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Bottling Tibet’s water could be bad for the region’s environment

February 1, 2016

The Economist, January 30, 2016 - China is so vast, it quickly becomes the largest market for almost anything it consumes. Such is the case with bottled water. Chinese drink 40 billion litres (70 billion pints) of the stuff each year, up over 13-fold since 1998. That growth has a long way to go if China ever consumes as much per person as Mexico (see chart). But finding clean supplies is difficult; rivers, lakes and even groundwater in China are often foul. Hence the huge demand for a seemingly inexhaustible source of pristine water that is cheap to extract, sells at a premium and can now, thanks to massive investment in infrastructure, be taken to coastal cities: Tibetan glaciers.

Tibet already sells Qomolangma Glacier water, named after the Tibetan word for Mount Everest. Last year Sinopec, a state-owned energy group, put another brand on sale at its petrol stations: Tibet 5100. It is bottled 5,100 metres (16,700 feet) up in the Nyenchen Tanglha range. The Tibetan government has licensed 28 more companies to increase the province’s bottling capacity 50-fold by 2020.

Assuming companies do not mine the glacier ice itself, they will bottle only the meltwater that flows out of glaciers in summer. It is true that Himalayan glaciers on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau have retreated over the past 30 years by about 15%. But this is because of climate change. Bottling will not cause them to lose mass any quicker.

Nor will the bottled-water industry have much impact on the volume of water that flows from Tibet—a crucial source for neighbouring countries as well as China itself. About 1 billion people depend on the giant rivers—the Yellow river, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Ganges, the Yangzi, the Mekong and the Salween—that rise in the Himalayas, a region with the largest reserves of fresh water after the north and south poles. The manufacturing of bottled water consumes three times more water than ends up being sold. Yet even the projected expansion of Tibet’s bottled-water output would amount to only a tiny fraction of the region’s runoff.

More worrying is the possible threat that the industry will pose to the Tibetan environment. China has an atrocious record of looking after its pristine areas. Liu Hongqiao of China Water Risk, an NGO, says no water company has published any environmental-impact study in Tibet. The bottling industry may spawn other, heavy-polluting ones, on the plateau, for the production of bottles and the plastic they use.

Tibet’s government is bribing bottlers with tax cuts, tax holidays and cheap loans. It charges companies only 3 yuan (50 cents) to extract a cubic metre of water, compared with up to 50 yuan elsewhere. But the government in Beijing may have other plans. Alarmed by water scarcity, it wants to reduce groundwater extraction. It has plans for a nationwide cap in 2020 and wants all provinces—even water-rich ones like Tibet—to set quotas for water use. This may make Tibet’s policies unsustainable (which may be no bad thing). In Jilin province in the north-east, the local government had even more ambitious plans than Tibet’s for ramping up mineral-water production. But it was forced to cut them by half because of mandated quotas. Bubbles, it seems, are an integral part of China’s bottled-water business.

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