Frontline World

BOLIVIA - Leasing the Rain, June 2002


Synopsis of "Leasing the Rain"


by William Finnegan

An Interactive Investigation

Cochabamba Water Revolt

Facts and Stats about Bolivia

Background, key players, the world's water woes



Water bottle with call out buttons

by Victoria Mauleon

More than 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Many of these people, particularly those in developing countries, increasingly depend on bottled water for their survival. But consumption of bottled water is also soaring in developed countries with adequate supplies of potable tap water. People with access to safe public drinking water-who are willing to spend up to 1000 times more for bottled water-represent the world's largest consumers of bottled water.

About half of all Americans drink bottled water regularly, and this number is steadily rising. Bottled water sales in the U.S. rose 11.5% in 2001 to nearly $6.5 billion, and per capita bottled water consumption has doubled in the last decade. By 2005, bottled water is expected to surpass milk and coffee and become the No. 2 beverage behind soft drinks.

What has driven this consumer demand for bottled water? Is bottled water safer than the water that comes out of our taps? Click on the water bottle to learn more about this $22 billion business, and read what non-governmental organizations, bottled water companies and environmental groups have to say about the fastest-growing beverage industry in the world.



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Bottled Water Industry: The bottled water industry asserts that in the past 37 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never confirmed an outbreak of illness in the U.S. linked to bottled water. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), the trade association representing the bottled water industry, provides testing information on water contaminants to consumers on request. Consumers may check the IBWA Web site or call 800-WATER-11 to find out if their favorite brand is covered by the association's Model Code.

Environmental groups: In 1999, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a four-year study of the bottled water industry. The study tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 different brands of bottled water, and while most of the tested bottled waters were determined to be of high quality, some brands were contaminated. About one-third of the water bottles tested contained synthetic organic chemicals and bacteria, and one sample contained arsenic levels that exceeded state health limits.

The World Health Organization: The WHO's Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality state that substances like lead, arsenic and fluoride may be more readily controlled in bottled water than in tap water. Yet the Guidelines also state that some substances are more difficult to manage in bottled water than in tap water. The WHO notes that bottled water is stored for longer periods and at higher temperatures than tap water, allowing some microorganisms to grow to higher levels. The WHO cautions that because bottled water is not sterile, infants, pregnant women and immuno-compromised individuals may be vulnerable to these contaminants.

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Look closely at the label on the water bottle if you want to know where your water comes from.

Bottled Water Industry: About 25% of the bottled water sold in the United States comes from a municipal water source. Most of this water has gone through processing such as reverse osmosis, deionization, activated carbon filtration and other approved treatment procedures. FDA regulations require bottlers to distinguish between several types of water, described on the International Bottled Water Association Web site:

Artesian Water comes from a well that taps an aquifer in which the water level is higher than the top of the aquifer.

Drinking Water is another name for bottled water that contains no sweeteners or chemical additives.

Mineral Water contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids.

Purified Water has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis, or other approved treatment procedures.

Sparkling Water, after treatment and possible replacement with carbon dioxide, contains the came about of carbon dioxide it had at the source (not to be confused with soda water, seltzer water or tonic water).

Spring Water comes from an underground formation from which water flows to the surface.

Well Water comes from a hole drilled in the ground which taps the water in an aquifer.

Environmental Groups: The NRDC claims some private bottlers use municipal water and promote the bottled brand as better, misleading the public with descriptive terminology and imagery. The NRDC's study cites photos of mountains and glaciers on water bottle labels and terms like "pristine" and "natural" to describe water that comes from a municipal source.

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Although bottled water can be packaged in variety of materials, including aluminum cans, glass or plastic bottles, the fastest-growing component of the market is the sale of single-serve and multiple packs of water packaged in plastic polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The PET share of the market increased from less than one-tenth in the early 1990s to one-third of all bottled water sales. The Beverage Marketing Corporation attributes the explosive growth of the premium PET market to consumers' desire for convenience.

Bottled Water Industry: The International Bottled Water Association asserts that all bottled water packaging is recyclable. Bottles are collected, cleaned and sanitized, and reused up to 100 times. When the bottles are no longer reusable, they are recycled into other consumer products.

Environmental Groups: A 2001 World Wildlife Fund-commissioned study, "Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon," found that PET requires less energy to recycle than glass or aluminum, and releases fewer emissions into the atmosphere. However the study notes that the manufacture of plastic bottles can release phathalates, or other by-products of plastic-making into the environment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that while more research is needed to determine the harmful effects of phthalates among humans, phthalates given at very high doses to animals during pregnancy may produce birth defects among offspring.

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WHO'S #1?

Perrier Vittel-a division of Nestlé S.A., the world's largest food company-is the largest bottled water company in the world. Perrier Vittel serves customers in 140 countries on five continents with more than 70 bottled water brands. Its major competitor, the DANONE Group, whose brands include Evian and Volvic, holds the number two spot worldwide in bottled water.

The Perrier Group of America has been a subsidiary of Perrier Vittel S.A. since 1992, and it is currently the largest bottled water company in the United States. The Perrier Group of America's sales have more than doubled over the course of five years. Its share of U.S. bottled water sales increased from about one-quarter in 1996 to nearly one-third by 2001. Its wholesale dollar sales increased by 23.5% in 2001, surpassing $2 billion.


Domestic Brands Imported Brands
Arrowhead Aberfoyle
Calistoga Acqua Panna
Deer Park Perrier
Great Bear S. Pellegrino
Ice Mountain Vittel
Poland Spring


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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water, which is considered a public utility, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water, which is deemed a food product.

Bottled Water Industry: The Safe Drinking Water Act requires FDA regulations for bottled water to be at least as stringent as those imposed by the EPA for tap water, and bottled water must be tested for the same contaminants as tap water. The bottled water industry touts bottled water as one of the most regulated food products in the country. Bottlers must adhere to the FDA's Quality Standards, Standards of Identity (Labeling Regulations) and Good Manufacturing Practices.

Environmental Groups: The Natural Resources Defense Council asserts that bottled water regulations are inadequate to assure consumers of purity or safety. The NRDC claims that bottled water is subject to less rigorous testing and purity standards than those required of city tap water. The NRDC notes that bottled water is required to be tested less frequently than city tap water for bacteria and chemical contaminants, and that bottled water rules allow for some contamination by E. coli or fecal coliform while tap water rules prohibit any contamination with these bacteria.

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Links Relevant to this Article

World Health Organization Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report

WHO Fact Sheet, October 2000

World Wildlife-commissioned study, "Bottled Water: Understanding a social phenomenon"

Natural Resources Defense Council four-year study of bottled water industry

Beverage Marketing Corporation

Bottled Water Web

International Bottled Water Association

Victoria Mauleon is a documentary filmmaker residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.