China’s bottled water industry is encroaching on ecologically fragile areas such as the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Exploitation of the region’s glaciers could dry up many of Asia’s most important waterways, including the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.
China has become the world’s largest consumer of bottled water in the past two decades, writes Liu Hongqiao, an analyst at China Water Risk. It is also a major producer intent on tapping into a growing market. One region that the industry has set is sights on is the snow-capped peaks of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. By the end of last year, Tibet’s provincial government approved licenses for 28 companies to produce bottled water. Bottling activities are also growing rapidly in neighbouring provinces as companies bottle water directly from melting glaciers.
But as Hongqiao explains, the consequences of these activities could be devastating. The plateau is one of the most vulnerable places on the planet to climate change, and its glaciers have already shrunk 15 per cent over the past three decades. The result is that some of Asia’s most important waterways – which have their source in the plateau – are at risk of drying up. When combined with aggressive water bottling activities, the lives of billions of people in China and South Asia whose livelihoods are dependent on these rivers are threatened.
Hongqiao calls it unethical to withdraw water from protected areas where glaciers are already shrinking, especially as no environmental impact assessments have been conducted for the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. She also questions the logic of bottling water in a region where the central government has invested billions of yuan for climate adaptation and mitigation.
There are also concerns about the future of the bottled water industry. While demand for bottled water is still high, it could one day fall as the Chinese government invests in the public supply service and consumer awareness about the environmental costs of bottled water grows. “Consumers have a role to play and investors should rethink their strategies for bottled water, especially in Asia’s water tower,” writes Hongqiao.