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?
Dawn April 2010