Friday, October 27, 2006

The Bottled Water Lie


The Bottled Water Lie

By Michael Blanding, AlterNet. Posted October 26, 2006.

The corporations that sell bottled water are depleting natural resources, jacking up prices, and lying when they tell you their water is purer and tastes better than the stuff that comes out of the tap.

When Antonia Mahoney moved to Boston from her native Puerto Rico 35 years ago, the first thing she noticed was how much better the water tasted. Over the years, however, the water she was receiving from her tap began to lose its appeal. "Little by little, the taste changed," says the retired schoolteacher, who eventually gave up tap water altogether and began paying over $30 a month to get bottles of Poland Spring water delivered to her house.

Walking through Boston's Copley Square on a sunny day last month, however, she was intrigued by a banner advertising something called the "Tap Water Challenge." As she approached the table, a fresh-faced activist behind it told her the "challenge" was a blind taste test to see if passersby could tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. Mahoney turned her back while four water samples were poured into small paper cups -- two of tap water from Boston and a nearby suburb, and one each of Poland Spring and Aquafina.

"That's tap water," Mahoney declared after draining the first cup. "That tastes just like what I drink at home." Her confidence faded, however, as she downed the next three, which all seemed to taste the same. When the cups were turned over, it turned out that what she thought was tap water was actually Aquafina -- and what she thought was Poland Spring was actually the same Boston tap water she gets at home for free. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it," she says later. "You know I pay so much for that water. Now I am thinking to stop the Poland Spring."

Mahoney wasn't alone in that decision. A student from Connecticut who attends Massachusetts College of Art says that she has cartons of bottled water stocked in her dorm room, because she doesn't want to chance city tap water. After taking (and flunking) the test, she says now she'll start drinking from the faucet. "It tastes the same as the tap water I drink at home in Connecticut, and I drink that all the time," says the student, Katey vanBerkum. "Why spend your money on bottled water if you don't have to."

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In the past decade, the bottled water market has more than doubled in the United States, surpassing juice, milk, and beer to become the second most popular beverage after soft drinks. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, three in four Americans drink bottled water, and one in five drink only bottled water. Together, consumers spent some $10 billion on the product last year, consuming an average of 26 gallons of the stuff per person, according the Beverage Marketing Corporation. At the same time, companies spend some $70 million annually to advertise their products. Typical are Aquafina's ads advertising the beverage as "the purest of waters," Dasani's ads contending the water is "pure as water can get."

In fact, says Kellett, not only does tap water often taste the same as bottled water, but it is also often safer to drink as well. "They are spending tens of millions of dollars every year to undermine our confidence in tap water," she says, "even though water systems here in the United States are better regulated than bottled water." That's because tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which imposes strict limits on chemicals and bacteria, constant testing by government agencies, and mandatory notification to the public in the event of contamination.

Bottled water, on the other hand, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which according to federal law is technically required to hold itself to the same standards as the EPA. The devil is in the details, however, since FDA regulations only apply to water that is bottled and transported between states, leaving out the two-thirds of water that is solely transported within states. State laws, meanwhile, are inconsistent, with some mirroring the FDA standards, some going beyond them and some falling far short of the national regulations. What's more, FDA regulations rely on companies to do their own testing, and perform voluntary recalls if products are found to be in violation of standards (if a company fails to do so, the Justice Department can order a seizure of products).

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In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestlé, which produces several "local" brands including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga (a fact that itself often surprises participants in the Tap Water Challenges). Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while Nestlé uses tap water in some brands.

Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as "reverse osmosis" and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art -- essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In March 2004, Coca-Cola was forced to recall nearly 500,000 bottles of Dasani water in the United Kingdom due to bromate contamination that exceeded the U.K. and U.S. limit of 10 parts per billion. This past August, three grocery stores chains in upstate New York who all used local company Mayer Bros. to produce their store brands issued recalls after samples were found contaminated with more than double the bromate limit; in some cases, contaminated water was apparently sold for five weeks before the problem was detected.

