Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Apr 15 2010

A Dying African Lake, Polluted, Overfished; Bad And Getting Worse

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

DUNGA, Kenya—It was shortly after daybreak and a long, wooden fishing skiff crunched up on the stony beach here along Lake Victoria. Women who sell fish in the market in nearby Kisumu swarmed the boat. They grabbed slippery Nile perch and tilapia and tossed them into their plastic baskets. Then they began haggling.

The catch that day was meager, and one woman came away with nothing. “The fishermen don’t get enough fish,” said Salin Atieno, 37. She has been buying fish at the Dunga landing for seven years. “There are not that many fish now.”

Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, is suffering. It is polluted with raw sewage and it is muddy from the erosion of soil from nearby hills that have lost trees and shrubs to people in search of firewood. Like Lake Chad in West Africa and a few other lakes around the world, it has also been shrinking. Parts of Lake Victoria are clogged with hyacinths and algae. All of this has been thinning out the fish.

“The lake is dying,” said Dr. Raphael Kapiyo, the head of environmental studies at Maseno University in Kisumu, an East African trading post of a city with about 400,000 people.

As Kisumu and other towns and cities around the lake have grown and economies have struggled, more people have begun trying their hand at fishing. They forget about fishing seasons, if they ever knew about them, and they fish with nets that trap the smallest minnows. This all adds up to overfishing.

The governments of Kenya and the two other countries bordering Lake Victoria, Uganda and Tanzania, have established regulations on fishing and pollution. They have organized fishermen groups and restricted fishing on one of the most popular local species to give the fish breathing room for recovery. But conditions in Lake Victoria keep getting worse.

Fish processing factories dump their waste into the lake. New factories have sprung up, some of them producing soap and, as a by-product, pollution.

Kisumu has a sewage treatment plant, Dr. Kapiyo said, “but it is far from adequate and a lot of raw sewage flows directly into the lake.” Sewage spills into the lake from Uganda and Tanzania, as well. Rivers flowing into the lake pick up the runoff from farms: cattle waste and fertilizers and pesticides. The pollution might be worse were it not that the millions of poor, small farmers in East Africa use fewer chemicals than farmers in many places.

Dr. Kapiyo said the lake has receded as much as 150 feet in some places. Because of higher temperatures in Kenya, possibly because of global warming, the rate of evaporation has risen. Moreover, water is being diverted from the lake for use in running hydro-electric power plants.

“The amount of water flowing into the lake is becoming less and less,” Dr. Kapiyo said. It was late afternoon and we were talking in a garden shaded by bougainvillea and ficus trees.

“The amount of water going out of the lake,” Dr. Kapiyo said, “has become more and more.” In the shade of the trees, the baking heat had eased and there was even a little breeze.

On the Dunga beach the rising sun glinted off the water. I talked with Samson Masero. He is 29 years old and has been fishing for five years. Even in his short time on the water he has noticed a decline in fish. But as far as he can tell, he told me, there has been “no big change in the water.”

“This is like our office,” he said. “There has not been any big change.”

Jason Agwenge, 40, has 20 years more experience on the lake than Mr. Masero. He remembers a different Lake Victoria. “The water was so clean,” he said, “we used to drink it.”

Mrs. Atieno, the market woman who came away with an empty basket, was wearing a bright blue basketball jacket the morning I met her. Her hair was clipped short. Her long, leaf-patterned skirt fell to her sandals. To her, the biggest problem on the lake is overfishing. “There are not any kinds of jobs here,” she said, “and they just go to the lake. There is not any other kind of work they can do.” #

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Mar 04 2010

Africa Water Project Captures Difficulty Of Global Struggle

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMISteven Solomon was just starting the research on a huge book on the global water problem when his wife Claudine got the idea – independently – to take some of her middle school students to Africa to work on a water project.

In three weeks in southeastern Kenya, near the border with Tanzania, Mr. Solomon, his wife, their three teenage daughters and three other young people managed to help install a couple of miles of pipe and a water tank that brought clean drinking into the heart of a cluster of homes in the area of Chyulu Hills.

