“The sweetest water you ever tasted!”: Snake oil salesmen, ‘bottled water’ scams, and future water wars

In the 19th Century American wild west, Chinese snake oil became known as a powerful cure for certain ailments (1). This led to unscrupulous rascals bottling boiled down pig fats (etc) and flogging it from transport rigs as they passed through town. The 21st Century equivalent is taking any old water from the swamp (or polluted creek) out the back and putting it in bottles with suggestive names like ‘crystal creek’, ‘spring water’ and ‘mountain dew’ etc. – and then persuading people to become dependent on this and also pay a fortune for it (2). The classic case of this was at the launch of bottled NEWater (recycled sewage or ‘toilet’ water) a few years ago in Singapore. As I recall it, a government minister was recorded live on television news drinking the said ‘new water’ – saying something along the lines of ‘this is the sweetest water you ever tasted!’ (3 & 4).

George Orwell would have been mightily impressed methinks with this exemplary instance of Singaporean ‘newspeak’ [although we should acknowledge that owing to its water problems Singapore has developed great and world class water reclamation and management practices] (5). In other words, the masters of deception and willful distortion have really come to the fore when flogging off expensively misrepresented bottled water – especially so since filtered home water is often safer as well as infinitely cheaper. This rort is so common now globally that we are shocked to report that last week legal action was taken in the US state of Maine for the ‘colossal fraud’ of a company selling bottled ‘100% natural spring water’ (named Poland Spring Water) which was actually filtered groundwater because the spring actually dried up 50 years ago!! (6).

There has been growing awareness of the damage caused by plastic bags. In fact we have done a large study on this (7). However, some of the worst environmental damage is now coming from plastic bottles. It is estimated that a ‘million plastic bottles a minute’ are entering the global ecosystem (8 ). The worst culprits are reported to be Chinese consumers who apparently have the greatest responsibility for the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a permanent gyre of floating plastics – with the main contributor being plastic water and soft drink bottles drifting in from China). This is reputed the largest of five similar patches in other parts of the world. Very concerning then is how this report indicates that despite efforts of awareness, there has just been an acceleration or surge in the use of plastics. This has caused a related surge in the plastic pollution levels (12). There is a related problem to how plastic bottles already are known to be poisoning people (especially when repeatedly re-used) in terms of microplastics now entering the body directly. Microplastics are increasingly known to be poisoning our oceans and rivers and everything in them including the fish – with growing levels of microplastics being observed in commercial fish eaten by people everywhere.

Its estimated that the global use of water bottles is increasing 10% every year. And maybe the Americans are as bad if not worse than the Chinese with it being reported that ‘At 12.8 billion gallons, or 39 gallons per person, Americans today drink more bottled water than milk or beer’ (9). Its further reported that more bottled water is now being drunk than bottled soft drinks or ‘soda’ such that Coca-Cola and Pepsi are turning their hand to peddling their own version of ‘NEWater’. This is on the basis that people are apparently “spending 300 times more on bottled water than we’d spend to drink from the tap” (9). Conversely, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one eighth of all people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water. And according to the NGO Wateraid, 80% of diseases in developing countries are caused by contaminated water. This all helps us to better understand more fully the truth of the statement by Rajendra Singh (India’s water man):
“Powerful corporations have created a water market—they pollute our rivers and make us pay money for drinking water. They say that only with a high price for water can we get disciplined use, but this is not right. …Sustainable community-led water management has existed for thousands of years without anyone putting a price on water. So why do we need it today? “ (10).

And if you think that is bad enough it gets a bit worse. A 2015 NASA satellite-based survey identified how most of the world’s 37 large aquifers are ‘severely water-stressed’ (12). Even before Adani sets up shop in North Queensland in the very near future, it is clear they will need lots of water to support their coal mining plans including from Australia’s Great Artesian Basin [I happened to grow up living above this aquifer in one of the driest areas of Qld – observing first-hand water wasted by evaporation from open drains (leading to a lifelong aversion to a single drop of precious water being wasted)]. When you understand that this global water crisis is further linked also to the related problem of desertification (fertile farmlands in many places being turned into dustbowls – e.g. even close to LA in California where water has been pumped to the city at the expense of the farmers) (12) then you can see why Singh and others project that : World War III will be fought over water” .

An SBS Dateline special on ‘water wars’ pointed out how the UN projects that 1.2 billion people are now living areas with water scarcity – and ‘that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in “water stressed conditions” (11). In Australia this battle is exemplified by the Murray-Darling Basin where upstream irrigators seem to find it difficult to avoid the temptation of taking excess water technically owned by taxpayers – as exposed by the recent Four Corners special and now the focus of a proposed Senate inquiry (14). At least this is not as bad as the down-river Mekong river nations whose way of life is being threatened by all the dams being built upriver in China (15). This exemplifies the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ (16). This is where when a resource is shared (especially the air, water and soil, etc. of the natural environment ), everyone can use it but no-one tends to be responsible or accountable. So everyone uses a little (with corporations and governments responsible for mass wasting beyond belief – or rather failing in their duties to help solve the problem) and we tend up with the destruction of the ‘commons’… in this case our future water which as some are at last realising is really ‘more valuable than oil or gold’.

– CKR 27/8/2017

1. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/08/26/215761377/a-history-of-snake-oil-salesmen
2. https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/this-ceo-called-out-the-bottled-water-industry-as-the-biggest-scam-ever-heres-wh.html
3. https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2014/09/23/living/newater-singapore/index.html
4. http://m.dw.com/en/singapores-toilet-to-tap-concept/a-16904636
5. http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/singapores-approach-water-governance-holds-lessons-others
6. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/08/18/maine-poland-spring-water-colossal-fraud-lawsuit/579140001/
7. Richards, C & Padfield, R 2016, ‘An interdisciplinary approach to industry-based complex problem-solving: sustainable policy solutions to the Malaysian water crisis’, Asian Journal of Innovation and Policy, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 55-77.http//dx.doi.org/10.7545/ajip.2016.5.1.055
8. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change
9. https://www.sciencealert.com/15-facts-that-show-why-bottled-water-is-one-of-the-biggest-scams-of-the-century
10. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/article/2017/08/15/world-war-iii-will-be-fought-over-water?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sbsnews-dateline+%28SBS+News+-+Dateline%29
11. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/story/californias-water-wars
12. http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Water-Wars-Experts-Urge-Rethinking-Our-Relationship-with-Water-20170320-0029.html
13. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/story/californias-water-wars
14. http://www.queenslandcountrylife.com.au/story/4861750/senate-to-examine-murray-darling-water-theft-and-corruption-allegations/?cs=4704
15. https://fronteranews.com/news/asia/from-tibet-to-south-china-sea-the-mekong-river-is-becoming-a-regional-battlefield/
16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSuETYEgY68 (a one-minute YouTube video explaining the tragedy of the commons)

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