By: Jessica Dawn Ulrich
As the population of the planet continues to grow, water becomes an increasingly
valuable resource. This is not only because there are more people on the planet, but also
because most people are consuming more water, both directly and indirectly. Water is
needed for life, yet people disagree on how it should be utilized. There are a wide variety
of discourses regarding whether water should be a natural entitlement or universal right,
or, by contrast, a commodity available first to those with the power to purchase it.
Although there are some pockets of resistance, the trend that began in the 1980s is for
water sources used for drinking, sanitation, technology, and agriculture to be privatized
or commodified at alarming rates (Castro 2008; Shiva 2002). Barlow and Clarke (2002)
At the dawn of the 21st century, something as fundamental as water is noTweet
longer recognized as a universal right by the dominant economic and
political elites (80
Will water, which is critical for human survival, increasingly become a commodity rather
than a universal right or natural entitlement?
As Barlow and Clarke (2002) point out, Many of us who have lived our lives in the industrialized countries of the north may find it difficult to imagine running out of water, we have lived with steady supplies most of our lives and have used it lavishly (25).
The degree to which many in the global north take water for granted is illustrated clearly
in the rise of the bottled water industry. Despite the availability of affordable, clean
water from taps in our homes, increasing numbers of people are willing to pay for the
convenience of portable water and for the idea of consuming high-priced bottled water
imported from exotic locations, such as Italy, Iceland, or Fiji. Consequently, Fiji,
specifically the FIJI Water Company, has become a large bottled water exporter to
countries thousands of miles away, such as the United States and countries in Europe
(Connell 2006). But what is the effect of this industry on Fiji itself? FIJI Water currently
provides hundreds of jobs in Fiji and produces 29% of the entire country of Fiji‘s
domestic exports (FIJI Water 2009). At the same time, reports indicate that not all
residents of Fiji have secure access to clean water (Weber 2007), suggesting inequalities
to access to water within Fiji.
Growth of the Bottled Water Industry
The global bottled water industry has grown and profited tremendously in recent
years and shows few signs of decline. From the late 1990s, the world bottled water
market has grown at an annual rate of over ten percent (Connell 2006) and is estimated to
be worth U.S. $60 billion dollars a year (Royte 2008). According to a 2009 report from
the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), Despite an uncharacteristically staid performance in 2008,1 bottled water remains a beverage industry phenomenon.
It stands as the second-largest beverage type in the U.S. market and for many years also ranked as the most vigorously growing category. Only carbonated soft drinks (CSA) have greater volume, but they have been declining, in no small part because of the ascent of bottled water and its ever enlarging share of Americans‘ beverage intake (Rodwan 2009:12).
Despite the slight drop in the growth of the bottled water industry in 2008, it is still a
powerful and growing industry and water is being transported all over the world to places
1. In the U.S. alone, per capita consumption of bottled water has risen from 5.7
gallons a year in 1987 to 27.6 gallons per year in 2006 (Royte 2008). Although bottled
water is consumed all over the world, the annual consumption rate of bottled water in the
U.S. and Europe is much higher than the global average of six gallons per capita a year
(Wilk 2006). The rapid growth in the worldwide bottled water industry is the result of a
combination of factors including skepticism about tap water quality, actual lack of
potable water sources, convenience, busy and lavish lifestyles, the desire to drink
something that is healthy, natural, and pure, and extensive marketing and advertising
campaigns by bottled water companies (Opel 1999). Additionally, the bottled water
industry has benefitted from favorable business conditions in the form of policies that
promote growth, commodification, and privatization of water and services. These
favorable business conditions that the policies of individual governments, such as Fiji,
and large multinational institutions, such as the World Bank, provide to the bottled water
industry are examined in Chapter Two.
There has been growth in not only the number of bottled water companiesTweet
throughout the world, but also in the number of companies expanding their production.
Despite the economic benefits of the bottled water industry, the entire industry is
criticized for its environmental impacts, as we see in the next section.
Criticisms of the Bottled Water Industry Consumers in the global north are becoming increasingly aware of environmental impacts embedded in the products they consume and are demanding that companies address related environmental issues (Korten 2001).
The environmental impacts from bottling water are apparent at both the sites of
its production and consumption. The site of production is where the packaging material
is produced, and also the location where the water is extracted and put into plastic bottles.
At the sites of production, renewable and nonrenewable resources such as electricity,
fuel, plastic, and cardboard are used to extract, make, package, and transport components
of the final product. 5
Extensive resources are also consumed in the process of transporting the finished
product from where it is produced to where it is consumed. A bottle of FIJI Water going
to the United States must be transported by truck 70 kilometers from the factory to a port,
then 5710 miles by ship2 across the Pacific Ocean, and finally from the ship by truck or
rail to its final destination. Once the bottle arrives at its final destination, likely at a
convenience store or restaurant, it is usually refrigerated until it is consumed.
Refrigeration also uses additional energy to keep the water at a preferred drinking
On the consumption side, one of the most significant environmental concerns
about bottled water is the disposal of the plastic water bottles in which the water is
packaged. In 2007, Americans collectively consumed fifty billion single-serve bottles of
water alone (Royte 2008). In 2005, only about 23 percent of the five billion pounds of
polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles sold in the United States were recycled
2 5710 refers to the mileage from Lautoka, Fiji to Los Angeles, California by ship.
(Gitlitz and Franklin 2007). Almost 96 percent of all bottled water consumed in the U.S.
is packaged in PET bottles which have a lower recycling rate than all other bottled drinks,
in part due to outdated deposit laws3 (Gitlitz and Franklin 2007).
Individual consumers also bear responsibility for failing to recycle plastic bottles,
and, according to industry critics, for overlooking the negative consequences of their
drinking bottled water. People often fail to realize that in order to be able to consume
bottled water there is an increase in the resources used to distribute a readily available, local product, and the packaging, labeling, advertising, transporting, and cooling of bottled
waters create extensive hidden environmental costs in what may appear to
be a benign pure and natural drink (Opel 1999:69).
If water throughout the world becomes increasingly commodified, how will
individuals make sense of the situation? Will those who are benefitting from the
commodification of water make sense of the situation differently than those who must?
Some bottled water companies claim that if a deposit were to be required at the time of purchase, sales would be hurt, yet in some states many other bottled drinks do require deposits and thus have higher rates of return and recycling. 7
No one has yet asked how stakeholders make sense of the bottled water industry that is
becoming such a huge portion of Fiji‘s economy and possibly damaging Fiji‘s natural
environment. Stakeholders are all those in positions to benefit from or be harmed by the
bottled water industry in Fiji. The Fijian government, indigenous Fijians, the FIJI Water
Company, FIJI Water employees, and consumers of FIJI Water are all considered
stakeholders, and all are impacted by the growth of the industry. What does the ability to
extract and export Fiji‘s water mean to the extractors – the representatives of the FIJI
Water Company? What does it mean to the Fijians whose lives are affected by the
presence of this plant? This project examines discourses that residents of local Fijian
communities in close proximity to the bottled water plant and representatives of the FIJI
Water Company use to make sense of the global bottled water market. By collecting data
through interviews and observations in Fiji, my goal was to produce the richest possible
data encompassing a ―wide and diverse range of information [……] collected in a
persistent and systematic manner‖ (Lofland et al. 2006:15). Examining how water is
changing from a natural entitlement to a commodity, and exploring how this shift is
affecting stakeholders in Fiji in particular, will help in understanding what sort of impacts
commodification of a natural resource on a worldwide scale has on community and
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