September 27, 2012

Water

Most of us in the West take water for granted. When I was growing up, I don't recall ever hearing about droughts, hosepipe bans, or rationing. Neither do I remember seeing bottled water, except in spas or highly overpriced restaurants. Britain was the country of rain, and Manchester (where I was born) was the rainiest place in the UK. So I always thought it strange that we Jews kept on praying for rain. Even when my father gently explained that we were praying for rain in Israel, it didn’t really sink in (which pun reminds me that as much as 50% of water supplied through urban water systems gets lost through leaks and sinks into the earth).

Nowadays water has become big news, as the human population increases while at the same time the world is getting hotter and the major sources of water, the artic poles, are shrinking. According to United Nations statistics, 3.4 million human beings die each year from water related diseases. (I know, who trusts the UN? But that’s when it comes to politics or human rights, some of their agencies do a better job on statistics.) One billion do not have access to clean water. One child dies from a water-related illness every 21 seconds. Only 10% of wastewater gets treated. The rest runs off into lakes, rivers, and oceans. Rachel Carson warned us in the 50s and 60s about the evil we were doing to nature, but we only half listened. We still needed Erin Brockovich in the 90s to sue contaminating companies and confirm that industry still pours millions of tons of poison into the earth’s waters. And it doesn’t help that 2.5 billion humans do not have access to toilets, so guess where most of their waste ends up.

U.S. tap water is apparently some of the cleanest on Earth, generally safe from the microbes and chemicals that have plagued water supplies for millennia. While much of the planet relies on polluted drinking water, Americans can fill a glass without fear of cryptosporidium, chromium, or chlordane. The Safe Drinking Water Act supposedly controls the standards and criteria for clean water, but it's far from perfect and bureaucracy and big money often get in the way.

All New York water is treated with chlorine, fluoride, orthophosphate, and in some cases sodium hydroxide. Fluoride is added to strengthen teeth. Chlorine disinfests, and others additives are to counteract corrosion in the pipes and other contaminants. In the UK, for many years, the national water supply has had fluoride and chlorine. Water remains safe to drink right up to your tap (assuming your pipes are not lead, of course).

At the same time, bottled water has become a trillion dollar industry. But why do so many people in the rich world pay inflated sums for bottled water every week when perfectly good water flows out of every tap (or faucet) in the house? It’s all the more amazing since 40% of all bottled water is actually taken from municipal water sources, and I’ve been happily drinking tap water all my life. Bottled water companies are literally bottling up the same water that comes out of the tap then inflating the cost and laughing all the way to the bank.

One of the biggest reasons people buy and drink bottled water is because they think it’s cleaner than tap water. But it isn’t. Also disturbing is the fact that far less testing is done on bottled water than on tap water. It turns out that unlike tap water, bottled water isn’t tested for E. coli. And it can be distributed even if it doesn’t meet the quality standards of tap water. Unlike tap water, bottled water isn’t required to produce quality reports or even provide its source. Some consumers think the taste is better, but controlled tests consistently show that most people cannot tell the difference. I concede that around the world not all tap water tastes the same—still, neither is it all undrinkable.

Not only, but parents are doing their children a disservice by giving them bottled water instead if tap water because the fluoride in tap water does indeed strengthen teeth and prevent cavities. Unless they are Americans, who seem to be in love with popping pills (which they call dietary supplements!) of every imaginable kind and so don’t mind throwing in a few fluoride ones too. Until municipal water companies in Britain began adding fluoride to water supplies in the 1960s, children usually had a mouthful of cavities by the time they reached adolescence. But that trend soon began to change, and dentists celebrated fluoride as one of the century's great health achievements.

Sukot is the festival of water above all else. The Sukah itself, which was originally used to protect from the sun, now reminds us that the summer is over and the rainy season is about to begin. The Four Plants we take and shake are dependent on water in different ways and to different degrees. The Rejoicing over the Temple Well House, which was instituted by the prophets, revolves around the pouring out of water in the hope that Heaven will replenish the supply, and of course we begin the prayers for winter rains in Israel. And believe you me, Israel needs all our prayers for rain.