Water originating with groundwater sources, meanwhile, can have its own problems. Citizens in states including Maine, Michigan, Texas, and Florida have all fought against Nestlé, whom they accuse of harming the environment by depleting aquifers and damaging stream systems with extractions of massive amounts of water though their local bottling affiliates, for which they pay next to nothing in fees and then sell at a huge markup. In 2003, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) won a landmark court victory shutting down a Nestlé plant that was taking water from a stream that fed a wildlife refuge, sensitive marshland and several lakes.

"When you look at the fallen level of the stream, a couple of inches can mean everything to the environment," says Jim Olson, an attorney with the group. "It changed a natural regime that has built up over centuries, drying up ancient marshes of sedge grass relied on by wildfowl, interfering with spawning habits of great northern pike, and creating mudflats in areas where you used to be able to canoe." The injunction against Nestlé was partially overturned last year on appeal, however, in a decision that set a new, looser standard for water rights. The case is currently being considered by the Michigan state Supreme Court.

International Bottled Water Association spokesperson Stephen Kay defends the rights of bottled water producers to extract water, saying that bottled water producers are no different than any other industrial user or food producer that uses water in its products. Nationally, he says that bottled water only accounts for .02 percent of water use in the country, and that even in local cases, water producers are sometimes singled out unfairly as the most visible users of water, while other large users of water are given a pass. "We need to understand all of the uses on an aquifer and make sound and scientific judgements that take all of those uses into consideration," he says.

Kay questions the idea behind the Tap Water Challenges, saying that consumers have chosen bottled water not only for its consistency and taste, but also for its convenience. It isn't competing so much against tap water, he says, as it is against other beverage options. "If consumers are in a convenience store and they want a beverage without calories, caffeine, or sugar, it's just ready to go," he says. "In this era of obesity, it's irresponsible to try and sway consumers away from a healthful beverage choice."

While he allows that some tap water might taste as good as bottled water, he says, not all water users are so lucky. In some parts of the country, water is tinged with a sulphurous taste or suffers from a noticeable taint of chlorine. Indeed, at the Tap Water Challenge in Boston, one participant, Leila Saba, says she drinks tap water in Boston but chooses bottled water when she visits her parents at home in South Florida, where the water has an unpleasant taste. "I think tap water is always safe to drink," she says, "but they could make an effort to make the water taste better."

For the activists behind the taste test however, the growth of bottled water undermines the public's willingness to invest in the kind of infrastructure investments that could improve all public water supplies -- opening up the door in some cases to privatization of water systems by for-profit corporations. "People get in the habit of paying a lot more for their drinking water, and they say if we are paying for bottled water, there is no reason we shouldn't be paying a lot for these water services," says Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and author of "Inside the Bottle," a report critical of the bottled water industry. The downside, he says, is increased cost. "Whenever there is a public service utility taken over by a private service the first thing that happens is that rates are jacked up."

That's exactly what happened in the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000, when takeover of its water by the Bechtel Corp. sparked a popular uprising known as the Water War, in which citizens successfully reclaimed their water supply as a public right. Today, some 300 million people around the world still get their water from private suppliers. In the United States, water privatization has been a disaster, with cities such as Atlanta, Indianapolis and New Orleans seeing rates soar and quality suffer after contracting with private companies such as France's Suez and Veolia.

The struggle over control of water is only bound to get more heated over the next few years. Currently, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, a number that is only bound to rise with increases in population and environmental stresses. This past March, environmental and indigenous groups converged on Mexico City to protest the World Water Forum, a meeting of industry and government leaders from around the world, sponsored by Coca-Cola., in which leaders failed even to agree that water was a basic human right. This month, citizens in 30 countries have planned demonstrations on the issue in an effort dubbed "Blue October," which will include a street celebration in La Paz to commemorate the Water War, and culminate next week in a three-day conference on water rights in Montevideo, Uruguay, from Oct. 28-31. In 2004, Uruguay became the first country to enshrine the right to safe water through a citizen-led constitutional amendment banning privitization and guaranteeing piped water and sanitation to all citizens. A similar effort kicks off this month in Mexico.

