Image by Quinn Dombrowski
Bottled water may provide necessary relief in the wake of a crisis like the devastating Louisiana floods or Hurricane Hermine, but the industry itself poses serious long-term threats to the environment and public access to water that shouldn’t be ignored.
In mid-August 2016, a 200-mile swath of southern Louisiana was hit by a devastating flood that’s being called the biggest U.S. natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy. A whopping 60,000 homes were damaged, 20,000 people had to be rescued from the floodwaters, and more than 12,000 people ended up sleeping in shelters. In these times of crisis, people lose their homes, their livelihoods, and tragically sometimes even their loved ones. A total of thirteen people were killed.
Part of the shock is that this flooding event was largely unprecedented, caused by small individual storms—not a large hurricane—and therefore was harder for meteorologists to predict. Some scientists like Bill Nye don’t hesitate to say climate change is behind the Louisiana flooding and that these kinds of catastrophes are going to happen again—and get worse.
Whether it’s a human-caused water crisis like in Flint, Michigan, or a climate change-influenced natural disaster like in Louisiana, these communities are in desperate need of volunteers and donations in the immediate wake of tragedy. One type of necessary relief often comes in the form of bottled water distributed by community organizations, the government, or bottled water companies themselves.
Indeed, the volunteers and community members who dedicate time and resources during these crises are the heroes of the story. With arms full of cases of bottled water, these volunteers provide necessary and important relief to suffering community members. When an entire city is flooded or poisoned, people can’t get water any other way.
Even so, bottled water is not designed solely to provide this necessary relief to people suffering during an emergency or disaster when no other option is available. Just walk into any corner store, grocery store, or office and you’ll find shelves and refrigerators full of these plastic-wrapped single servings of water—even when clean tap water is available. Bottled water consumption grew 120 percent between 2000 and 2015, and its consumption now exceeds tap water.
Behind this tremendous increase in bottled water consumption is a huge, well marketed, multibillion dollar industry that is draining water in local ecosystems and aggressively—and often unscrupulously—attempting to expand its access to natural water sources to facilitate the tremendous growth of its product. In these much more common cases, the industry is harming the environment, privatizing public resources, and reducing water security in many poor, rural towns.
For example, Nestle Waters N.A., the largest water bottling company in the U.S., has been removing millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest in California without a permit for the past twenty-eight years while paying a fee of only $524 per year. This drainage, combined with the historic drought California is suffering, is straining the local ecosystem; local creeks are literally drying out.
After a long battle, voters in Hood River County, Oregon, successfully blocked Nestle—and any large scale water bottler—from building a plant in their county this March. Since then Nestle’s second attempt to negotiate a regional plant nearby in the small town of Waitsburg, Washington, has ended in controversy. The mayor of Waitsburg resigned amid accusations of backroom deals with the company and strong protests by residents.
Furthermore, the removal of water from its natural ecosystem for bottling combined with the tremendous amount of plastic pollution created by the industry only exacerbates the existential crisis of climate change. And the privatization of water by these companies for bottling purposes hurts—not helps—the public’s long-term need for clean, accessible water.
During times of disaster and crisis, when the entire infrastructure of a town or region is ruined, bottled water can be a lifesaver, a saving grace, and brings necessary relief to a community ravished by the trauma of a flood—or the poisoning of a municipal water system like in Flint.
But behind the bright, holy light of photo ops that portray water bottlers as saviors in times of crisis lays a shadow reality of bullying, theft of public resources, pollution, and opportunism in small economically depressed towns that are strikingly similar to the ones receiving donations during disasters.
Bottled water can meet an essential human need in the immediate aftermath of disaster and crisis—and the public can appreciate that role that bottled water plays during such a great time of need. But this doesn’t justify its ubiquitousness in everyday life, the long-term harm that the industry causes on the environment, or the opportunism of the industry in its pursuit to privatize public water resources.
Bottled water use during disaster relief makes for a good industry photo op. But no matter how good the marketing, these consequences simply can’t be edited out of the picture.
Elisa Ringholm is a staff member at the Story of Stuff Project, an organization that’s building a movement to change the way we make, use, and throw away stuff.