Tenuous at best – new report blames a product for governments’ lack of delivery

Tenuous at best – new report blames a product for governments’ lack of delivery

“Tenuous at best, passing the buck at worst” is the reaction from South African National Bottled Water Association CEO, Charlotte Metcalf, to a report shifting the blame for the lack of progress towards safe drinking water for all goals from the world’s governments to its bottled water industry.

Metcalf was commenting on an article republished by Fast Company from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

“Written by research associate Zeineb Bouhlel at the Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), United Nations University, and a former director of the Institute, Vladimir Smakhtin, the article states that the ‘fast-growing bottled-water industry is masking the failure of public systems to supply reliable drinking water for all,” said Metcalf.

“It also mentions that ‘The industry can undermine progress of safe-water projects, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, by distracting development efforts and redirecting attention to a less reliable, less affordable option’ and ‘… the industry’s greatest impact seems to be its potential to stunt the progress of nations’ goals to provide its residents with equitable access to affordable drinking water.’

“I will concede that masking the failure of public systems can be a natural consequence of packaged water filling a void out of necessity, but I take issue with the fact that Bouhlel and Smakhtin do not acknowledge it is governments’ responsibility to give their people access to safe water.

“Globally, packaged water is regulated by laws based on the Codex Alimentarius; its journey cannot be farther removed from municipal drinking water. In South Africa, bottled water is a food product category of its own, and is regulated by the Department of Health as such. The legislation (R718) was ratified in 2007 in line with representations and recommendations from SANBWA, as well as international trends, and is among the most stringent worldwide.

“But it is not the only legislation bottlers must comply with. Packaged water must by law adhere to a myriad of food legislation, source protection and licencing, hygiene and labelling legislation and microbiological purity etc. All these requirements are built into quality systems and add to the price.

“The growth and excellence of the packaged water industry do not deserve the blame for the failure of providing safe water to homes – a human right. Calling it less reliable is ludicrous. Imagine if, a few years from now, we were to blame a healthy and thriving renewable energy industry for our own Government’s inability to ‘keep the lights on’ for all South Africans?”

According to Bouhlel and Smakhtin, 74% of the earth’s population had access to safe water in 2020, 10% more than in 2000, but no region is on track to achieve universal access to safe-water services, which is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030 targets.

Metcalf added: “The authors also claimed bottled water companies exploit surface water and aquifers, and rarely face the rigorous public health and environmental regulations that public utility tap water does. Lucky for South Africans, those claims hold absolutely no water when it comes to SANBWA member waters.

“Firstly, SANBWA’s audited environmental policy requires members to improve their environmental stewardship with respect to water to ensure effective water management-cradle to grave, including source protection, efficient water usage and responsible effluent practices. All SANBWA members’ sources are licensed, extraction rates are monitored and within licensed allowances and operated sustainably according to each source’s unique recharge rate.

“Second, each year the bottled water industry only uses the same amount of water required to irrigate two 18-hole golf courses or 50 hectares of lucerne. It also has the lowest water usage ratio of any food product on offer to the consumer.”

Metcalf added that it is very disturbing that people who are without safe drinking water have no other option than to source their own, but stressed that bottled water was never intended to replace drinking water at home.

She also said people need to be very aware of unscrupulous profiteers that provide an unknown quality of water under illegal conditions under the guise of providing safer drinking water through various bubbling wonder tanks in retail and retail water shops.

“These re-filling practices are only allowed to re-fill into the consumer’s container or in a new container on the spot as ‘drinking water’. It is illegal for them to pre-bottle and display the water as ‘packaged water’.

“When they do so, they imply to the consumer that they are getting the same quality as packaged water, but this is not the case because their processes, monitoring and testing do not adhere to the same standards and legislation as packaged water.

“To protect consumers, it is vital that these re-filling water businesses are required to meet minimum standards for plant and equipment, quality and hygiene and licensing for the use of municipal water for commercial purposes.”

According to Metcalf, the SANBWA logo on a bottle is a seal of quality and safety, legally compliant and environmentally responsible packaged water. If it doesn’t say SANBWA on the bottle, put it back, she said.

SANBWA members brands are: Aqua Monte, aQuellé, Bené, Bonaqua, Nestlé Pure Life, Dargle Water, Designer Water, Aquabella, Fontein, La Vie De Luc, Thirsti and Valpré.


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