The drop on bottled water

2011-03-11 13:48

More than half the ­population in Ethiopia live on less than $1 (R7) a day, yet the country is the source of one of the most exclusive bottled waters in the world.

Ambo Mineral Water, which sells for about $6 at top New York hotels, is distributed by SABMiller.

The water was considered sacred at one time by the Ethiopians and now we know why.

Some US restaurants even employ the services of “water sommeliers” to help their wealthy patrons choose a fine bottle of water.

Then there’s Fiji Water, which, according to its sales literature, “comes from one of the last virgin ecosystems on Earth”.

It’s popular with celebs, but the supply has been suspended because the US company that owns the rights is currently at loggerheads with the Fiji government.

But the water is still there in its “virgin ecosystem”, and no doubt some arrangement will be made to get it to an eager and naive army of consumers.

(Evian is naive spelled backwards, as some clever wag pointed out.)

In South Africa, the demand for bottled water continues unabated, attracting some heavyweight players, such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé, to the water bowl. Millions of people drink it every day, seduced by the idea that it is better for us than the stuff that comes out of our taps (which isn’t true).

Of course there is also the ­irresistible “fashion” side to bottled water.

Young and slick, fresh out of the gym, clutching the keys to the BMW in one hand and a bottle of the most expensive water we can afford in the other.

A company executive recently told me: “I get so upset when they bring a bottle of Valpré to the ­table, when what I really want is a premium product.”
Why? Well, it is all about branding, that magical and elusive ingredient in the bottled water craze.

Charles Revson of Revlon once said: “We don’t sell cosmetics; we sell hope.”

The same applies to bottled water. We hope it will improve our image while at the same time ­improving our health – a win-win situation, at least on the surface.

The market here is growing at a phenomenal 20% per year, making the stakes really high. Sales in South Africa were R3 billion in 2009.

Some of the top imported brands – such as Perrier, Pure and ­Evian – sell at more than R30 a ­litre while petrol, which also has to be taken out of the earth and transported to our shores, sells at less than a third of that.

Local brands, sourced from springs and ­underground wells in the Karoo or Franschhoek, sell for R12.50. Adding flavour can up the price to a whopping R23 – and surely nullifies the sanctity of the product?

Let us also consider the effect and use of plastic bottles, a thorny and much-debated subject.

While they are recyclable, who is actually doing it? And how healthy can a bottle of water left in the car actually be?

What is the effect of heat on the contents interacting with the plastic?

If you must drink ­bottled water, make sure it is in glass, and don’t leave it in the sun.

Given the pros and cons, why not drink water from the tap and give yourself a pat on the back – that’s tap spelled backwards.

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