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  • Writer's pictureManuel Fischer

Water, Bottles and War

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

After visiting the Jordanian city of Petra, I could not help but think about the contrast between the water resources of today and those of prosperous ancient civilizations. Petra, a city dating back almost 2,000 years, served as the capital of the mighty ancient Arab kingdom known as the Nabataean Kingdom.

The city stood out like a mirage in the middle of the desert since it was completely surrounded by it. An ancient Las Vegas for the merchants returning to Europe from Asia. In the midst of the desert, these ancient people managed to construct elaborate gardens, fountains, and pools.

The Nabataeans, drawing on hydraulic expertise from across the ancient world, built an efficient network of aqueducts to provide water from the surrounding area to the city's population of 25,000 (more than the population of modern-day Petra).[1]

If they were able to achieve all that 2,000 years ago, why do we still have problems with water supply now, such as droughts, leaks, and even water wars? The ancient Nabataeans would have a good chuckle at our wasteful use of water. Agriculture, farming, and fossil fuel energy generation all require large amounts of water, and water leakage is another major issue (every day, 28 billion litres of water are wasted in the United States). Only 8% of all water is utilized for domestic purposes, while 22% is used by industry and 70% is used in agriculture. Considering the feed and water consumed by cows, the production of a single burger uses about 1,650 litres of water.

Water misallocations and a lack of investments in infrastructure and innovative water technologies are occurring because the price of water does not accurately reflect the full overall cost of service, from its delivery through its treatment and disposal.[2] Since videos showing polluted tap water in several US communities went viral, some people may see water from the tap as unclean and harmful. Bottled water comes into play here.

It is a common misconception that bottled water is better for you than tap water when it comes to your health. One third of 103 different brands of bottled water have residues of arsenic and E. coli since the bottled water industry is one of the least regulated in the world. Unlike bottled water, which is regulated more like a soft drink, information on the quality and content of tap water is required in great detail since it is a public resource. Another problem is that more water is consumed in the production of water bottles than is actually poured into them since the plastic used to make them, PET, needs 17.5 kg of water to generate only 1kg of PET. Furthermore, only 10% of water bottles are recycled, and the byproducts created during the manufacturing process are particularly damaging to the environment.[3]

Yet, due to a lack of infrastructure expenditures in potable water systems, many of those in underdeveloped nations must rely on bottled water as their sole supply of potable water.

The most concerning aspect is that water has been designated by Fortune magazine as the finest investment sector of the century, leading to its privatization and the exploitation of water resources by many well-known multinational firms like Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi.

And the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are advocating for all of this as a way to solve the world's water crisis! IMF loan and debt relief applicants must agree to privatize their country's water supply. There is a risk because once anything is privatized, its price will be set by the free market. And when they do go too high, as they inevitably will, we will have to resort to war over something as essential as water.

Water will be a major factor in the conflicts of the 21st century, and this is not just a wild guess on my part; the previous vice president of the World Bank made this forecast back in 1999. And this forecast comes from the same World Bank that promotes water privatization and whose members have links to corporations like General Electric and Enron with investments in very lucrative areas like weapons and warfare. Thus, it is quite peculiar that the same firm that manufactures missiles and bombs also controls your water, an industry that will presumably be the major focus of this century’s wars.[4]

One such conflict was Bolivia's Water War in Cochabamba. The World Bank loan was contingent on the privatization of key industries including transportation, communications, energy, and utilities like water and electricity.

Cochabamba's water system was inefficient, so the government auctioned off the city's water supply to a consortium of multinational corporations called Aguas del Tunari. After taking over, the corporation increased water prices by 35%, causing hardship for the poor, as well as middle-class households and industries that had lost their government subsidies and now faced higher water bills than ever before, sparking demonstrations. Protests occurred in every city and town across the country, in which many people were killed, prompting the declaration of a national emergency. The company Agua del Tunari sued the Bolivian government for lost income after it pulled out of the water system in Cochabamba, but never received the compensation. In 2005, Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia thanks in large part to the attention he garnered through his participation in the Water War.[5]

Photo by Andrew Ren on Unsplash

Concerns over freshwater supply have prompted several governments to consider desalination, a technology that was long considered far-fetched. While it has more than quadrupled in the past decade, ocean water desalination still accounts for less than one percent of the world's fresh water use. Moreover, this method requires a significant investment money and energy, which makes sense only if water were more precious. However, if that happened, the cost of water and other essentials would increase dramatically, leading to financial hardship for many people and the possible demise of entire industries.[6] Due to the current high energy prices in some parts of the world, desalination is far from feasible.

Returning to the topic of bottled water, during my trip to Jordan I found that the most common bottled waters were the ones sourced by Nestlé (Pure Life), Pepsi (Aquafina), and Coca-Cola (Arwa). Therefore, people there, as well as billions of others in developing countries, pay for bottled water sourced in their own countries instead of paying directly for safe tap water, helping multinational corporations to profit from the failure of governments to meet basic needs.

