Water Wars?

In the 20th century, there were wars inspired in part by the desire to protect access to oil and gas. In the 21st century, many experts believe that there will be wars over water — wars among neighboring states and possibly wars among countries, too. This article in the Guardian recaps a speech that warns of international water wars. This one, an Associated Press article reprinted in the Guardian, looks at how the recent drought in the United States is straining relationships of many kinds.
There are many angles on water as a news story. One that draws a lot of attention on college campuses is bottled water. This week, Chris Hogan of the International Bottled Water Association will skype with students in the University of Michigan’s environmental journalism course to talk about how coverage of water issues could be better. Journalist Keith Schneider will join the class in person. Keith has had an interesting and very prominent career in journalism, including several years as the lead environmental reporter at the New York Times. In that role almost two decades ago, he was criticized in a cover story in the American Journalism Review for his reporting about the contaminant dioxin. Keith answered that criticism, which included accusations that he was too critical of environmental nonprofits, and went on to help found a couple of nonprofits that partner with environmental nonprofits to report and provoke action on water issues and land use.
Maura has linked to some water stories posted by one of Keith’s nonprofits, Circle of Blue. Her are some links to some videos and other materials about bottled water:
This one is from Business Insider and is critical of the bottled water industry. This is a video from Chris’s association, and so is this.
What questions do you have for Chris and Keith? What are your thoughts on how water issues could be covered better? What do you think is most difficult about covering a water issue?

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About emiliaaskari

Journalist, teacher, news game designer. Promoting digital literacy and content creation in the public interest.

9 Responses to “Water Wars?”

  1. I think one interesting element of the water question, especially concerning bottled water, is awareness on water drinking safety. I feel like most people have misconceptions about how clean tap water is and the different purification processes of bottled water. I think if people understood the pros and cons of drinking tap water to both their health and the environment, this may influence their decisions. I am curious to ask Chris Hogan about the different processes of purification and what specifically they are taking out of the water before it is bottled.

    • Kaitlyn, a lot of this depends on where the water is coming from. It’s been awhile since I researched this, so my figures might be a little sketchy so please take with a grain of salt, but it’s something like 40% of bottled water is actually from tap water (not a glacier-fed spring, like many people think). And the regulations on bottled water are generally more lax than they are on municipal tap water, especially if the water doesn’t cross state lines (no FDA regulations, if I’m remembering correctly). For more, check out this Q&A that Circle of Blue did with Peter Gleick, author of “Bottled and Sold”. (Disclaimer: Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, which is CoB’s affiliate.) http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2010/world/qa-peter-gleick-weighs-in-on-the-bottled-water-battle/

  2. While Chris Hogan does have a very valid concern, there are some important discussions that we still need to have about the topic. As someone who feels strongly about not using plastic water bottles, I definitely agree that there is simply a lack of awareness about the waste problem. However, we have to look at water quality in a broader sense than what was presented in the article. It said that China is one of the largest users of plastic water bottles, but one must also account for the very high population and also the water quality. When I travel to India, I cannot drink tap water there – it doesn’t have the same filtration system as the US and public health measures are not even comparable. The first time I went there, I accidentally drank the water and became really sick, and I know for sure it was not just a fluke. There are many types of water-borne diseases and bacteria embedded in many water sources. Thus, I want to ask Chris Hogan about how the research accounted for differences in water quality across regions. People need to be educated in a more global context to judge why water bottles may need to be used abroad but why it is not as necessary in the US. The first step, again, is education.

  3. It’s interesting to think about water as a global commodity and how a resource that should be available to every person is being marketed. As a hopeful future global health professional, it’s somewhat alarming to hear how more and more people are relying on bottled water, even if it may lead to greater individual water consumption. There is a growing stigma against drinking tap water when in actuality, there is not much difference between tap and bottled water. Like others mentioned, greater awareness is needed on the differences between bottled and tap water. In the context of global water availability, I question the filtering processes of other nations, particularly developing countries. What is the quality and source of their bottled waters? And, how can coverage of issues such as the commodification of water and the debate over bottled vs. tap lead or contribute to greater international collaboration and action for increased accessibility to clean water for individuals in developing nations?