Activists like Kellett see a direct relationship between the commodification of water on the international level and the rise in bottled water among individual consumers. "Worldwide, people spent $100 billion on bottled water last year," says Kallett. "That's three times more than the amount that we'd need to spend to meet the United Nation's goals of giving everyone access to water by 2015." In the meantime, the activists with CAI will continue to bring their Tap Water Challenges on the road in an effort to convert people one by one. Purity, they contend, is only a twist of the faucet away.

CAI will hold a Tap Water Challenge at 1 p.m. today (Oct. 26) at Denver's Writer Square. Student groups will also hold Tap Water Challenges across the country next month on Nov. 14. For more information, visit Corporate Accountability International.

Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Boston. Read more of his writing at MichaelBlanding.com.
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People are being hoodwinked into giving huge amounts of money to an industry that takes advantage of our environment and brings in more profits than the pharmaceutical industry. ONE HUNDRED BILLION dollars could have done a lot to bring potable water to the over one billion people in this world now without it. What a scam. Water is NOT a commodity, it is a human right. Fresh water resources are dwindling in many parts of the world, and all companies like Coke and Pepsi can think about is profit at the expense of the poor in countries that are vulnerable to them, and in this country where they think they own our acquifers. It's time to boycott their bottled water.

My other writings on this:

Stand Up To Corporations That Kill

Globalization/Time To Take Action

Who Owns The Water?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Drought In Africa: Ethiopia's Bitter Harvest

Drought in Africa: Ethiopia's bitter harvest

By the time the October rains arrived last week, five of the 13 heads of families in the village of Magado had hanged themselves, tormented by the loss of their cattle and livelihoods. Cahal Milmo reports from southern Ethiopia on what has become an international failure

Published: 24 October 2006

The skeletal acacia trees that surround Magado village are testimony in more ways than one to the drought that has destroyed the lives of its inhabitants. The bare branches and parched earth are evidence of the six months of rainless heat that has wiped out up to 70 per cent of the livestock owned by the 11 million nomadic pastoralists spread across the Horn of Africa in the worst drought for a decade.

But in Magado, a tiny isolated community of herdsmen deep in the arid bush of southern Ethiopia, the acacia trees have helped extract a terrible price for the drought and the failure of the outside world to react quickly to their plight. Humanitarian aid to Africa has grown almost six-fold in the past eight years from $946m (£556m) to $5.6bn (£3.3bn). Magado's share of this windfall came too late.

One day, three months ago, Worish Catalo, a 60-year-old herdsman from the village, walked out to one of the acacia trees under which he had regularly watched his herd of 80 cows from dawn to dusk. He slung a rope over the tree's thorny branches and hanged himself among what were by then the wasted corpses of his starved cattle. Mr Catalo, who had six children, was only the first. By the time the October rains arrived last week, the inhabitants of Magado had cut down four more men who had walked to other acacia trees never to return. Five of the 13 heads of family have killed themselves because of the shame and despair of watching their cattle, raised from birth and cherished like offspring, dwindle and perish before their eyes. Of the 2,000 cattle owned by the families of Magado before the drought struck at the beginning of 2006, just two now remain, an attrition rate of 99 per cent.

The people of Magado belong to the Borena, a proud and once-feared tribe of nomadic herdsmen who, according to legend, hold their livestock in such high esteem that when two kinsmen meet they will enquire about the wellbeing of their herds long before that of wives or children. Nine million Borena live in an increasingly lawless region straddling the Ethiopian and Kenyan border.

No one in Magado has died from starvation. In March, long after the cattle were beyond salvation, emergency food aid arrived which kept the pastoralists alive, if only to survey the destruction of their livelihood during what they call the ola, or dry period.

The village is grim proof of what an increasing number of experts say is an international community failing to provide help when it is needed most. Across the Borena lands, it is estimated that 150,000 cows have died, at least two thirds of the entire stock. Galamo Dima, 45, a village elder, now has a meagre supply of beans and maize to feed her seven children. The milk and meat her 10 cattle once provided are a stomach-cramping memory.

Dressed in the colourful shawls and bead necklaces of the Borena women, she sits on a stool, watching a sudden deluge that eight months ago would have been greeted as a salvation. Now the rain has turned the empty cattle enclosures into quagmires and washed the dust from five new stone tombs. Most of the herdsmen stand around doing nothing, trying to keep dry the piles of firewood they have collected for sale at the nearest market, a backbreaking eight-hour walk away.