Nestlé's Pure Life is envisioned as bottled, clean water for underdeveloped nations where people do not have access to safe drinking water. Millions of people do not have access to clean drinking water since a little bottle of water costs roughly half a day's income. Reverse osmosis, a method that eliminates contaminants from water, is used to produce this best-selling bottled water throughout the globe.

Nestlé established its first Nigerian factory in 2005, and because of its enormous success, the company established a second unit in 2016. Their chosen site is an impoverished village near the capital Abuja located next to a highway. Before 2016, residents would spend an hour to a nearby river and then carry their water home in basins. Nestlé came to the area and said it would provide free water and schools for the residents, but the water source is located four times further from the village than the river, so only a small percentage of the local population really uses it. Most of the locals get their drinking water from a river where Nestlé pours discharged water; they have no idea what's in it. Following the filming of a documentary set there, Nestlé contacted the crew and informed them that clean water pipes had been installed in the centre of the community.[7]

But the water crisis isn't the only issue in the bottled water industry; cities are also dealing with an overabundance of plastic bottles, which eventually ends up in the rivers and flows towards the mass of floating objects in the world's oceans. The only solution to both problems is to get clean water into people's homes.

Meanwhile, the bottled water market size is rising every year, with an expected compound annual growth rate of 9.2% between 2021 and 2030. In 2020, the bottled water market size was $207.70 billion, rising to $225.71 billion in 2021 and $245.49 billion in 2022, expecting it to rise to $500.70 billion by 2030.[8]

The bank Goldman Sachs predicted that water will be the petroleum of the 21st century and private interests, like hedge funds and corporations, have started buying up water, prompting fears that they’ll take advantage of scarcity to turn a profit.[9]

The prospect of running out of water is unsettling, and this anxiety has led to intensive pumping of underground water in various parts of the world, regardless of the fact that this practice has unintended consequences including the gradual sinking of land by 7–10 centimetres per year,[10] or even by more than 20 cm per year, like in the case of Mexico City. Mexico City lies on an aquifer (water deposits), that have accumulated for millennia and they will take millennia to fill back up.

Mexico City takes out from the local aquifer around 50% of its water supplies, meaning that they will lose around half of their water supply in the next 30-50 years. Sucking up that groundwater compresses the soil, leading to the sinkage of the city.

Long, severe droughts brought on by climate change aggravate water scarcity caused by excessive pumping, therefore fast action is required. We must ban businesses from bottling and selling us something that is already ours, and increase the cost of water for water-intensive industries so that they will invest in water-saving technology if we do not want to pay exorbitant prices for something as necessary as water.

It is also important for governments to press the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to ensure that water privatization is not a requirement for assistance to developing nations. Due to water's significance, we should all take measures to preserve it and shield it from corporate interests, such as designating it as a universally protected good and establishing a legally binding Convention on Water Resources and Accessibility to prevent inefficiencies and ensure equitable distribution.

60 litres per day per person is an amount that is associated with human rights issues and should be available to all, but above that, people should pay for water, maybe even tying water price to income, which has been experimented in some places.

The widespread belief that water is plentiful is a serious issue, as many major cities throughout the world, including Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, Jakarta, London, and many more, may reach "Day Zero" over the next few decades. After "Day Zero," residents will no longer be able to simply turn on the tap for a fresh supply of water; instead, it will be scarce and subject to rationing. Unless something changes, because if we do not adjust our water consumption, we will be unable to handle the issue, and every one of us will die in a matter of days without water, since there is no substitute for water. How have we built a world where we don’t have enough of its most valuable resource?[11]

To conclude, what do you think Nabataeans would say of the current state of our water usage?

As they sourced every drop of water from the surrounding area, they would be appalled by the inefficiencies we are dealing with. They would also question why we would buy bottled water instead of purifying it with all of our sophisticated technology and drinking it straight from the faucet. Anyhow, today’s water usage is deplorable and our posterity will surely condemn our selfishness.


[1] Omrania. (2018). Water Management: How the Ancient Nabataeans Built a Desert Paradise paradise/

[2] Schleifer, L. (2017). 7 Reasons We're Facing a Global Water Crisis. World Resources Institute.

[3] - [4] Ortega, J. (2005). Water wars: Bottling up the world’s supply of H2O. The Seattle Times.

[5] Hennigan, T. (2014). Water war in Bolivia led eventually to overthrow of entire political order. Irish Times. political-order-1.2004444

[6] Explained: World’s Water Crisis. (2020). Netflix

[7] Rotten: Troubled Water. (2019). Season 2, Episode 3.

[8]Precedence Research. (2021). Bottled Water Market.

[9] Explained: World’s Water Crisis. (2020). Netflix

[10] The Berkeley. Everything you Must Know About the Water Wars!

[11] Explained: World’s Water Crisis. (2020). Netflix

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