Just as during the Days of Awe we are encouraged to think about our human lives and assess ourselves to see if we are on the right track, so during Sukot we examine our relationship to nature. I suggest we need to challenge ourselves. Do we really need to waste all that money on bottled water that could better be spent on charity and helping those who have far, far less than we do? Perhaps it is time to stop fooling ourselves about our water consumption, as we need to stop fooling ourselves about how good we think we are. The considered life, my friends, also includes asking whether we shouldn’t stop contributing to the balance sheets of drink companies who fool us into thinking their water is healthier than "ours".

8 Comments:

At 5:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bottled water has bothered me for years. Not only is it an extraordinary rip-off, a suspension of reality in favour of advertorial fantasy, but it knows no bounds.

Some years ago a programme on British TV compared a number of different bottled waters on various counts. The winner was an unknown company whose manufacturing facility they visited, in Manchester if I recall correctly! The cameras showed what looked like a Victorian industrial washroom with endless troughs fed by rows of water taps which rows of people were using to fill the bottles to be sold as "mineral" water! Straight from the mains supply!

I once came across water from the southern shores of Lake Geneva being sold in tiny bottles fitted with a spray top (like eau de Cologne) for ladies to spray their face with. The price of this same mineral water was ten times higher than the bottled variety!

Nowadays, we have sports drinks, recently also shown up on TV. Simple formula here too: Plain water with a little of the two substances we are tediously and endlessly told to avoid (in between adverts urging consumption) - salt and sugar. The cost? Even more than "mineral" water!

There is a great film with Billy Connolly and Leonard Rossiter from way back, called Water, which sends up the idea of bottled water and shows the very funny epiphany of a Texan oil man when he realises that he can earn more from selling water than from selling oil!

Finally, when I listen to the cultural East vs West battles pitting western progress versus religious fundamentalism, I do sometimes see the point missed by both sides, namely that if you have within your culture a reliable means of dispersing and controlling information and aspirations far and wide, the chances are that it will be misused in the name of the profit.

In other words, thanks to a form of hypnosis aka advertising, with the right spray dispenser and the right packaging, much money can be extracted from the gullible. Whether the brand you have chosen to worship is Coke or the Moonies, just beware! Not only is Big Brother watching you like a hawk, he's also taking your money and laughing all the way to the bank. JY

 
At 8:38 AM , Anonymous Shoshi said...

I would have to write an entire essay of my own to explain why I think it is absurd to try to justify what is basically a prejudice against bottled water. If the campaign against drinking bottled water expects to have any integrity, then people must also stop buying bottled soft drinks, since they are also made primarily from municipal water supplies, and are also not subject to the purity standards of tap water.

However, I do think it is vitally important for people to recognize the devastating effects that lack of clean water has on millions of people around the world, and for those who can to DO somethig to help. There are a number of organizations that work to provide access to clean water in undeveloped areas. One I like is:

www.charitywater.org/

 
At 12:14 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Anonymous:
Good for you! The fact is that in our free society there is always a counter argument, for the death penalty, for guns, against global warming you name it. There was/is a great documentary called "Tapped" about the negative aspect of bottled water, worth watching but conspiracy theories abound. Thats what freedom of expression allows for. And I agree there are lots of other dangers in our processed foods and drinks too. On the other hand latest information suggests that 'organnic' food isnt all its cracked up to be. Seems to me that Big Business, Big Bucks is whats really at work here. Fortunately many of us can make up our own minds.
Jeremy

 
At 12:14 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Shoshi:
Indeed I started my blog by pointing out that very thing about the shortage of potable water etc etc and picking on water doesnt mean there arent other targets too! Thanks for your suggestion!!!
J

 
At 2:51 PM , Anonymous Adam said...

> U.S. tap water is apparently some of the cleanest
> on Earth
> .
> .
> All New York water is treated with ...

But doesn't tap-water in the US/New York need a kashrut
certificate certifying the water free of forbidden insects?

 
At 6:54 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Adam:
As does New York air!!!!!!
J

 
At 6:11 AM , Anonymous Richard Parker said...

Life without water is impossible. We are facing water crisis because of increase in population. But I think that drinking tap water directly may cause problems. So it is better if we boil that water and use it for drinking.

 
At 4:31 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Thanks for your advice but during Sandy after some sewage seepage, people were advised that boiling water was not enough. What's your opinion?
J

 

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