Why water has become a luxury commodity and how to divide all 3% of the fresh water on Earth

    02 Oct 2021

    While we forget to turn off the tap when brushing our teeth, the world is already calling water “blue gold of the XXI century” and “new oil.” These names emphasize that water supplies are dwindling, and our needs are increasing. Today it becomes evident that this everyday blessing is, actually, a luxury that is not available to everyone.

    Let’s read the authors of the channel on conscious consumption explanation of how the water turned into a luxury product.

    “Why, despite the fact that water is much more useful for humans than a diamond, the price of a diamond is much higher?”

    Adam Smith

    1. Storm in a bottle, or what is the cost of producing bottled water

    By 2017, bottled water had become the most popular drink in North America. For the first time, the water demand has surpassed the need for carbonated drinks. In 2016, Nestlé had sales of $92 billion, of which $7.4 billion came from water produced by the company under various brands. Of these $7.4 billion, the company earned 343 million from its production in Michigan.

    How Nestlé Conquered the Michigan Rivers

    This was not enough, and inspired by the data on the sale of bottled water, the company decided to expand its production in Michigan. To ensure plant utilization, Nestlé has applied for an increase in the rate of water intake from underground sources from 950 to 1500 liters per minute. And this even though in 2009, after more than one year of litigation, the population managed to reduce the plant’s water consumption from the same 1500 liters and limit its water consumption in the spring-summer period.

    Despite thousands of letters from angry residents and attempted boycotts, in April 2018, the state approved the company’s application, allowing it to increase its water intake by 2.5 times from the sources that feed the legendary rivers of Michigan.

    In addition to the large freshwater reserves, Nestlé brought the state of Michigan an exceptional liberalization of the legislation governing the exploitation of water resources. Water collection is free of charge under state law. The only thing a legal entity has to pay is a one-off application fee ($5,000) and an annual fee of $200. The state does not levy taxes, royalties, or licensing fees from companies.

    How tap water is sold to consumers

    The most famous brands that Nestlé sells water under are Perrier, San Pellegrino, and Pure Life. If the first two are mineral water bottled at the source – in Vergèze (France) and San Pellegrino (Italy) – then Pure Life is nothing more than ordinary purified tap water. This is an interesting fact, given the skepticism that residents of large cities are concerned about tap water.

    According to public opinion polls conducted in the United States, two-thirds of consumers prefer bottled water to tap water. Worldwide bottled water sales are estimated at $17 billion a year and should reach $24 billion by 2024.

    “Half of all bottled water is tap water.”

    Erin Diaz, Project Manager, Think Outside the Bottle & Public Water Works

    At the same time, the standards governing the quality of water in plumbing in Europe and the USA are much stricter than the standards applied to bottled water.

    Is bottled water safe?

    One study in the United States showed that the third preference factor (after the convenience of disposable packaging and widespread selling) is the subjective perception of the safety of bottled water.

    By comparing water samples from different brands with tap water samples in Cleveland, it was found that while 100% of the municipal water samples met the government standard, only 5% of the bottled water samples passed the test.

    According to sociologists, this blind belief in the safety of bottled water is due to the competent marketing of manufacturers. In advertising their products, they use either images of virgin nature, untouched by man, or exclusivity and belonging to a high social class, and these simple techniques work.

    “When you hold a bottle of Perrier, it says something about you, that you are sophisticated, that you understand what is happening in the world.”

    Michael Bellas, Head of Beverage Marketing Corporation

    How the iceberg got into designer bottles

    The apotheosis of the transformation of quality water into a luxury product, available to those who are lucky enough to be born in northern latitudes, wealthy families, or regions with strict natural resource management laws, can be considered the appearance on the market of a luxury brand of water bottled in designer bottles near the Arctic Circle.

