Bottlemania: even-handed and engrossing look at today's water-wars

Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It is a balanced, nuanced, entertaining and vastly informative look at the crisis of water -- bottled and tap -- in the USA. Bottlemania asks the big questions about whether water ought to be privatized, takes a penetrating look at the fraught local politics that gives bottled water companies rights to extract a town's vital water and ship it elsewhere, and presents a compelling critique of the sustainability of letting the rich buy their way out of failures in public resources like water. She looks into the campaigns by water companies to "educate" restaurant servers about the fortunes in tips to be had by flattering their customers into buying bottled. The book also does a good job of discussing the amazing local water supplies that come out of the taps in many American cities, absolutely free.

At the same time, the book is not afraid to look at some of the serious problems facing municipal water supplies. The EPA have been negligent in setting and enforcing standards, little-understood bacterial films and hormones and pharmaceutical excretia present compelling health threats, as do arsenic and carcinogenic purification by-products. It's worse where cities don't own the land around their water-reservoirs, where agribusiness and other water users can add expensive- (or impossible-)to-remove toxins to the water.

Royte doesn't leave us with any easy answers, but she frames the debate we should be having about water, going into detail on the missing testing and enforcement regimes, the need to recycle more waste-water (water in New Orleans has already been filtered through 50% of the population in the USA!) and to internalize the environmental costs of private pumping aquifers.

Water wars have been with us for all of human history -- the word "rival" comes from a Latin word meaning "one who uses the same stream as another." But today's water wars have higher stakes than ever before: we're now fighting over a substantial fraction of all of Earth's freshwater. Bottlemania is a hell of a look into the future of that fight. Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It


  1. Sadly, here’s one reason I buy bottled water:

    (Everywhere I have ever lived has had perchlorate in the ground water, thanks to the U.S. Military, biggest polluter on planet Earth bar none.)

    Fluoride isn’t such a great idea either.

    But the big scary thing about the future of water isn’t its bottled-ness, it is that, if we aren’t vigilant, those corporate fvckers are going to privatize it.

    Years ago I heard a talk by Arundhati Roy about the “World Water Forum” — a group of big-hearted corporations want to make sure that everyone in the world has access to safe clean drinking water by privatizing it! Check out her book “Power Politics”.

    Want to fight back? Just be sure that the World Water Forum doesn’t get to put statements like this…

    “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

    …in their contracts, like some criminals I have read about who are stealing 700 billion dollars…

  2. Tap water isn’t free, at least in the city. I get a monthly water bill from the city. For most renters, though, their landlords pay it and include it in the rent.

    Of course, it’s still ridiculously cheap, especially compared to bottled.

  3. My philosophy is that since I grew up next to the Lawrence Livermore Lab, I’ve probably been exposed and (knock knock) inured to many many tap water problems. That is, whatever it is I’d be trying to avoid by drinking bottled water is already in me.

  4. The fact that we’re even aware of the problems with tap water is precisely because there is greater regulation on tap water than bottled water. Anyone who thinks they’re living healthier lives because they drink bottled water is deluding themselves.

  5. To jump on the linkin’ bandwagon, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Boston Review’s wonky, detailed piece on water by Frank Rijsberman of

    Rijsberman’s points out that worldwide, it’s mismanagement, and not really shortage, that’s the issue. But boy, does it make water in a bottle look like a crazy luxury.

    (Full disc.– I work for BR)

  6. I paid for tap water as a renter for the past seven years. I own a house now, and I actually pay a little less than I did as a renter. But it isn’t free by a long shot. It’s at least a dollar a day.

  7. But, but, but..Secret_Life_of_Plants, how do you know that the bottled water, which is either

    1) ground water
    2) tap water

    doesn’t have perk or other chemicals in it, notably bisphenol-A? There are next to no standards for bottled water quality.

    And no, all those empty plastic bottles don’t pollute, eh? No, they don’t…

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