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How we consume our water matters

By Staff | May 11, 2017

Cool, clean, crisp water. The secret to sustenance. The essential elixir. H20. Our thirst is never quenched, from the cradle to the grave. But in a lifetime of drinking, how will we consume our water?

The answer matters.

In West Maui in 2017, we benefit from a modern marvel of engineering: plumbing. We can catch our water in reservoirs in the mountains or on our rooftops, pipe it into personal water tanks, and stream it through faucets in our bathrooms, kitchens and yards.

With a mere turn of a nozzle (and of course a payment to the water utility), out splashes temperature-controlled, potable, abundant water. For some of us (including me), faucet water is directly drinkable. I like it fast and furious, so I just fill my cup from the tap and gulp.

For those with more discriminating palettes (my wife), a simple water purifier or Brita can filter out some of the metals, additives and unknowns present in tap water.

This convenient access to clean, drinkable water is an unattainable luxury in much of the world. In virtually all of the developing world (India, China, Africa, South America), clean tap water eludes people, in large part because the water table is contaminated by agricultural and industrial pollutants, and because the plumbing infrastructure isn’t sufficiently clean or reliable.

For billions of people, acquiring water means catching it from the sky, digging a well, transporting it from a river, or buying it in jugs and bottles, and then cleaning it through iodine tablets, boiling or water filters.

Most of us in America face a simpler dilemma. Drink the water from our taps, or buy bottled water. To many, this may seem like a meaningless, uncomplicated choice. Why shouldn’t I just buy what I want when I want, if I’m willing to pay the money?

And so it goes. The water industry, led by beverage conglomerates like Coca-Cola, has created a line of products that has inundated the market, and consumers, often feeling like they are making healthier choices by drinking water instead of sugary drinks, even feel like they’re “going green.”

In a place where potable tap water is a viable option, there is nothing at all about the bottled water industry that is green. Let’s consider. On the top shelf, luxury water is being bottled in places like the French Alps and Scandinavia, shipped thousands of miles across the world, driven to a grocery store, purchased, consumed in five minutes, and then the container is thrown away. Likely that container is a single-use plastic made of petroleum that will need to be downcycled or trashed. This entire process emits carbon dioxide throughout.

Even if the water is coming from closer, like California, Fiji or Hawaii, there are still bottling, production, distribution and disposal processes that consume energy and emit carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas.

If our planet weren’t hot and crowded, and if bottled water didn’t make the planet dirtier and hotter, then our consumption of bottled water wouldn’t matter. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in the actual world, where actions have consequences, and chemical compounds trap heat inside our atmosphere.

The problem isn’t limited to our individual consumer habits. As our leaders design our parks, beach facilities, shopping centers and businesses, we are failing in planning adequately for a healthy water distribution culture.

I was shocked and saddened recently to discover no water bottle filling stations, and not even drinking fountains, at the Shops in Wailea. If the most expensive retail space on the island can’t include clean water in their plans, what does that say about us as a people?

More dismaying is that after a multi-million dollar renovation of Kahului Airport, there are no water bottle filling stations. These same stations exist at Lihue and Honolulu International airports. Why on earth weren’t they included on Maui Nei?

On a Babymoon in Aotearoa (New Zealand) years ago, my wife and I were so impressed with the abundance of water filling stations. At airports, parks, beaches and everywhere else, the Kiwis had installed fountains with clean, clear, abundant water.

For Maui, the most famous island in the world, part of the richest nation ever to exist, we have the privilege and opportunity to set an example, to model the actions that will make a better world.

The solutions are simple. Buy and re-use your own water bottle. Don’t buy bottled water. Advocate for more filling stations. And fund these stations with a state tax on bottled water, which essentially accounts for the continuing environmental damage, local and international, wrought by our obsession with convenience.

Now, how about a glass of water?