Sips from a broken Tea Cup
March 27, 2019
The Environmental Apartheid
March 27, 2019


Tap Water for All

“There is no logical explanation for regular bottled water use: It costs more, offers less and pollutes our planet unforgivably.” ~  Dr. Julian Whitaker

In June 2007 San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made headlines by signing an executive order banning the use of city funds for the purchase of single-serving plastic water bottles, and also banned their sale on city-owned property.  It was a part of the city’s effort to become more environment-friendly and less wasteful. By one stroke of pen, Mayor Newsom saved  nearly $500,000 a year that the city spent on purchase of bottled water.  In an interview with Newsweek, Newsom said: “These people are making huge amounts of money selling God’s natural resource. Sorry, we’re not going to be a part of it.”   The  sensible cities and the mindful mayors around  the globe were quick to catch on.   Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St Louis and many other cities began taking similar actions,  while the  City of Toronto council  voted to ban water bottles on all municipal premises by 2011.

Bottled water industry represents one of the biggest scams of our time. Growing  by over  20 per cent every year  it has become one of the most  profitable businesses in Pakistan. It rides on a wave of ‘purity’, a  public perception driven by advertisements and packaging labels featuring pristine glaciers, heavenly mountains or crystal-clear springs. But bottled water is not necessarily cleaner or safer in all cases, just as the much trashed tap water is not as close to sewage as it is made out to be.  Both positions are inaccurate  and need to be examined in more detail.

PCRWR, Pakistan’s premier water resource organization in its quarterly report (Jul-Sep. 2009)  states that  of the 42 brands of bottled water tested, 16 brands (38%) failed to meet the safe water specifications on  account of chemical or biological contamination.      The Lahore High Court, in a recent judgment   ordered sealing of 17 dubious bottled water manufacturing companies for working without valid licenses.  Unfortunately the story of tap water is  even sadder.  Of the 2000 water samples collected over a period of 20 years from different parts of  Karachi, none was found fit for human consumption, as revealed by a  study conducted by Karachi University’s Department of Geography.


The bottled water and the public tap water system are deeply interrelated.  The greater we focus on the former,  the lesser we care about the latter. The bottle and the tap water relationship is a Déjà vu of our education system in private and government schools.   What is the cost and the carbon footprint of using bottled water?  US consumes over 30 billion single serving plastic bottles each year. It takes an equivalent of 30 million barrels of oil per year to make these planet trashing containers (enough to run 1.5 million cars for one year).  80 % of the bottles end up as garbage in landfills, often downloaded to  the backyards of developing countries.  Producing, packaging and transporting a one  liter water bottle requires up to  2,000 times more energy  than treating and delivering the same amount of tap water.(Energy analysis conducted by the Pacific Institute, California.)  Bottled water costs about 50 times more than  tap water in Pakistan and many hundred times more in USA.  Perhaps the  only explanation for this glorified  environmental terrorism could be the exaggerated fear of tap water,  the seduction of  the  ‘mineral water bottle’,  the corruption of the government and the greed of the corporate world.

Like private schooling, security, electricity, and  transport,    bottled  water is yet another of those exclusive services that the insensitive rich ruling elite have carved out for themselves. It has pushed the  common citizens to fend for themselves and  to suffer  at the hands of unforgivably inadequate and incompetent public institutions.  The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), through sheer  neglect and mismanagement is now  under a debt of Rs 42 billion to international donor agencies. This simply means no more  funding for future pipeline projects.   “There is no water shortage in the city as the city receives  695 million gallons of water per day (mgd).  A huge amount of water (272 mgd), is simply stolen by the tanker mafia using 161 illegal hydrants”, claims Orangi Pilot Project Director Parveen Rehman.   Alex Rodrigues writing for the Los Angeles Times  reports that “the Karachi ‘water mafia’ leaves Pakistanis parched and broke, as the  corrupt politicians allow businessmen to siphon off as much as 41% of the city’s water supply and  sell it at exorbitant rates to residents,  generating an estimated $43 million a year.”  The  poorest slum dwellers who buy  their meagre quantities through donkey-carts  (Rs 100 for 25 gallons)  end up paying 10 times more than those who receive the  stolen water  through   tankers.

The bottled water , so proudly displayed in every official meeting must be  completely banned, and  all citizens exposed to drink the same tap water.  The government must follow the example of  San Francisco’s mayor. No government funds for purchase of bottled water.  No sale of bottled water on government owned property and no bottled water consumption in any government organization. We need a massive citizens movement demanding clean tap water for all,  ban on bottled water and overhaul of institutions such as  the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB).  The KWSB can overcome its financial crisis and earn up to Rs 50 billion annually by effective management of hydrants, preventing thefts, charging all those who consume pipe water  and  improving its billing system.   In 1994, the Supreme Court  of Pakistan interpreted the constitutionally protected right to life and  dignity to include the right to a healthy environment. (Shehla Zia v.WAPDA PLD 1994 SC 693) It expanded the  meaning of Article 9 of the constitution to include, “The right to have  unpolluted water as a right of every citizen.”   By  not providing clean drinking water to 40 % of its population, is the  Islamic Republic not  in daily violation of its own constitution?


Naeem Sadiq


Dawn  April 2010