Ms Dima said: "The aid came too late for us. We were provided with lifestock feed. But there were no animals to give it to. They were already dead. Yes, we have survived. But because we have lost our source of income, we can no longer send our children to school. It has been a terrible time. We must make a living from small things, firewood, wild crops. We have lost people and animals. We are proud; we have no wish to live off others. But now we are a marginalised people. Perhaps it is better for the men who have gone."

Near by is Bonaya Afatu, a traditional rabies doctor who treats humans and animals for the disease transmitted from wild dogs roaming the scrubby landscape occupied by the Borena. He knew three of the men who committed suicide, all of them aged between 50 and 75. He said: "These men had seen other droughts; our land is prone to such things. But never before has it been so severe or have we suffered such a tragedy. Our traditions say that a man without cattle is nothing. To be a man of that age and lose all your cows means you cannot recover. These men took their lives because the shame was too great."

end of excerpt.

There are no words. You know, sometimes when I write about this issue and read about it, I cry. This was one of those times.

Outgoing Longwave Radiation Anomaly
This graph from NASA clearly shows the extent of the severe drought gripping Africa.

Also see my entry here:
Their Animals Are Dead, These People Are Next

Also, Al Gore's recent bestseller, An Inconvenient Truth covers the drought and precipitation patterns in Africa due to climate change on pgs. 114-115.

This is the moral challenge of our time on a global scale. However, do we truly have what it takes as a species to meet it? We must, because this certainly can't go on. WE in America who are putting out most of the greenhouse gases that are causing repercussions around the world must see our duty in taking a moral stand on this issue now... EVERY ONE OF US.

We Must Take Africa's Climate Burden

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Australian Farmers Committing Suicide Due To Drought

Australian Farmers Committing Suicide

Australian farmers commit suicide as hope evaporates
By Michael Perry Thu Oct 19, 2:44 AM ET

SYDNEY (Reuters) - One Australian farmer commits suicide every four days, defeated by the country's worst drought in 100 years which has left them with dust-bowl paddocks and a mountain of debt, says a national mental health body.

As drought rolls into a sixth year, stoic farmers are reduced to tears under the stress of trying to produce a crop and hold onto land sometimes farmed by the same family for generations. One male farmer every four days is committing suicide," Jeff Kennett, chairman of beyondblue, said on Thursday.

"My fear is that when under prolonged stress and when they see their assets totally denuded of value, that we will see an increase (in suicides)," Kennett told local radio.
The rate among male farmers and farm workers is more than twice the national average, the NSW Farmers Association says.

The figure is all the more worrying because only about 10 percent of Australia's 20 million population live in rural areas and the number has been declining for years as the rural economy struggles. The vast majority of Australians live in cities. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics suicide report says 2,098 Australians took their lives in 2004.

Crop losses stretch across the country, 92 percent of economically dominant New South Wales state is in drought, and farmers have started off-loading stock before the hot, dry summer when they would be forced to buy feed and water.

With an El Nino weather pattern, which will bring more dry weather and soaring temperatures, now on the horizon and little prospect of rain until early in 2007, rural hope is evaporating like water in Australia's mud-cracked dams and rivers.

Farmers' wives calling talk-back radio in the city describe their husbands' depression at trudging out into their dry paddocks, day after day, knowing they are losing money.

Prime Minister John Howard has announced a $350 million (US$263 million) aid package, but Kennett says farmers also need help coping with the depression and stress of years of drought.
End of excerpt.
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This is about as bad as it gets. SIX YEARS this drought has lasted and it is now killing people. WHERE is the Australian government? WHERE IS THE AID? This also happened in India and does bring another repercussion of climate change to the forefront... the toll it will have on the human spirit. It is immoral to allow this to continue, and for the Australian government to continue to bury its head in the sand regarding the causes of this drought, chief among them human induced climate change.

Humanitarian Disaster in the Sahara

Algeria has stranded 13,000 migrants in the Sahara forcing them to walk across it in response to EU directive to North Africa to lessen mi...