“With joy you shall draw water.” (Isaiah 12:3) How plentiful and accessible is fresh, clean water in this day and age? Are we using water in a sustainable manner, in a way that meets present needs of all people and the needs of future generations? For sustenance and continuance of life on the earth, fresh, clean water is required. Yet, millions of people do not have access to clean, fresh water for a myriad of reasons.
Humans need 20-50 L (5.2 – 13.2 gallons) of fresh clean water daily for consumption and hygiene. A common, modern-day practice is to drink water from single use plastic bottles. In 2018, 391 billion liters of water were consumed worldwide from plastic bottled water. In the US, the 2nd largest consumer of bottled water in the world, the annual sales of bottled water is over 18 billion dollars. Since most of the cost is the bottle, consumers actually purchase a single use plastic bottle. Bottled water requires mining of fossil fuels, production of bottles, extraction and packaging of fresh water, and transportation. In comparison, tap water comes from the same fresh water sources, but is withdrawn locally from ground or surface water.
When communities lack clean, fresh water due to water scarcity or the contamination of a fresh water source, bottled water might be a necessity. However, the current overuse of bottled water is not sustainable and in some cases, companies that produce bottled water exploit communities and public lands. In an area two hours east of Los Angeles, the world’s largest bottled water company is removing millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest at no cost to the company. The water in Michigan’s Chippewa Creek, which once supported a healthy population of fish, has experienced a drop in water volume due to the withdrawal of hundreds of gallons of groundwater every minute for more than 15 years for Ice Mountain brand bottled water. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, trout flourished in the creek 18 years ago. Local fishermen observed no fish in 2017.
The removal of large volumes of fresh water from specific sites for profit can alter the natural balance of water, and is an example of the commercialization of natural resources. As a society, we are obviously choosing the convenient option of bottled water instead of recognizing the bigger picture: those who lack safe drinking water and those who are affected by commodification of water. For the unfortunate communities that are forced to rely on bottled water, the price is about 600 times greater than clean tap water. This environmental injustice disproportionately affects lower income and minority populations. Imagine if we used $18 billion to ensure healthy tap water for all people in the US. There are many reasons to pass on the purchase of single use plastic bottles that are filled with water. Compassionate societies are those that make sure everyone can joyfully draw water.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.