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The shire of Hepburn where I live, home to Mt Franklin (Lalgambook), is a water-generating region northwest of Melbourne. The cool water from the highlands supplies many lower catchments, including Melbourne’s. Coca-Cola Amatil pays the Hepburn Shire $2.05 per million-litres (mega) of water, which equates to about $95 per year for nearly 50 million litres – or about 5 cents per truck load.
Despite rumblings of dissent elsewhere in the world, why are Australians such keen supporters of the booming bottled water industry?
WANT to hear a joke? What’s Evian spelt backwards? Naive. Once the joke was on companies trying to package and sell a product freely available from the tap. Twenty years on, company profits are overflowing and the joke’s on Australians and their unquenchable thirst for bottled water.
In the bottled water business, figures are fluid. Australians drink about 600 million litres a year, or 28 litres per person each year – that’s if you believe the numbers provided by the Australasian Bottled Water Institute. IBISWorld, a reputable business analyst, estimates the per capita figure is closer to 12 litres a year.
The Australian Conservation Foundation will tell you Australians are spending more than half a billion dollars a year guzzling bottled water. One thing is certain: soft drink sales are down and bottled water consumption is expected to continue surging, certainly over the next five years. Petrol might have hit more than $1.70 a litre, yet Australians are happy to pay significantly more for a litre of bottled water. In Coles, 600 millilitres of Mount Franklin, Australia’s most popular bottled water, sells for $2.79.
Coca-Cola Amatil, which largely buys its water from landowners at prices it keeps secret, says all its water is bottled about two hours’ drive away from its sources. Many bottled water manufacturers buy their water from farmers or landowners with whom they negotiate the price. Once the deal is done, there is no independent monitoring of how much water is actually taken out of aquifers or underground water supplies.
Coca-Cola Amatil’s spokeswoman, Sally Loane, says the company reports to the relevant state government every drop it draws from groundwater sources it owns. Peats Ridge in NSW is a case in point. But the company does not own any sources in Victoria and so is not required to report details to the Government. Most Victorian spring water comes from the Daylesford area.He bristles when asked to respond to claims by environment groups that it is immoral to take water out of aquifers, a resource that belongs to all Australians, and sell it with huge mark-ups when Australia is suffering one of its worst droughts and staring into a future where water will be a scarce commodity. “Water underground has as much right to be consumed by drinking as it has to be consumed by any other manner,” he says. “If Australian citizens want to buy their water in that manner, so long as the source is sustainable, there is absolutely no morality issue involved.”
There’s no doubt the industry has gained from an increasingly frantic pace of life. People pack more into one day, travel further and are more fashion conscious. Bottled water is convenient and healthier than high-sugar soft drinks. It is readily available, comes in a trendy bottle and it’s all yours. Like your iPod and mobile phone. So popular is bottled water, there is no need to advertise it, says Gentile. “Bottled water sells itself. It’s a product people want.”
But the message from environment groups, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, that the production and delivery of a litre of bottled water emits 100 times more greenhouse gases than a litre of tap water; that nearly half a million barrels of oil are involved in the production of plastic water bottles; or that 65% of water bottles, because they are largely bought on the go, end up in landfills rather than being recycled, is simply not getting any traction.
Jon Dee from the Bottled Water Alliance argues that the campaign to educate Australians about the safety of tap water and the highly damaging environmental effects of bottled water production and distribution is still in its embryonic stages and consumers need to “wake up”.Among Australians, young singles and couples drink the most bottled water, particularly females aged 14 to 35.