When standing in front of rows upon rows of bottled water at the supermarket, have you ever thought about what those bottles represent on a global scale? Berkeley Water Center (BWC) researchers have, and it does not bode well for providing safe drinking water in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). BWC Co-Director Isha Ray and Project Scientist Alasdair Cohen recently published an article in the Journal Nature Sustainability explaining the Global Risks of Increasing 

Reliance on Bottled Water.

 

In the article, Cohen and Ray discuss the rapid growth of bottled water use in LMICs, and its normalization as a daily source 

of drinking water. They argue that it does not provide a pathway touniversal access of safe drinking water, and that generous, sustained investment in centralized and community utilities remains the most viable long-term means for achieving safe water access for all.

Approximately two billion people lack access to microbiologically safe drinki

ng water today, though in 2015 world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, including “By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” The increased use of bottled water is threatening to undermine that goal, according to Cohen and Ray.

“Economically developed countries have achieved near-universal access to drinking water through publicly owned or regulated water utilities, but the expansion of safe piped water in most LMICs has been slow,” says Ray. “Bottled water is now the fastest growing form of access to ostensibly safe drinking water in LMICs.”

Case in point, Cohen and Ray show that bottled water consumption in the last decade has increased by 174 percent in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and

Thailand -- six of the top 10 bottled-water-consuming nations. High-income countries (HICs) in the top 10 only saw a 26 percent increase in the same period.

Naturally, in many LMICs, studies show this is a rational response to the lack of publicly provided safe drinking water, and even where piped water supply is expanding, it remains unsafe in many settings, and/or is perceived to be unsafe.

However, Cohen and Ray argue that bottled water as a form of everyday drinking water has significant social implications. In LMICs where many high-income households already rely exclusively on bottled water; this elite-led approach diminishes top-down demand for safe piped water, and poor service provision from utilities also erodes bottom-up expectations. Cohen and Ray say this is already apparent in many urban areas of LMICs, such as Mexico, where piped water is used for domestic purposes and possibly cooking, with little expectation from consumers or providers that it will be safe to drink.

“The growth and normalization of bottled water use in LMICs is eroding expectations that utilities will (or can) provide or expand access to safe piped water supply” say Cohen, “and it also threatens to exacerbate disparities in safe water access and undermine progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The authors argue that regulated utilities offer the world’s best hope for expanding affordable access to safe drinking water for all, and from the perspectives of improving public health and alleviating poverty, there is compelling evidence to support investments in universal safe water access. Governments should therefore expect to shoulder some of the costs for the collective well-being of their citizens.

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