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Wicked Water Problems: A Look Into the Injustices of Bottled Water - The YEARS Project

Wicked Water Problems: A Look Into the Injustices of Bottled Water

Millions of people in America drink unsafe, contaminated water due to drinking water systems consistently failing to achieve state and federal safety standards. While rural, low income individuals are the most vulnerable population due to fertilizer and manure seeping into groundwater, you could be at risk anywhere. Though the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act helped to combat water-related health risks, the set standards are now out of date, leaving Amercians wondering if their tap water really is safe to drink.


As health fears increased among the American people, it quickly became common to buy bottled water rather than trusting the tap.


However, when bottled water is put to the test, it is rarely cleaner and fails most taste tests against tap water. In fact, some bottled water is simply treated and packaged from municipal sources, AKA the water that comes out of your tap. Still, big bottled water companies continue to package this resource due to high demand – a demand originally manufactured by the big bottled water companies themselves.




Without increasing consumer demand, a company cannot grow. While bottled water has a long history in America, the craze really started with the relaunch of Perrier in 1977. Perrier capitalized off of its luxury reputation and advertised itself as a healthy alternative to soda. It was a hit. Sales sky-rocketed due to the American peoples’ current fascination with health, causing more bottled water brands to pop up as industry competitors. 


As people turned away from their unhealthy soda-drinking habits, large soft drink companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola saw their profits start to level off. To address this issue, these companies did what they thought they had to do to maintain sales – they too began packaging water. 


The marketing tactics of bottled water were sneaky, yet genius. Despite having their own contamination outbreaks, bottled water companies made sure to highlight any and every issue that arose surrounding the contamination of municipal water sources. Having effectively scared the public, the companies rolled out images of fresh mountain springs and sparkling streams which seduced the consumer into believing that this commodity was pure and pristine. Here we see the birth of water as a “supply and demand” type product.


Living in America means also living in a free market economy and reliant on capitalism to survive. In America’s free market economy, the concept of “supply and demand” runs the show. Where there is a need for a good, there will be a distributor profiting from your need. When goods that used to be circulated in other ways become incorporated into the market, they become commodities. 


Sometimes forming items into commodities makes sense because after all, capitalism is competition. Clothing lines battle each other to release trendy products that will hopefully cause a surge in purchases. Fast food restaurants fight to produce the best tasting food at the lowest prices. So who is the bottled water industry competing with? Our human rights. 


Nestle dude


The commodification of water is a perfect example of accumulation by dispossession, a concept created by Marxist geographer David Harvey. Accumulation by dispossession is the sequence of events that leads to the accumulation of wealth and concentration of power into the hands of the few by dippossessing public and private entities of their wealth or land. It is driven by privatization, financialization, management/manipulation of crises, and state redistributions. In layman’s terms, a few powerful entities take ownership of an asset or land, then drive out all other parties that once had any ownership or residency. 


Accumulation by dispossession disproportionately affects more vulnerable communities, expanding the power gap between the upper and lower classes. The best way to understand the connection of accumulation by dispossession and water is to look to the injustices endured by Indigenous and low-income communities throughout time.




Visual description of Fiji and/or its people


But at the beginning of 1996, a business stopped into the untouched waters of Fiji because he eyed the opportunity for profit. As the business grew, it quickly morphed into a parasitic relationship, in which surrounding communities became entirely reliant on the industry.


While the company showed support for the people of Fiji by providing job opportunities and funds for local infrastructure, the company didn't pay taxes for the first 13 years of its existence. While Fiji may have claimed that their presence in the region was appreciated, what the people of Fiji really needed was for the company to pay their fare share of taxes and boost Fijian infrastructure. ‘Activist and resident pressure’ convinced the government to change Fiji Water’s tax exampt status. The company threw a tantrum, laying off large amounts of workers, temporarily shutting down facilities, and severely damaging the lives of those dependent of Fiji Water.


Fiji Water glamorizes the “exotic” and “paradisal” nature of Fiji itself. In reality, 12 percent of Fijians still lack access to clean water. Meanwhile, water from Fiji is bottled up, overpriced, and sold to people who already have access to clean and safe water. Ironic, huh?




The severe drought in North Mexico has left families with dry taps and at the mercy of the town pipas, water trucks run by city authority. People have no way of predicting when the pipas will arrive to deliver the brackish water to be used for bathing, cooking, flushing the toilet, and sometimes drinking. Though the water carried by the pipas is by no means safe, people who don’t have the ability to purchase bottled water are forced to drink the contaminated contents of the water truck. Meanwhile, Coca Cola and Henieken are sourcing billions of liters of water right beneath their feet.

Bottled water, steal (or government corruption)

Despite more than half of Mexico being in drought, Coca Cola and Heineken use private wells and host campaigns that look good on paper, but actually do little for the people in Mexico struggling to find clean, affordable water. This crisis has further highlighted barriers between the upper and lower classes as wealthier neighborhoods are consistently provided a higher water quota.




The United Nations currently ranks Canada as number one for quality of life and as the best country overall. Those who inhabit the Six Nations of the Grand River Indigenous reserve in southern Ontario would beg to differ. Just an hour and a half [direction] from Toronto, Canada’s wealthiest city, Indigenous people living there have no access to running tap water. While inhabitants must drive out of town to buy water suitable to drink, Nestle, the largest publicly held food company in the world, extracts millions of liters of water daily from Six Nations land.


Though the Six Nations people have expressed their disapproval of Nestle monopolizing their water, Nestle has not stopped or made any initiative to rectify this injustice. The discrepancies in the treatment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are anything but minute. All neighboring white communities are able to access clean water at the mercy of a faucet, while the Indigenous people are constantly plagued by illness from contamination and lack of water.




Furthermore, we all know that plastic is not so good for the environment. While environmental impacts should be a huge concern for us all, it’s just as important to see the bigger picture. There are people suffering every day due to the theft of their human right to water. Lack of clean water leads to dehydration, disease, decreased crop yields, and increased mortality rates. It doesn't make sense how we bottle up water from the thirsty and sell it to the quenched. It doesn’t make sense that bottled water is marketed to be cleaner than tap water, but is oftentimes not. It doesn’t make sense.


Let’s be honest, in many places tap water is polluted and an alternative drinking source is needed, but the answer shouldn’t be environmentally detrimental and at the expense of others. We need to remember that bottled water companies don’t actually produce water, they produce the bottles that fill our grocery store shelves. Water is sourced, or rather, stolen from people who really need it elsewhere. Wouldn’t a better investment be to campaign for clean water for all?