To provide water for all of the roughly 8,000 people living in Chyulu Hills, three more water lines and tanks were needed. The Solomons figured the job could be done for about $80,000. They went home to Washington eager to round up the money and return to East Africa to do the work.

But, it turned out, they could not find anyone to pay for the project. Maybe they didn’t know enough about development. And maybe, Steven Solomon concedes, they didn’t try hard enough. Mr. Solomon managed to publish a nearly 600-page book, Water, the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, in January. So I doubt that the Africa water project failed for lack of trying.

The Solomon’s expanded project failed to get off the ground several years ago. But nothing much has changed. Water projects around the world often fail or don’t get started at all for a common, fundamental reason: No one is in charge on this issue. There is no dominant, agreed upon policy that could knit together the many well-intentioned small projects and, at the same time, encourage the multitude of political leaders to step in and do something meaningful. The work that is being done is fragmented, sometimes contradictory. Maintenance is often overlooked. The issue is near the bottom of everyone’s agenda.

For decades, at least one billion of the world’s now 6.8 billion people have not had regular access to clean drinking water. It could be 2 billion, even 3 billion. The statistics are not reliable. But the numbers are huge and the needle is not moving much in the right direction.

The water that people haul into their homes from rivers and lakes is often contaminated with bacteria and parasites. As many as 2.5 billion people do not have toilets. So there is a problem of human waste, too. When people have barely enough drinking water to survive, they don’t wash their hands as often as they should. Sometimes the water starts out clean. But dirty hands transform drinking water into something you shouldn’t drink.

The result is a lot of sickness. A high percentage of all the hospital beds in the developing world are taken up by people with what are often referred to as water-borne diseases. Each year the diseases kill about 2 million people, mostly children under five. That is about 5,000 deaths a day, mostly children, children who should not be dying.

The technology to get clean water to everyone exists. The work is not overwhelmingly expensive. In the course of writing his book, Mr. Solomon has become an expert on water. “This is a solvable problem,” he said. “It is a logistical, political, organizational problem.”

Often, it is a matter of scale. When Mr. Solomon’s wife Claudine was trying to raise money, one expert told her: “This project is too small for us. We need to have a big project to make it worthwhile.” But, experts have told me, big water projects often get shunted aside for other big projects. Hospitals, for example, seem to be more attractive. Yet if the water problem were solved, fewer hospitals would be needed.

Strong leadership is missing. A few members of Congress have been working on the water problem and Matt Damon, the actor, has made it his cause. But the issue is not getting traction.

Al Gore, the former vice president of the United States, has done wonders in raising consciousness about global warming and climate change. Water needs someone like him.

“We need somebody of stature to step forward,” Mr. Solomon said. “We need an Al Gore of water.” #

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Jan 14 2010

The Texas Drought, The Florida Chill—Climate Change? No

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—That drought that just ended in Texas was not an example of climate change. Neither were the weird, freezing cold temperatures in Florida as the year began.

How confusing. You hear so much about climate change. Then you see what looks like evidence. And it turns out not to be evidence at all.

“Climate change is slower than that,” said Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor at Texas A&M University and the state climatologist in Texas.

Much slower. It is a decades-long process, a long, slow march that is hard for many people to grasp. Widespread confusion over short-term fluctuations and long-term trends worries the majority of scientists who are convinced that climate change is happening. They say it leads to apathy, inaction, a do-nothing approach, that could prove to be very harmful.

“People say, obviously, we don’t really understand this, so we need to wait until the uncertainty is gone,” said Don A. Wilhite, the director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in an interview. “But the uncertainty will never be gone. If you wait 25 or 30 years to do something, then it’s basically too late. If everything we are learning is correct, we need to be doing something now.”

The short-term fluctuations in the weather – like the drought in Texas and the cold spell in Florida - are caused by historic cycles and so-far inexplicable random episodes, scientists say.  They may contribute to long-term averages.  But the fluctuations often contradict the big picture. The confusion is aggravated when you hear from the handful of scientists who earnestly believe there is no such thing as global warming and climate change.