    Take a look at the Svalbarði company. It was created by Jamal Qureshi, a Wall Street businessman who in 2013 visited Svalbard and brought from there a bottle of water from a melted iceberg to his wife. A few years later, he received permission to produce such water from the governor of Svalbard. Now, twice a year – in summer and autumn, when blocks of ice break off the glacier (for some reason, the company puts this fact in the box of its environmental achievements) – an expedition is sent to Kongsfjord, which is 1000 km from the Arctic Circle.

    The production of 13 thousand bottles of exclusive water requires 15 tons of ice.

    It is loaded onto a ship, then melted and bottled. All other attributes of the luxury brand are attached to the packaging: limited quantities, price (about 70), and exclusive sales in the Harrods store in London and on the company’s website.

    1. Water supply for the elite, or How people fight for water in the house

    “The social contract stops working when the rich find a way to get water, and the rest are left to fend for themselves.”

    Giulio Boccaletti, Chief Executive Officer of Water at Nature Conservancy

    In countries such as Mozambique, the population receiving water from a tanker can spend up to 45% of their monthly income on the water while consuming 50 liters per day, or six times less. At the same time, areas of Mozambique that are not covered by state-subsidized water points are entirely forced to depend on the black market, where water is a hundred times more expensive than provided by the state.

    In many countries, even in developed countries, the socioeconomic divide is quite literally a divide between wealthy and poor neighborhoods, between ethnic majority and indigenous areas, between piped and unconnected to the water supply system neighborhoods, as well as between the population that can afford a deep artesian well and the people that can only drill to groundwater.

    How Jakarta is sinking due to well drilling

    Jakarta subsides by 5 cm per year. 40% of the city is already underwater, and it could be completely flooded in ten years. Rivers turn back; whole neighborhoods are underwater. These rates are significantly higher than the rates of sea-level rise due to global climate change. The cause of the catastrophe unfolding before the whole world’s eyes is the subsidence of the soil, which is to blame for the drilling of private wells.

    While business districts and wealthier neighborhoods get their water from an underground aquifer, more than 60% of the city’s population relies on groundwater. Unable to order drilling to a greater depth, they use water located closer to the Earth’s surface and contaminated with nitrates, heavy metals and infected with E. coli.

    No matter how many meters underground they go, the problem with private wells is the inability to control water quality.

    So, until the beginning of the 20th century in the United States and Europe, private companies supplied water to their homes, the services of which could not be used by low-income residents. The result was an outbreak of disease, including cholera. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the growth of cities, the attitude towards water changed: it began to be considered a public good and delivered to all areas, regardless of the social status of their inhabitants, at the expense of the general tax. But with the decentralization of water supply in water-stressed regions of the world, there is a fallback to the philosophy of “the fittest survives.”

    Why the rich don’t care about drought and neighbors

    In many regions with limited freshwater resources, well-to-do populations do not adjust their water consumption in drought conditions. Sociologists explain this by a lack of understanding of the acuteness of the problem. If you can buy bottled water in whole vans despite skyrocketing prices, then the water crisis can be tough to experience.

    When in the spring of 2018, Cape Town was on the verge of a complete depletion of freshwater supplies. The city authorities imposed severe restrictions on water intake from the water supply system (up to the shutdown of taps in residential buildings), wealthy families drilled many private wells, began to buy bottled water by trucks, and bought purification systems, the cheapest of which cost $ 3,000.

    Amid a severe drought that lasted in California from 2011 to 2017, the state imposed a number of bans, including abundant watering of lawns and washing cars with a hose.

    That said, many luxury villa owners continued to leave their sprinklers on and fill their many pools. It got to the point where activists came up with the #droughtshaming campaign, trying to pinpoint the worst ban violators and publicizing their names. This photo is one of many that has caused a wave of outrage. It captures the plot of the home of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in the midst of a drought.




    How rich people save water (using the poor)

    However, one should not think that the border lies only between the better off and the less well off. Ethnicity sometimes comes into play.

    The Six Nations Indian Reservation No. 40 is located in Ontario, Canada, just 20 km from the new water treatment plant. This largest reservation has nearly 28 thousand inhabitants. However, only 9% of the population has access to treated water.

