We’ve reached peak bottled water. From today, for a sweet £80, Harrods will sell ‘luxury water’ harvested from icebergs off the coast of Svalbard.
Svalbarði is the brainchild of Jamal Qureshi, a Norwegian-American Wall Street businessman who visited the archipelago in 2013, and returned with melted iceberg water as a gift for his wife. He then, it seems, decided to bring this water to more people.
Astonishingly, the governor of Svalbard has approved Qureshi’s venture. He charters an icebreaker to make two expeditions a year, in the summer and the autumn when icebergs calve away from glaciers that run into the sea. One-tonne pieces of ice are carved from these floating bergs at a time. Using a crane and a net, they are lifted onto the boat and taken to Longyearbyen to be melted down into bottles of “polar iceberg water” which has has “the taste of snow in air”. On each expedition, Qureshi plans to harvest 15 tonnes of ice to produce 13,000 bottles.
The environmental sustainability of the venture is the first concern of many people, Qureshi told the Guardian. “But we’re carbon neutral certified, and we’re supporting renewable energy projects in East Africa and China,” he said. “We also only take icebergs that are already floating in the water and would usually melt in a few weeks, and that can’t be used for hunting [by polar bears].”
Some may argue that if you can afford to drink melted ice caps, who should stop you? Your money, your choice. Depleting 30 tonnes of iceberg a year is, arguably, not that much in the grand scheme of things. But Qureshi’s venture is not the first of its kind. Tibet has already approved licences for dozens of companies to tap Himalayan glaciers for ‘premium’ bottled drinking water. Ten major rivers that flow into South Asia depend on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Disrupting their source could have devastating impacts for water security across the region.
And this is not the only problem. First, sea ice is already melting. The extent of Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest record last year and scientists have warned this could have devastating impacts across the rest of the world, such as shifts in snow distribution that warm the ocean and change climate patterns as far as Asia, as well as the collapse of key Arctic fisheries, which could impact other ocean ecosystems. Icebergs don’t need yet more human interference – no matter how small the scale – to speed up the melting process.
Second, the bottled water industry is already giving us enough of a headache. It is estimated that 3l of water are need to produce just one 1l plastic bottle of water, which is more likely to be discarded and end up in landfill than recycled. Beside the fact that our planet is slowly silting up with plastic, it also takes huge amounts of fossil fuels to make water bottles – plastic or glass – and transport them around the world. In the US, for example, 1.5 million barrels of oil are needed per year to meet the demand of the country’s water bottle manufacturing.
But surely the most problematic aspect of this product is the sheer insensitivity of exploiting one of the world’s last wildernesses, and charging such a high price for its product? This, while 663 million people currently live without safe water. Consider the extremes: one person pays £80 to drink water, never before touched by humans and preserved by micron filters and UV light, while another – one of 159 million – depends on surface water, vulnerable to contamination by faeces, parasites, pesticides and more. The emergence of luxury water is just another ugly indicator of our world’s many inequalities.
For so many of the things we buy, there is a flashier, pricier, more luxurious alternative for those who can afford it. Why travel in economy if you could travel first class? Why buy from the high-street when you could buy designer clothing ? Water, it seems, is just the next in a list to receive this divisive treatment; why, if you live somewhere it is clean and safe, drink water from a tap when you could drink bottled water from “pristine peaks”, “artesian aquifers” and now “from the top of the world”?
The wheels are in motion. Precedents have been set. Will more wealthy entrepreneurs now eye up other precious natural resources to create yet another “must-have” item?
We already live beyond our means. Our lifestyle choices see us using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we consume, and absorb what we throw away. At such a time, Svalbarði seems insensitive, ignorant and irresponsible. It’s time to live sustainably and consume responsibly, not promote mindless habits just because some people can afford it.
For some time, water has been thought of as a commodity, and even the former UN special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation believes it doesn’t have to be free. But something so precious, so essential to all life – human, animal and mineral – should never be marketed as a luxury.
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