Recent polls justify concern. A year ago, 80 percent of those surveyed by the Washington Post and ABC television said they thought climate change was happening. But as 2009 ended, the percentage had shrunk to 72. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in Washington found even less public confidence. It recently got a positive response on climate change of 57 percent, down from 71 percent a year earlier.

Some scientists despair at ever getting people to understand climate change.  But Michael J. Hayes, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, another unit of the University of Nebraska, said, “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s forget about it.’”

Dr. Hayes and scientists who recently assembled at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, advocate putting more effort into finding clear and simple ways to demonstrate that short term changes in the weather and long-term climate conditions are two different things. Or as Dr. Hayes’ colleague, Dr. Wilhite put it, today’s cold snap does not mean that “climate change is a hoax.”

At the Rosenstiel conference, Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami professor, suggested that public support might be increased if people did not have to envision dire consequences many decades into the future – in some cases long after their likely death.  “We really want to get into the question of what’s going to happen in the next 10 or 30 years,” Dr.  Kirtman told the conference, according to the Miami Herald.

Lisa Goddard, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, who also spoke at the conference, said in an interview that studies that distinguished more clearly between “natural variability” in the short run and “man-made climate change” could not only reduce public confusion but also could be useful tools for government officials, farmers and others.

Texas has been through lots of droughts. The latest one, which began to manifest itself in early 2008, was the worst since the 1950s. But five droughts hit the state between 1996 and 2006 alone. The latest one cost farmers and ranchers more than $4 billion, according to state officials.

One of the driving forces in the Texas drought was the way things developed in the Pacific Ocean. Water temperatures in the Pacific were cooler than usual in late 2007 and through late 2008 in what is known as the La Niña effect.  La Niña reduces rainfall over Texas.  Last fall, the cycle shifted to El Niño. That brought rain to Texas and the drought was broken.

During the Texas drought, temperatures rose into the high 80s Fahrenheit or four to six degrees above average. “That made the climate projections” for the future “more real,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “People were able to feel what a hot summer would be like.”

That is one benefit of a shock like the Texas drought. Even though it is not evidence of climate change it gets people thinking about what lies ahead.

The New York Times captured the Texas drought and its dénouement in two photographsOne showed a sweep of dry, cracked Texas ranch land.  The other focused on the same terrain. But now there was bright green grass in the foreground, a good-size lake in the middle and more greenery beyond the lake. A family of cowboys and ranch women and young ones was lined up on the grass with their horses. The second picture so captured the sense of renewal and joy that, according to The Times, the family sent it out as their Christmas card. #

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Nov 12 2009

A Tree Breathes Rain, An Axe Brings It Down; Floods Sweep The Land

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Deforestation

MIAMI—This is the story of a tree and what it means to the water supply and to the global environment. It is an ancient story but it is also a story as modern as the latest hardship in Haiti and El Salvador and parts of Africa and Asia.

The tree is called the huarango. It lives in southern Peru. Yet it can serve as a symbol for trees around the world and the influence they have on our lives.

More than 1,500 years ago, thick forests of huarango (pronounced wa-Ran-go) rose in the Ica River Valley of Peru, 120 miles south of Lima. The valley was one of the driest places on earth.  The huarango made the region livable. The trees caught sea mist and moisture in the humid air in their leaves. The mist and moisture condensed and trickled into underground reservoirs or aquifers.

Over time the trees drank up the underground water with their deep and broad network of roots. They breathed moisture into the air. The moisture turned to rain and the land provided food for thousands of people of the Nazca Culture.

But the Nazca did not fully appreciate the huarango, according to new evidence gathered by British researchers. As the Nazcas grew and prospered, they wanted more land for planting corn and other vegetables. They decimated the forests.

Then came the rains, a deluge of greater magnitude than has ever been seen. The Ica Valley was covered in silt and more than 12 feet of water. Rich soil washed away. The nearby valleys suffered, too, and the Nazca never recovered. Today a few descendents struggle to make a living in a swath of river valleys that has become almost entirely desert.

