Mexico’s Addiction to Costly Bottled Water Can Be Blamed on Government’s Failure to Provide and the Slick Ads of Multinationals

Tourists in Mexico take for granted that you can’t drink the tap water. Mexicans themselves are to an increasing degree of the same opinion.

Mexicans drink more bottled water than the citizens of any other country do, an average of 61.8 gallons per person each year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., a consultancy. That’s far higher than Italy, and more than twice as much as in the United States.

Part of the mistrust for tap water and the thirst for bottled water is fueled by clever advertising campaigns sponsored by multinational corporations. The Mexican government is also at fault for failing to sell tap water convincingly. Especially needed is credible evidence of water safety. National Geographic says, “High bottled water use [in Mexico] is a symptom of a failure of the government to provide.”

Now public drinking fountains in Mexico are as rare as pay phones in the United States. Unfortunately, the plastic bottle has become the standard delivery method for water as well as for soft drinks. Empty plastic water bottles litter landfills and roadsides at a rate that alarms consumer and environmental groups. Recycling experts say that only about one-eighth of the 21.3 million plastic water and soft drink bottles that are emptied each day in Mexico get recycled.

Many municipal water systems, which weren’t wonderful to begin with, have fallen into disrepair. Mexico City, for example, has not really restored its water system after the  great 1985 earthquake which killed 10,000 people and destroyed many water mains. The city siphons water from the underlying aquifer faster than rainfall can replenish it, causing the city, much of which is built on an ancient lake bed, to sink, putting additional stress on leaky water mains. Some 30 percent of the city’s water is lost to leakage.

For years, many residents grew accustomed to boiling tap water to ensure its safety, but natural gas prices have risen, making boiling expensive. Not all the water is bad. Some provincial cities have improved their water systems, and government officials say that 85 percent of the water passing through municipal systems is potable. Consumers, however, don’t know when they might sip the other 15 percent. Most Mexicans simply don’t trust the government to deliver clean, pure water.Distrust of the water system leaves Mexicans as an easy target for the advertising campaigns of multinational water venders like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, France’s Groupe Danone and the Swiss giant Nestle. Advertising is intense.  One can hardly turn on the television without seeing an ad of a lithe young woman in a sweatsuit sipping from a bottle of premium water or a woman in a bikini whose svelte physique seems due to the bottle of water in her hand.

Multinationals’ bottled water ads promise health, happiness, and a slender figure.

The ads are effective. Mexicans are second only the US in soft drink consumption, but they lead the US in bottled water consumption, with sales increasing at the rate of 8% per year. Ads encourage Mexicans to give the bottled water companies the trust that they don’t have in their government. Bottled water is ubiquitous. On street corners, vendors hawk liter bottles of water. Restaurants don’t offer tap water, insisting that diners buy bottled water. Primary school students must take money to buy bottled water from kiosks. One brand uses characters from Looney Toons to appeal to the student market.

The cost of bottled water is high. The average Mexican family spends about $140 a year on bottled water, much of it in 5-gallon plastic jugs that are commonly delivered to homes. The expense puts a heavy burden on low-income families. In impoverished neighborhoods in the outskirts of  Mexico City, scores of private water companies have popped up, offering large jugs of water for 10 pesos, or about 77 U.S. cents, a third of the price of water from the multinational companies. Such concerns face few inspections, giving consumers water of indeterminate quality.

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