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Water and wealth.

Byline: The Register-Guard

In the United States, bottled water is a minor luxury, purchased by people for whom convenience justifies the cost. In much of the rest of the world, true luxury is safe drinking water that flows from the tap. For those who can afford it, bottled water has come to be regarded as essential - and for those who can't afford it, the increasing availability of bottled water threatens to become an obstacle to obtaining secure water supplies.

Sales of bottled water are roaring - 154 billion liters were sold in 2004, up 57 percent from five years before. Consumption is growing fastest in developing countries such as Mexico, India, China, Indonesia and Brazil. Those same countries are home to many of the world's 1.1 billion people who lack access to safe drinking water. As the emerging middle classes join the wealthy in drinking bottled water, support declines for public water systems that bring clean tap water to everyone, including the poor.

Even in the developed world, bottled water has costs far exceeding those of tap water. According to the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., bottled water can cost as much as 10,000 times as much as tap water. Transporting bottled water by truck, train or boat consumes fossil fuels. More than 1.5 million barrels of oil are used each year in the manufacture of the plastic in which most bottled water is sold. Only 14 percent of those bottles are recycled.

An estimated 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipal water systems, so people with a good local water supply may be better off drinking from the tap. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency's water quality standards for tap water are more strict than the Food and Drug Administration's standards for bottled water.

But it's in the developing world that bottled water can have its greatest effects. Bottled water is not an acceptable substitute for public water systems, which are among the most effective and cost-effective public health measures known.

The United Nations' goal for the next 10 years is to reduce by half the number of people lacking access to safe water systems. Achieving that goal would cost an estimated $15 billion - which, as the Earth Policy Institute points out, sounds like a lot until it's compared to the $100 billion spent yearly on bottled water.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Editorials; Benefits don't come in a bottle
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 23, 2006
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