“Had the trees not been chopped down, this flood would not have been a disaster,” said Dr. David G. Beresford-Jones, the leader of a research team from Cambridge University in England in an interview from his home there. Instead, he said, much of the rain would have been caught by the trees. Their roots would have held the soil in place and the year of the flood “would have been a year of abundance.”

The devastation that can follow the destruction of forests played out in Haiti last year after several hurricanes inundated the poor country that shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic. More than 800 people died in flood waters and avalanches of mud that cascaded down denuded hillsides. Haiti was once heavily forested. Even now, with most of the forests gone, the people continue to hack down the surviving trees to make charcoal to cook their food.

El Salvador, a former battlefield in Central America, has also lost most of its forests. Compared with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it ranks second behind Haiti as a place of wasted forests, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In early November, a thunderstorm that was so small it was all but ignored by forecasters, hovered over El Salvador. For nearly two days the storm let loose with heavy rain. It was the rainy season and the land was already soaked. The little storm was more than the hills could take. Clumps of earth broke loose. Huge mud slides tore through villages. At least 1,500 houses were damaged or destroyed, the New York Times reported; 140 people died.

This is the modern-day story of the huarango tree. Around the world millions of acres of trees have been bulldozed and burned. Nigeria and Brazil are countries where the trees have gone the fastest, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. Often the goal of destroying a forest is to create more open land for farming and ranching. Smoky fires from burning the trees add to global warming. The loss of trees means that less carbon monoxide is absorbed from the air. Less rain falls. Without the trees farm land requires heavy irrigation. When the rains come there is nothing to hold back the floods. Civilizations are not being wiped out these days. But lives are being lost in floods and landslides that could be prevented. Some private organizations and a few governments are replanting trees. But they have a long way to go to make up for the abuse of centuries. #

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Oct 08 2009

Battle of the Bottles, Steel Angers Plastic; Litigation Commences

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI – To hear Tom Lauria tell it, he and his people in the bottled water business were just fed up.

A North Carolina company that sells stainless steel canteens as an alternative to buying water in plastic bottles was accusing the bottled water people in its advertisements of all sorts of foul things.

“People do not have to go to the emergency room if they drink bottled water,” said Mr. Lauria, the spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, in an interview.

“If they want to sell a multi-use bottle, that’s fine,” Mr. Lauria said. “But they’re not going to say that our product poisons people, poisons families. Everything in the grocery store is made of the same plastic.”

Mr. Lauria said his group in Alexandria, Va., the biggest organization of water bottlers, distributors and suppliers of bottled water labels and bottle caps in America, sent the company, Eco Canteen of Charlotte, N.C., a notice to stop their “false and misleading” accusations. “They ignored it,” Mr. Lauria said, “So we filed suit. Our membership wanted us to.”

I tried several times over two weeks to talk with people at Eco Canteen. I really wanted to hear their side of the story. Phone calls. Emails. Nothing worked.

Mr. Lauria said the lawsuit, filed in the federal district court for the Western District of North Carolina, was the first his organization had filed against critics of bottled water. And there are lots of critics.

Most if not all environmental groups are against bottled water. They say the manufacture of the plastic bottles from petroleum adds to global warming and that the discarded bottles become almost indestructible garbage.

Many environmental groups advocate drinking tap water from reusable bottles. Several environmentally oriented websites recommend Eco Canteen. But on one website called ecohuddle at least nine people who said they had bought Eco Canteens complained that they had been misled on pricing. “Scam,” said two writers. One blogger said the company was “to be avoided at all costs.” A note attributed to Eco Canteen said, “We apologize if there is any confusion on our products or their pricing.”

Part of the environmentalists’ criticism is that bottled water is hugely expensive. They say it is no better than tap water and sometimes worse. The bottled water association takes strong exception to suggestions that its water is of poor quality or that it is the least bit unsafe.

In the lawsuit the bottled water association says the quality of bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. It says it has its own quality standards and that plants operated by its members are inspected annually. “Every aspect of the operation from water source to the filling room” is tested and audited, the association says in the lawsuit.

