backwards is "naive." Water-water everywhere, but maybe not a drop to drink.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Scourge

On the face of it what do Danish cartoons and Muslim rage have to do with the environment? Well, if nothing else, it should be an incentive for the West to implement an "energy" Marshall Plan. Admittedly, the fact that the U.S., at the moment, is certifiably brain dead makes it more difficult, but not impossible. We need to get very busy.

I've certainly attempted to try and understand the "visceral" rage of the Muslims. I've read about how the West exploited the Islamic world beginning in the nineteenth century. I totally agree. Of course, the exploitation was relatively easy after the Ottoman Empire had turned the region it controlled into an ossified, decaying relic, where millions of Muslims were exploited by their own governments as well as by religious superstition.

Many Muslims today are being discriminated against in the West. It seems most likely. We need to talk to one another, sooner than later. Should we begin before or after the burning stops, the manipulation ends, and the endless, threatening fatwahs cease?

The Danish publisher of the cartoons apparently intended to provoke--someone. The fact that he supposedly refused to publish similar cartoons of Jesus Christ, because he didn't want to offend Christians, doesn't help his credibility one bit.

I do, however, find religious fundamentalism--of any type--loathsome and detestable. It has nothing to do with rational thought. It certainly won't help us take real responsibility for the well being of the planet we live on. I find more transcendence in one sunset than all the ignorant ravings of the temple priests anywhere and anytime.

The decision is easy. Of course I'm a Dane. I have to be.