    Residents of this area are convinced that environmental racism is to blame. They cannot otherwise explain the inaccessibility of drinking water in an area located half an hour’s drive from the necessary infrastructure.

    In February 2018, news came of a decision to extend a water pipeline from the new wastewater treatment plant to two elementary schools and 2,000 homes across the Six Nations. However, if the necessary work is carried out, at least half of the reservation residents will still not have access to treated water.

    The reluctance to supply purified water to every house or block in Six Nations is likely due to economic considerations. But where is the line between reasonable economy and violation of the population’s right to access to drinking water?

    The human right to water implies the provision of sufficient safe and affordable water for everyone, economically and physically, to meet their daily needs (General comment No. 15 on the right to water to articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

    The constitutions of Ecuador and Slovenia prohibit the privatization of water resources. Water resources are recognized as a strategic heritage that can only be owned by the state or municipalities.

    The residents of the American city of Flint (Michigan) can tell a lot about this, where the conflict between the city authorities and the population over the quality of tap water has been continuing for the fourth year already. In 2014, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, and financial management was transferred to the state. The state authorities ordered to cut the city’s expenses at any cost. One of the austerity measures was to disconnect the city’s water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River with good quality water and connect it to the Flint River with less usable water.

    All would be fine, but the authorities also decided to save on the necessary anti-corrosion additive, which would cost $ 100 a day.

    Without it, the water in a matter of weeks corroded the lead pipes that still account for most of Flint’s water supply. As a result, both lead pipes and more modern ones were contaminated.

    As an emergency measure, the state began providing free bottled water to residents of Flint. Residents expected this emergency measure to be in force until all lead pipes are replaced with a modern equivalent (work is underway and should be completed in 2020). However, the authorities said that the lead content in tap water has long been below the norm (in 2015, the city was reconnected to the Detroit River), and in April 2018, the last bottled water points were closed.

    And this is just four days after the same state of Michigan gave the Swiss giant Nestlé a new permit for water intake, according to which the company received the right to pump 60% more water at the previous rate of just $200 a year.

    III. The Miracle of the Arabian Desert, or How Much Does Agriculture Cost

    Back in the early 1990s, NASA researchers noticed suspicious green circles 1 km in diameter in satellite photographs of the Arabian Peninsula. Over time, their number grew, and by 2010, the desert seemed to be covered with a green blanket. These are agricultural oases created by Saudi Arabia in the middle of the desert.

    The official reason for investing in this agricultural miracle was Saudi Arabia’s desire to secure the country’s food sovereignty. With the rapid increase in the population (from 4.2 million in 1962 to 33 million in 2018) and the purchasing power of the Saudis, these considerations were more than justified.

    However, according to Eli Elhaj, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s central bank, who published a controversial article in 2004, “Camels Don’t Fly, and the Desert Doesn’t Blossom,” the real reason for the agricultural boom was a desire to strengthen the regime by enriching the elite.

    According to Elhaj, the promise of state subsidies and the prospects for exporting agricultural products brought the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia to agriculture, who had no idea how it worked, because such expertise is not required in the desert and therefore does not develop. Moreover, it was they, and not the small farmers, who had the funds to purchase foreign equipment, modern technologies,

    The appointment of foreign specialists and the delivery of fertilizers

    Despite expectations, the main result of this policy was by no means an increase in the country’s food security. The agricultural products produced in the desert can hardly be called competitive. With an average price of $ 120 per ton of wheat on world markets over the past thirty years, a ton of wheat produced in Saudi Arabia is worth more than 500. In addition, dependence on fertilizers and machinery of foreign origin has only increased.

    The main consequence of the aggressive agricultural policy of Saudi Arabia, in the end, was not food security but the rapid depletion of irreplaceable water resources.

