50 meters far from where I live there is a public fountain. I pass in front of it twice a day: when I walk to the office in the morning, and when I come back late in the evening. The water flows out of it all the time. I’ve never seen it switched off, not even late at night. And sometimes I wonder whether someone is actually using this precious good and whether the water is drinkable or not. Left alone in a typical urban context where parking areas and six-story buildings define the main alternation between built and unbuilt spaces, this small fountain seems to be a sort of souvenir from ancient times. Could you think of a business man wearing a business suit who fill in his thermos with fresh water from the public fountain before going to a meeting? Probably not. This man is more likely to stop in the closest café, have a coffee and buy a bottled water, probably of a renowned company.
By saying this, I am not intending to judge this person and those who daily buy one or more bottles of water, on the contrary, I am trying to put myself in the position of a common person who spend most of his time outside his home and that, of course, need to satisfy the daily drinking water requirement of more than two litres a day. What can be done? Is bottled water the right answer to our needs?
Statistics on the consumption of bottled water agree to say that this industry is on the rise. But depending on the case, this trend is presented in different ways. As an example, the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association) in their 2011 Market Report Findings proudly points out that the increasing use of bottled water shows a ‘persistent interest in a product that consumers embrace as a healthful alternative to other beverages’. They mean that more and more people are choosing water instead of alcoholic or sugary beverages. Of course, this definitely sounds a positive effect.
However, Peter Gleick - an American renowned expert on water ad climate issues - on his book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water, criticises this kind of powerful arguments that are often used by the industry. And he highlights that, most of all, the increasing consumption of bottled water is done at the expense of tap water. This is a correct terms of comparison: tap versus bottled water. How does it come that we trust one more than the other?
According to Gleick, this trend can’t be fully understood without considering four main issues connected to this phenomenon:
- a long-term decay of our public water systems (Gleick is referring to the U.S. system, but his critic could be easily applied to many other countries),
- inequitable access to safe water all around the world,
- people’s dependency to advertising and marketing,
- the effects a society trained to buy, consume and then throw away.
If we just take a step back and try to dismantle our blind trust on the bottled water industry. Then we could come across a few interesting information. First of all, we could find out that controls on tap water are usually strictier than those on bottled water. Apparently, there are no specific regulations that force bottled water companies to show evidence of the quality of their products. If they would be controlled as often as our urban aqueducts are, then we could compare the two results and see if the first one is actually safer than the second one instead of just assuming it.
I tried to think of some famous bottled water companies, and the first thing that came to my mind was their chemical composition – or at least the name of their most advertised components like the percentage of sodium rather than the one of calcium - and sometimes the name of the original source. No mention to any frequent control, or whatsoever. While there have been several cases of contaminants in bottled waters.
As a consequence, it is important to inform people as much as possible on what they drink and on the quality of their tap water. Before making a choice, they first need to know the differences between the two. But how to do it?
Last week The Economist published an interesting article on data collection. In a world dominated by internet, the problem is not just to accumulate information, but to handle with them. Apparently, in Chicago a successful experiment has been that of just publishing the torrent of data available and then wait for some computer nerd to use them and create new services. This might sound a provocation rather than a serious advise. However, in this context, I hope that in the future every city will be able to provide a service easily accessible where people can check the condition of their drinking water.