Much has been written about the ills of bottled water. About the ugly plastic waste it generates. About the massive price difference between a bottle of mineral water and a bottle of tapwater when the quality is often not very different. About how plastic is landing up in fish, in the stomachs of cows and other animals that humans eat. And yet, the peddling of water in plastic bottles continues unabated.
But recently, an entirely new milestone of senselessness was reached. A project to bottle the water of Manasarovar, one of the world’s highest freshwater lakes located in Tibet was revealed. The news was tucked insignificantly in the midst of other announcements related to Prime Minister Modi’s much publicized trip to China.
The Tibetan plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world. Monikers such as “Roof of the World”, “Water Tower of Asia”, “The Third Pole” and the “Barometer of Asia” indicate the significance of the region. Many of the mighty rivers of Asia such as the Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Indus and Karnali (or Ghagara), an important tributary of the Ganga originate in Tibet, close to Manasarovar. These rivers are the lifeblood of South Asia and have shaped entire civilizations. Even the famous Asian monsoon, on which depends the economy of the region, is generated and controlled by the Tibetan plateau.
Unfortunately, the forces of climate change and environmental degradation have rendered the Himalayan region very fragile. Melting of glaciers, degradation of permafrost layers, shrinking of lakes and drying of wetlands are clearly visible. Unchecked mining operations aided by the building of the Qingai-Tibet Railway are inflicting severe damage on the region and are highly resented by the locals. Half the world’s population is threatened by the current trend of environmental disturbances.
In the midst of all this comes the unsettling news of a bottling plant with a religious spin to it. The lady behind it is Shanghai-based Vaishali Midha, wife of Amit Midha, the Asia-Pacific chief of computer manufacturing company Dell. Announcing excitedly to the press on May 16 that bottles of water from the Manasarovar would be sold in India from October 2015, she said the bottle caps would be made of the holy beads called rudraksha, which are associated with Shiva. “Not everyone can make the journey to Mansaarovar, so we would like to bring its water to them,” she gushed. “We will also include a scroll of verses to be chanted in order to pay homage to God Shiva,” she added.
By now, it is common knowledge that plastic bottles used for bottling water are causing enormous environmental damage all over the world. Not only is fossil fuel being used in its manufacturing process but the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used to make bottles is not biodegradable. Most bottles are not being recycled in any useful manner and are being thrown away to often form unsightly mountains of garbage. Plastic pollutes waterways, contaminates soil, and sickens animals (which are often eaten by humans). According to a UNEP-IUCN report, over 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of ocean today.
In India, a bottle of mineral water costs about Rs 20 (US$ 0.30) on an average. But the holy water from Manasarovar will be priced at Rs 80 (US$1.25) per bottle. There are some other expensive brands in the market, which claim to offer Himalayan spring water enriched with minerals. But, as in the rest of the world, quality of bottled water is not regulated or held to the standards that tapwater is. In many cases, manufacturers were found to be packaging municipal water in their bottles.
There is no dearth of bottled water plants in India and China. Why then is there a need for yet another one in an ecologically fragile area like Tibet?
Most importantly, the Manasarovar is not your average freshwater lake in some mountain. For Hindus and Buddhists, the lake is sacred and a part of folklore as well as history from ancient times. It is located close to Mount Kailash, which is said to be the abode of Shiva. Tranquil and awe-inspiring, the mountainous environs of the lake are said to make even the not-so-religious feel humbled by the presence of a higher power.
The pilgrimage to Manasarovar, which can be reached only after an arduous trek through the Himalayas, is not for the weak or faint-hearted. The waters of the lake are the hard-earned reward for those who accomplish the journey. Pilgrims who take a dip in Manasarovar believe they are absolved of their sins.
Bottling such water for commercial purposes makes a mockery of the very god in whose name the water will be sold. The bottles with Shiva’s teachings will only end up in garbage heaps. “How can we kill our rivers by making the water unfit for consumption, and then consume packaged plastic-wrapped spirituality?” questions Chitra Raman, an Indian-origin writer based in Michigan.
The world does not need more plants to bottle water. But it urgently needs to sustainably upgrade municipal water and wastewater infrastructure of cities and towns. 750 million people in the world lack access to safe water. 2.4 billion lack adequate sanitation. At the same time, millions of litres of water are being lost through leaks and thefts from pipelines during the process of delivery worldwide. Preventing those leaks and thefts with better technologies and management could increase water supply even without tapping new resources. Better sanitation would help to improve people’s health as well as prevent pollution of land and water.
Service providers need to focus their energies on improving the quality of tapwater and supplying it round the clock, while also recovering costs. They need to find ways to treat and recycle used water as well as to generate energy from waste.
Today, global activists are engaging with religious leaders of the world to emphasize a sacred duty to protect the environment. But, an understanding of the interconnectedness of nature is already intrinsic to both Hinduism and Buddhism. One common morning prayer in Sanskrit that has come down from the ancient times includes a verse asking for forgiveness for walking over ‘Mother Earth’. The Manasarovar bottling project goes totally against the principles of environmental preservation highlighted in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. It must be opposed strongly.