    What is the Arabian Aquifer

    According to hydrologists’ calculations, the main source of fresh water in the Arabian Peninsula is the Arabian aquifer, formed, according to hydrologists’ calculations, 20 thousand years ago. It is one of the world’s largest aquifers, with water at a depth of 100 to 500 and sometimes 2500 meters.

    An aquifer is a stratum of similar in composition permeable, water-saturated sediments that have a bed-like occurrence. There are confined aquifers (see artesian basin) and non-confined aquifers in which water has a free surface (see groundwater). When the aquifer emerges to the surface, sources, springs, springs are formed. Aquifers are the primary custodians of groundwater resources. They are of particular value for the drinking water supply.

    “Geography. Modern Illustrated Encyclopedia”

    Such aquifers, which are permeable rocks, account for an average of 35% of the water consumed by humanity. And the drier the climate or season, the higher this figure. The rate of recharge of water horizons depends on many factors, including the type of horizon (open, closed), the porosity of the rock it consists of, the climatic features of the region and the scope of water use (industrial, irrigation, domestic). Thus, the natural replenishment rate can vary from 10 to 1200 mm / year, with an average duration of water occurrence in the horizon from 6 to 20 thousand years.

    In the case of the Arabian aquifer, this indicator approaches zero, since the average rainfall is 59 mm per year, and the air temperature in summer reaches 55 degrees. 95% of the territory is desert, and there are no large lakes and rivers in the country.

    The statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources differ from the statistics of the Ministry of Planning, so it is difficult for researchers to give an exact amount of water consumption by agriculture in Saudi Arabia.

    But according to one impressive comparison, between 1980 and 1999, 300 billion cubic meters of water was used for irrigation, which corresponds to the volume of the Nile’s watercourse in six years.

    Unsurprisingly, the Arabian aquifer is experiencing the highest relative stress, and it is believed that the point of no return in its case has long been passed. It provides water to 60 million people and is the primary water source for the agricultural sector in Saudi Arabia. The shortsightedness of Saudi Arabia’s water management policies is particularly surprising when one considers that agriculture consumes 88% of freshwater, while producing only 2% of GDP.

    World drought epidemic

    However, let’s not think that this case is unique. In total, there are 37 such large aquifer systems in the world. And 21 of them are under pressure that significantly exceeds the ability to renew water reserves.

    From 2002 to 2017, NASA and the German Aerospace Agency conducted a groundbreaking study called GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment). By measuring the distance between the two twin satellites, scientists monitored changes in the Earth’s gravitational field associated with the movement of large bodies of water – both due to the natural movement of water and as a result of human activity.

    The data obtained clearly showed what is happening with groundwater. In particular, they led to the conclusion that as a result of climate change and human impact, the amount of precipitation falling in the humid regions of the world is only increasing, and in arid regions it is decreasing.

    Ironically, the drier the region, the more it relies on underground water supplies. At the same time, the higher the air temperature, and the drier it is, the faster the evaporation of water taken from the ground. This is a vicious circle, which is currently not possible to break.

    However, unlike their neighbors, countries like Saudi Arabia have the ability to drill deep wells, invest in energy-intensive salt water desalination and wastewater treatment technologies, and develop renewable energy sources, as well as buying agricultural land abroad.

    Saudi Arabia spends on desalination up to 1.5 million barrels of crude oil per day (daily oil production in the country is about 10 million barrels).

    What is left for the neighbors of such countries to do? The map shows that the Arabian aquifer provides water not only to Saudi Arabia, but also to its neighbors. This is, in particular, Yemen – the poorest country in the Middle East, half of whose population lives on less than $2 a day.

    What humanity have to do for those who cannot afford water is not clear.

    Scientists argue that access to quality drinking water alone would increase the average life expectancy by more than ten years.

    One of the most critical problems today is the outdated water supply network. No matter what modern treatment facilities the city is equipped with, if the pipes have expired in the last century, it is impossible to provide high-quality tap water.


    Take a look at the power of soil and how MENA precarious climate shaped the Arab Spring here.

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