In a July article published in Nature Sustainability, two Energy and Resources Group (ERG) researchers identified the global risks of the planet’s increasing reliance on bottled water. The rapid growth of the market for bottled water and its normalization as daily drinking water cannot guarantee universal access, argued Isha Ray, an ERG associate professor, and Alasdair Cohen, PhD ’16 Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), a postdoctoral researcher. Instead, the most viable means of achieving universal safe water access continues to be sustained investment in centralized and community utilities.
While economically developed countries have reached near-universal access to drinking water through publicly owned or regulated water utilities, in most low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the adoption of safe piped water has been slow. Bottled water is now the fastest-growing form of access to purportedly safe drinking water in LMICs.
Of the top 10 bottled-water-consuming nations over the past decade, 6 have been LMICs (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Thailand). The latter countries’ consumption of bottled water increased by 174 percent during that period, compared with a 26 percent increase for the high-income countries in the group.
Primarily using bottled water has negative implications across social, economic, health, and environmental lines. “In the short to medium term,” the authors note, “LMIC governments should evaluate non-tap options that could expand safe water access.”
Community-scale kiosk models, in which disinfected municipal water is delivered at low or no cost in reusable 19-liter bottles, are more sustainable and affordable than commercially sold bottled water.
“If governments and development agencies allow the bottled water sector to continue meeting the rising demand for safe water, then access will continue to grow, but it will likely not be reliably safe or universally affordable,” Ray said.
— Kirsten Mickelwait