Thursday, March 30, 2023

There are millions of people without drinking water. The UN accuses the bottlers

When representatives from around the world gather next week in New York for the UN Water Conference – the first in more than 40 years – they will have to answer an uncomfortable question: Why are there still 2,000 people who Don’t have access to drinking water?

The United Nations (UN) itself has some ideas. A study published this Thursday by the Institute for Water, Environment and Health of the United Nations University (Inweh), based in the Canadian town of Hamilton, accuses the bottled water industry of “slowing down progress” towards a supply universal.

The report says that “less than half of what the world pays each year for bottled water – some US$270,000 million – would be enough to ensure access to drinking tap water for years for hundreds of millions of people who need it”.

Researchers estimate that 350 billion liters of bottled water are sold worldwide each year. It’s a million bottles per minute. And industry turnover is expected to nearly double, to $500 billion by 2030.

But the increase in its consumption is masking the lack of public drinking water, and diverting resources that should be used in the supply systems.

“Considering that there are 2,000 million people in the world without access to drinking water, this represents an enormous disparity that does not make any sense,” Vladimir Smakhtin, one of the authors of the report and former director of the Water Institute, told EFE.

A luxury good or a necessity?

The key is the need. While in rich countries bottled water is seen as a more or less luxury good, tasting better than tap water, in many poor countries in Asia or sub-Saharan Africa it is the only safe way to consume water, which it creates fertile markets for bottling companies.

This situation “distracts development efforts and redirects attention to an option that is less affordable and safe for many, but that provides many benefits to producers,” they explain in the report.

For Zeineb Bouhlel, another of the authors, the facilities that the sector is having to expand rapidly are due to “the lack of adequate policies and regulations.”

“They are constantly creating new products, new marketing strategies. And countries and governments do not have the regulatory tools to adapt to this growth”, adds the expert.

bad public management

Beyond the effects of the bottling industry, the World Bank –one of the organizations that devotes the most resources to expanding access to drinking water– identifies another problem that still prevents the situation from improving for the most vulnerable people: poor management of the utility companies.

Gustavo Saltiel, global leader of Water and Sanitation of the organization, explains in an interview with EFE that the tendency to consider water management as a deficit sector prevents expanding the service to provide better coverage to the most marginalized groups.

“Many service providers in different regions of the world do not recover their operating costs,” says Saltiel, which translates into poor service and deterioration of the infrastructure.

The situation is aggravated by the actions of some governments, which intervene in the management of these companies and do not allow them “to be autonomous in terms of cost recovery.”

These interventions, Saltiel explains, such as generalized subsidies, which reduce the price of drinking water below its production cost, end up benefiting the richest, who are the ones who spend the most, since poor people do not usually have installed in their home washing machines or other systems that use a lot of water.

On the other hand, the expert defends a progressive rate structure that subsidizes the most vulnerable, who have little consumption, and gets those who consume the most to pay the real cost of water, especially in a context of climate crisis and droughts.

systems change

The World Bank intends to improve this situation through what it calls “systems change”, giving incentives to the companies that manage these services, both public and private, to develop a vision of the future that focuses on the efficiency, in the inclusion of the most vulnerable and resilience.

It will do so through a program, “Utilities of the Future” (Services of the Future) in which 80 water companies participate at the global level and which is already included in many of the loans that the organization offers to countries through through its development programs.

These ideas will be the focus of the message that the organization hopes to take next week to the UN conference, and that Saltiel sees as a great opportunity to once again focus the world’s attention on a crisis that is often forgotten.


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