The Government Accountability Office in Washington said in a recent report that the principal regulator of bottled water quality, the Food and Drug Administration, was not as strict as the Environmental Protection Agency. The accountability office suggested that the Food and Drug Administration should be looking more closely at the ingredients of plastic bottles, but it did not raise any specific health concerns.

The government report undermined some of the environmentalists’ claims. It said that discarded water bottles, which the environmentalists say are jamming garbage dumps, represented less than one percent of the total waste in municipal landfills. The agency said that while it took much more energy to produce bottled water than tap water, the amount of energy used by the water companies was a small percentage of all the energy consumed in the United States.

Bottled water sales have been declining after years of breathtaking growth. I wondered if after years of anti-bottled water comments from environmentalists, the bottled water people had decided it was time to try to shut down some of the criticism.

Mr. Lauria says, No. He said the decline in sales had nothing to do with campaigns by environmentalists. “The economists say it isn’t the environmentalists who are making a dent,” Mr. Lauria said, “It’s a recession dent.”

Environmentalists say that all of their work against bottled water must have had some impact. But, they say, they can’t be sure.

On their website, the Eco Canteen people sell their 26-ounce, stainless steel canteens against bottled water. On one Eco Canteen website a message pops on the screen: “Kick the Plastic Habit and Protect Your Family.” A video narrated by a woman begins, “Did you know that 40 percent of bottled water comes from city tap?” “Some brands don’t even filter it,” she says, “So why pay a fortune for something you can get for free?” Then a man’s voice: “Disposable bottles last 700 years. They’re taking over our landfills.” One written message says, “Some researchers believe BPA polycarbonate bottles could threaten your family’s health.”

The lawsuit attributes much stronger language to Eco Canteen. It says some of the company’s ads show a spokesperson standing in front of a hospital emergency room and saying that some plastic water bottles “release synthetic estrogen, linked to breast and prostate cancer.” Some ads say that “plastic bottles could be poisoning you and your family,” according to the lawsuit.

The first Eco Canteen listing I found in a Google search carried the words “official site.” The ad on that site made no reference to cancer or poison. But two items down on Google, I clicked on an Eco Canteen listing and saw a woman making the claims referred to in the lawsuit about breast and prostate cancer. It is hard to tell what is going on here.  Eco Canteen could do itself a favor by sending a consistent message in its ads and perhaps by getting someone to answer phone calls and emails from inquiring reporters. #

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Oct 01 2009

Fighting Over Pollution That Never Happened, Argentina vs. Uruguay

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

BUENOS AIRES— Here is a whopper of a water dispute between two countries that have only barely tolerated each other in the best of times: Argentina, one of the largest countries in South America, and Uruguay, one of the smallest.

Five years ago, a Finnish company announced plans to build a pulp paper plant in Uruguay, just across the Uruguay River from Argentina. The company promised to use new technology and not to spew the pollution that historically has resulted from pulp paper plants.

Almost immediately protests broke out in Argentina. But the Finnish company, Oy Metsa-Botnia AB, pushed on. Two years ago the plant went into operation just outside the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos. Several analyses by water experts have concluded that the plant is not hurting the river, and the World Bank, which helped finance the plant, has accepted the findings.

But the reports have not satisfied the Argentines, particularly the people of the town of Gualeguaychu, population 80,000, about two hours’ drive from Buenos Aires and eight miles from the Uruguay River. They are continuing to fight.

Years ago both sides appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the highest court of the United Nations. In mid-September the court began hearing arguments on Argentina’s claim that Uruguay had violated a 1975 river treaty by failing to consult with Argentina on the project. Uruguay said it had complied fully. Proceedings in the case are expected to run through Oct. 2.

It has been an astounding dispute, a display of human foibles, of the intensity of rivalries and suspicions across borders and of the distrust of big business and foreign investors. But it also has been a dispute that has underscored concerns around the world about the quality and scarcity of water, concerns that have grown as the dispute has dragged on and as climate change and global warming have become a part of daily life.

Argentina is the second largest country in South America in territory after Brazil and, with about 40 million people, ranks third after Brazil and Colombia in population. It sprawls over the equivalent of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Uruguay has 3.4 million people and is about the size of the state of Washington. The Argentines joke about the Uruguayans being country bumpkins. The Uruguayans say the Argentines are brash and overbearing.

