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MEXICO: Soaring Bottled Water Use Highlights Mistrust of Tap Water

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Sep 23 2010 (IPS) - More bottled water is consumed per capita in Mexico than in any other country in the world, according to a U.S. consultancy — a fact that alarms non-governmental organisations because it highlights the lack of access to safe tap water.

Organised civil society also holds bottling companies directly responsible for the dependence on bottled water pointed out by the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a leading research, consulting and financial services firm dedicated to the global beverage industry

Annual per person consumption of bottled water in Mexico is 234 litres, compared to 110 litres in the United States.

A more conservative estimate by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography indicates that in 2008, nearly six billion litres of bottled water were sold in this country of 108 million people, nearly two billion more than in 2001.

Although municipal water companies in Mexico insist that the tap water they provide is safe, widespread mistrust of its quality has fuelled the growing consumption of bottled water.

But Nathalie Séguin of the Freshwater Action Network of Mexico (FANMEX) said “there are also doubts about the quality of bottled water.

“Besides, the production is unsustainable, with transnational corporations selling the water, which they obtain and package at low cost, at much higher prices,” she told IPS.

The volume of bottled water sold in Mexico has grown 8.1 percent a year, according to the National Association of Producers and Distributors of Purified Water.

“This is happening because of the authorities’ failure to live up to the obligation of providing potable water and the fact that there are no clear guarantees about the quality of water that comes out of your tap at home,” Claudia Campero, Latin America coordinator for the Canada-based Blue Planet Project, which advocates water justice, told IPS.

World leaders met Sep. 20-22 at United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss a new strategy to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of anti-poverty targets adopted by the U.N. general assembly in 2000, to be met by 2015.

The seventh MDG is ensuring environmental sustainability, and one of the specific targets is to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, from 1990 levels.

The other MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and developing a North-South global partnership for development.

Mexico has practically met the goal of halving the number of people without steady access to clean water and sanitation, from 1990 levels, according to “Millennium Development Goals: Advances in Environmentally Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean”, a report released early this year by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

But the regional U.N. agency also noted that while areas in northern Mexico, along the U.S. border, had high levels of access to safe water, some parts of central and southern Mexico had very poor access.

According to the National Water Commission (Conagua), 9.7 percent of the Mexican population still lacks access to piped water and 13.6 percent to sanitation.

The draft budget sent by the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón to Congress proposes a 21 percent cut in funds for the provision of water and sewage services — from 1.4 billion dollars this year to 1.1 billion dollars for 2011.

In July, the U.N. General Assembly declared that safe drinking water and sanitation are human rights essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.

Mexico receives some 1.5 billion cubic meters of rainfall per year. Of that total, 73 percent evaporates back into the atmosphere, 22 percent feeds streams and rivers, and the rest infiltrates into the subsoil and recharges the aquifers, according to the government’s 2010 report on water resources.

Of the country’s 653 aquifers, 101 are overexploited. As a result, annual per capita water availability fell from 18,035 cubic meters to 4,312 cubic meters between 1950 and 2007.

Social organisations that advocate for the right to water have reported that tap water in Mexico sometimes contains bacteria, arsenic and heavy minerals, and are calling for a real-time water quality monitoring system, to improve the National Network for Water Quality Monitoring used by Conagua since 1996.

The volume of disinfected water grew from 84.5 percent in 1991 to 97.1 percent in 2008, and a year before that, infectious intestinal disease associated with poor quality drinking water was the third cause of death among children under the age of four, causing1,465 deaths, according to the public health ministry.

Some 8,000 water bottling and distribution companies operate in Mexico, but the market is dominated by U.S. giants Coca Cola and its local subsidiary Femsa, and Pepsi, and by Switzerland’s Nestle and Danone from France, according to the National Association of Producers and Distributors of Purified Water.

Conagua figures show that in 2008, Coca Cola received 151 concessions to exploit aquifers, for a total extraction of 29.5 million cubic meters of water a year. Pepsi received 40 permits, for 7.9 million cubic meters, Danone was awarded 32 permits, for 4.8 million cubic meters, and Nestle received 21 contracts, for 5.2 million cubic meters.

None of the companies responded to IPS requests for comment.

“Mexico should have implemented public policies to guarantee the human right to water, which should be reflected by full access to safe drinking water through the national water grid,” Séguin said.

“The current system gives rise to serious inequalities and injustices at a local level, because instead of access to better quality sources, communities only have access to lower quality sources, like wells,” said Campero, who is also a representative of the U.S.-based Food and Water Watch.

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