  4. Regardless of the safety concern, there is the obvious problem with recycling. Many of the videos and facts presented stating that water bottles are the most successfully recycled food and beverage container were issued by bottledwater.org. Their board of director’s includes representation from Mountain Valley Spring, Nestle Waters and Crystal Springs, each with a vested interest to promote the continuation of bottles use despite the negative effects. I am eager to ask Keith if companies are looking into selling their water in reusable bottles with the potential to refill at more modern water coolers? Yes there is a misconception of safety and concern for taste, but I believe plastic water bottles are popular in part to convenience. We are all always on the go and what is most readily available are water bottles. But instead of stocking a cooler at 7-11 with plastic, why not sell something the consumer can re-use and then re-fill at another location?

    Also, are these companies contributing to solving purification and scarcity problems in areas of the world without access? If not, these are the issues that should be covered in the news and communicated to the public. Consumers are more interested now then they were just 10 years ago about corporate social responsibility. Green marketing is becoming essential for a company to survive, but at the end of the day their responsibility is to make a profit and taught to do so at any cost. Who is making sure their decisions align with their green propaganda? These are the stories that should be covered. Consumers need to know how there wallets are supporting or contributing to the problem.

  5. To Chris, what are some of the main challenges with covering water in the news? How do readers generally respond to water coverage? How has water coverage had an impact on lawmakers and the public?
    To Keith, what caused him to shift from being critical of environmental nonprofits to help found them and start running them? How have water issues evolved over the last 20 years?
    For the most part, the general public is uninformed when it comes to water issues and I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this too. Consumer decisions, like buying bottled water over using free tap water, are executed with little research to support them. Many people carry long standing myths, like believing bottled water is safer than tap water when tests have shown that both are equally likely to contain harmful elements in them. Obviously, society needs an extensive education on water facts and stats, and what steps can be taken to help preserve this precious resource that won’t last forever.
    For example, when I was in Israel last year kids are taught at a young age to drink water regularly (it is very easy to get dehydrated in their desert climate), take short showers and respect the consumption of fresh water. As tourists, our guide constantly reminded us that it’s not like in the States where people don’t think twice about their water usage and that while in their country, we should respect their policies.
    A shift in attitude begins with the media. Water issues should be covered more extensively as more coverage brings more awareness. Challenges to this ideal are that water issues are not the most riveting pieces, but they are important to every aspect of our lives. If more of the public learned of the alarming statistics found in water issues, like the fact that only .007% of the world’s water is drinkable, reform in behavior would spread quickly.

  6. Although companies that produce bottled water are probably more concerned about profit than environmentalism and health, their reasons for selling don’t really matter; what matters is why people choose to buy bottled water. For some people, it could be purely because they think it is a higher quality than tap water, which isn’t true (much of it is tap water, but it is less regulated than tap). These people may be easily persuaded to drink tap water instead. Others may buy bottled water for the convenience factor; it is portable and disposable. It is much harder to change this type of person’s behavior, and why shouldn’t they have the option of buying whichever product they want?
    I think that instead of banning the sale of bottled water, we should support things that reduce the demand, like carrying a refillable water bottle. I think that a college campus is probably the easiest place to promote this sort of behavior. First, because one of the main concerns about refillable bottles is that you have to carry them around with you-this is easy for students with backpacks. Also, there are bathrooms and water fountains almost everywhere you go on campuses (not to mention U of M’s refill stations). Many college students are on a strict budget, and tap water is free. Finally, the spread of this behavior can be very easy because college students have so much contact with one another and are usually very forward thinking. Carrying a refillable water bottle can be turned into a social norm, which will reduce the sale of bottled water while still providing it as an option.
    My question for Chris: Do you think that your organizations accurately explains the benefits and costs (personal, environmental, and societal) of buying bottled water?

  7. I think it is interesting how as the clean, available drinking water in the world becomes more scarce, the more lucrative the bottled water business will become. As it becomes more and more expensive to provide clean water for free through the tap to, of course, the countries fortunate enough for that luxury, those who have enough money will begin to buy larger amounts of bottled water. If the problem becomes severe enough, then those with money will begin to stockpile large amounts of water for times of extreme drought. With the incidents around the country of severely diminishing water levels in the bodies of fresh water such as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, this reality could come sooner rather than later. With the growing economic disparity within America, those who are considered to be the “haves” will have the ability to buy their water security. It is disconcerting that such an integral part of our biological could be limited by a lack of funds. If I could ask Chris a question I would ask him what he makes of the fact that business will boom once the country or the world becomes a place desperate for water. This gives the impression that water companies have no inclination at all to help the increasingly imminent problem of climate change. Because if the industry is making more money, what real incentive do they have to help mitigate climate change?

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