In the paper plant dispute, there have been some truly remarkable moments. At one point, both sides appealed to King Juan Carlos of Spain to mediate. At a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Vienna, Evangelina Carrozo, who was 25 years old and had been named “Miss Gualeguaychu,” peeled off all her clothes except for a skimpy bikini and hoisted a banner reading, “No Paper Mill Pollution.”

When it comes to the water quality reports, the people of Gualeguaychu say they don’t believe the reports because some were paid for by the Finnish company. Even Greenpeace, the international environmental group, says there is no sign of pollution from the plant. Gonzalo Girolami, a spokesman for Greenpeace in Buenos Aires, said he is at a loss as to why Argentina and the people of Gualeguaychu are still pressing the issue. “The position of the people of Gualeguaychu is very stubborn, very nationalistic,” Mr. Girolami said in an interview.

The plant has been an economic bonanza for Uruguay. It cost $1.2 billion to build and is the largest foreign investment ever in Uruguay. Its construction provided 8,000 jobs and 600 people are now running the plant.

The Finnish company anticipated opposition. It sent out engineers to explain how its new ways of making pulp paper differed from the processes that for decades had dirtied the waters around the 12 paper plants operating in Argentina and that had made a mess of Finnish lakes and rivers 30 years ago.

But the Argentines were not buying. Within months, the people of Gualeguaychu began raising their voices. The Uruguay River would be ruined. Their drinking water would suffer. Summer vacationers would stop coming. Eventually the protesters shut down the Libertador General San Martin Bridge, connecting Argentina and Uruguay. Government officials in Argentina called for a halt to the project. The bridge, impassable for three years, is still blocked and Uruguay says the loss of the link to Argentina has cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in business. The disruption has hurt Argentina as well.

“We always said Argentina was making a big mistake,” said Mr. Girolami of Greenpeace.

It has some of the world’s worst pollution and Argentines say that except for this case, the environment has not been a matter of high priority. That leads some analysts to speculate that the dispute over the Finnish paper plant is really more about politics, nationalist sentiment and public opinion in Gualeguaychu than about the environment.

At The Hague, the Associated Press reported, Ambassador Carlos Gianelli, the leader of Uruguay’s delegation, said the dispute was “a sad episode in the historically close relations between Argentina and Uruguay.” He said matters had been made worse “by the excessive language that Argentina used throughout” the early part of the proceedings “in which it portrayed Uruguay as nothing short of an international outlaw.”

Susana Ruiz Cerutti, the chief representative of Argentina in the case, said the Finnish plant was “a bad mill in a bad place.”

Alan Boyle, a lawyer representing Uruguay, countered: “It is the right mill in the right place on a river more than capable of sustaining this type of economic development.”

A ruling by the international court is expected early next year. And the question arises: Will the court’s decision finally end the dispute? #

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Aug 27 2009

Bottled Water Sellers Finding New Strategies In Shrinking Market

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI – Executives at the big bottled water companies have been getting bad news this summer. The sale of water in plastic bottles – often right out of the tap – has been falling.

Environmentalists are thrilled. They have been telling anyone who would listen that the planet would be better off without bottled water. Their dream is that the bottled water companies would simply disappear for lack of customers.

But the bottled water companies are not retreating. At Nestlé, Coca Cola and Pepsi the top executives of the companies that sell the most bottled water do not seem to be even close to thinking about getting out of the bottled water business. Instead they are developing strategies to keep right on trucking. Like good business people, they are trying to meet the challenges of a shifting market.

Speaking of the bottled water business in the United States and Western Europe, James Singh, the chief executive of Nestlé, the Swiss company that sells chocolate and other foods and leads the world in bottled water sales, told financial analysts and reporters in London that his company was making strides in “improving our market share in a category that is declining and continues to decline.” Maybe some companies will be driven out of the bottled water business. But it does not look like Nestlé will be among them.

Several bottled water companies reported drops in sales for the first half of 2009. The largest drop by volume, 3.7 percent, was announced by Nestlé which sells bottled water under such brand names as Perrier, Poland Springs, S. Pellegrino and Deer Park.

The bottled water companies say their sales are falling because of the worldwide recession. They expect a rebound as the economy improves. Environmentalists think the reason could be the relentless campaigns against bottled water powered by groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Working Group in Washington.

Environmental groups have a list of reasons they oppose bottled water. Manufacturing the bottles consumes loads of oil and adds to global warming. Shipping the bottles to market consumes more oil. The bottles are nearly indestructible and create mountains of garbage. Opponents say the water is not necessarily any better than most people’s tap water, but that it costs much more. A writer for Fortune magazine did the math and found that at his neighborhood gasoline station in New York, bottled water cost three times more than gasoline.

“Consumers are making the choice of not purchasing products that they perceive to be environmentally damaging,” said Brian Richter, the director of global fresh water programs at The Nature Conservancy, in an interview.

Until now, the bottled water business has been booming. Sales in the United States jumped 59 percent to $5.1 billion in the five years ending in 2008, the Washington Post reported. According to the Post, 70 percent of American consumers say they drink bottled water at least occasionally.

Gary Hemphill, a managing director of Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York consulting firm, said in an interview that he expects bottled water sales to eventually bounce back. He said growth would probably not be as rapid as in the past. The business has matured, he said. Much of the potential market is already buying bottled water. And sales are so strong – second only to sales of soft drinks in America – that it will be difficult to attain large percentage increases even in a healthy economy. Mr. Hemphill said Beverage Marketing thinks convenience is an important element in the success of bottled water. For customers, he said, the alternative to bottled water is not tap water but soft drinks and fruit juice, known in the trade as “refreshment beverages.”

Adrianna Quintero, a senior attorney in San Francisco for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview that the pull back from bottled water represents a change in behavior that could be permanent. “I’d like to think there won’t be a rebound,” she said. “I think people are developing new habits and I think they will stick.”

Mr. Hemphill of Beverage Marketing said the leaders in bottled water have undercut their critics by becoming “more green” and by forming alliances with environmental groups.

At Nestlé, James Singh, the chief executive officer, told analysts and reporters in a conference call from London, that his company had become more efficient in producing bottled water and had gained market share in the United States and Europe. Despite the sharp drop in sales volume in the first half of 2009, he said, profits on bottled water rose by 1.1 percent.

In Asia and in the developing countries, where many people can least afford bottled water, sales are booming. Sales in Asia, Mr. Singh said, were up 17 percent in the first part of the year and were running in the double digits, presumably just over 10 percent, in the developing countries. “Our issue is not really in the emerging markets,” he said. “But our challenge is to find opportunities in North America and some of the key markets here in Western Europe.”

Mr. Singh outlined Nestlé’s strategy for soldiering on in the bottled water business. “Wherever there is growth,” he said, “we are getting our fair share of growth. And wherever there is no growth or declining growth we want to make sure that we are improving our competitive position.” This is not a man who cuts and runs. #

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Jul 30 2009

A Promising Solution To Clean Water Problem Fails To Win Support

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

ZURICH — When Martin Wegelin worked in Tanzania his three-year-old daughter’s playmate fell ill one morning. By afternoon the playmate, a boy who lived next door, was dead.

The boy routinely had been drinking water loaded with bacteria. He was stricken with diarrhea, became dehydrated and was gone before his parents realized how sick he was.

In Africa and other developing countries, diarrhea is at the top of the list of child-killers. Around the world, the World Health Organization says, 5,000 children die as a result of diarrhea every day; 1.8 million a year. Most of the children die because of drinking water that often looks clean but contains all kinds of bugs.

The boy’s death put Mr. Wegelin, a Swiss engineer who specializes in water and sanitation, on a mission. He determined that he would find a simple, low-cost way to purify drinking water. He developed a method that, in most cases, costs absolutely nothing. But 30 years later, only a few million of the nearly 1 billion people around the world who lack clean drinking water – and are often sick - are using his process called SODIS or Solar Water Disinfection.

Mr. Wegelin says the problem has to do with perception. “It is too simple,” he said in an interview in his government laboratory in the Zurich suburb of Duebendorf. “People think it can’t work.”

The only ingredients in Mr. Wegelin’s process are water, a discarded plastic bottle – the kind used everywhere for soft drinks and commercially packaged water – and sunlight. After six hours in bright sunlight the water is healthy to drink.

“It’s magical,” said Sally G. Cowal, a vice president and water specialist at PSI or Population Services International, a non-profit aid organization in Washington.

But water experts say there are several reasons that the process has never taken off, all fairly frustrating. For one thing, no one has been able to figure out how to make money with it. No big companies have gotten involved, as they have in producing chlorine tablets, liquid and powder that cost about a penny a day to purify water for a family of six. Not big money, but money.

Then there is the matter of the plastic bottle. Environmental groups hate the bottles. They are made from petroleum, their manufacture adds to global warming and they never go away: garbage dumps are filled with them and they are all over the oceans and the waterways. No one has a good word for them and at a time when some cities are banning plastic bottles from municipal vending machines, no government wants to back a program that depends on them.

Ten years ago, Ms. Cowal started a project on household treatment of water in developing countries and decided to go with the chlorine process. The water did not taste as good as sunshine cleaned water. But by using a product that could be sold, Population Services International could do good and continue to do good. They sell the chlorine at a shade above cost, Ms. Cowal said, and put their sliver of profit “into promotion and advertising.” A perpetual motion machine. The sunshine machine gets a nod of approval from the United Nations, but no big allocation of money.

The sunshine method is not without its problems. For one thing, if it’s cloudy the process takes longer, and it is often hard for families to gauge how long. More importantly, making the process work requires a change of behavior for people who have routinely just been drinking water as it has come to them. “We come along,” Mr. Wegelin said, “and tell people, ‘You have another activity. You have to treat the water.’ That requires a change of habit. And changing habits takes time.”

Educating people about water treatment and disease requires aid organizations to invest time and energy and the lessons don’t always stick. It is less complicated to just pump in clean water. But the worldwide problem is so great, that billions of dollars are needed. And, so far, that money has not been forthcoming.

The big government aid agencies and big private aid organizations have strategic problems with the sunshine purification system, the chlorine process and low-cost filters, all designed to be used by individuals and families. They want high impact. They don’t want to do their work one family at a time. They prefer to install networks of standpipes and dig new wells that serve lots of people. Their way provides water to people who might have previously had to walk long distances to get water. It doesn’t always provide clean water. Or water that stays clean. But it works on a large scale. A lot of people get some improvement and aid managers get credit for the accomplishment. If the water quality is not perfect, people can boil it when they get home – or not. The water providers and the health service agencies are not always on the same page, which is one of the many reasons that deaths from water-borne diseases have declined very little in the last decade. #

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Nov 26 2008

Bottled Water: The Distinction May Be In the Ad Campaign

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

Bottled water is convenient and has gained a reputation for being especially pure and healthy.  But a lot of research indicates that bottled water may not be as special as people think.

For example, by some accounts, up to 40 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States is merely filtered and packaged tap water.  Some marketing experts say it is hard to distinguish one kind of bottled water from another.  As a result, the marketing experts say, sales become mostly a matter of who thinks up the best slogans and spends the most money getting out their message.

The sellers of bottled water say they are providing a public service. Environmentalists acknowledge the convenience factor, but they say that the quality of tap water is fine in most of the United States.

Chiranjeev Kohli, a marketing professor at California State University at Fullerton, was interviewed for an article on the sale of bottled water by

“In the water category,” Professor Kohil said, “there is no technical superiority. The only thing that differentiates one water from the next is the brand.”

Bottled water costs many time the price of tap water. Manufacturing plastic water bottles uses up a lot of oil and also contributes to global warming. The empty bottles create mountains of trash.

In large sections of the world where clean water is not available, bottled water can make for healthier living. But environmentalists argue that investing in pumps and pipes that bring water into homes, or at least to central water points, would be less expensive in the long run and kinder to the planet.


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