There hasn’t been this much drama on an island since the season finale of Survivor. Fiji Water, the bottled water brand seen in the hands of many a celebrity and anyone who can afford to pay 3 bucks for a few ounces of water, has become a major economic presence in Fiji since the company first started tapping an aquifer there twenty years ago. For decades, the owners, super rich L.A couple Lynda and Stewart Resnick, paid only one-third of a cent/liter in water extraction taxes. But last week the unstable Fijian government suddenly demanded a 15 cent/liter tax thus causing Fiji Water to shut down operations and fire hundreds of employees. Turns out it was a false alarm as just one day later the company re-opened, agreeing to pay the tax and continue business as usual.
Why is this important and should we be happy that this bottled water giant is up and running again?
As with every good drama, there are two sides to this story.
From an environmental perspective, the concept of bottled water is absurd. Especially in this case where Westerners do not drink their own perfectly healthy free water and instead pay gobs of money to have water shipped from around the world in a plastic bottle. Transporting water from the middle of Melanesia to the rest of the world unnecessarily causes pollution and the plastic used often goes un-recycled. Fiji Water’s mass extraction of ground water is an unsustainable business model because this water is an almost non-renewable resource. (I say almost because while groundwater is theoretically replaceable it would take centuries to replenish the supply.) And whose problem will it be once the fresh water is inevitably depleted? The rich will have gotten richer by that point and, as usual, it will be the poor who suffer.
Also, what are two millionaires from L.A doing bottling up all the potable water in a country where only 53% of the people have access to clean safe drinking water? Ironically, Americans who have never been to Fiji and probably couldn’t even point to it on a map have no trouble at all accessing Fiji’s water- all we have to do is walk into a grocery store. ISN’T SOMETHING WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
Ok, the proven environmental damage that the bottled water industry causes sounds bad. But how does firing 400 workers in one day and shutting down the industry that accounts for the country’s largest export sound? From a business point of view, the Fiji Water company creates jobs and jobs are good for the economy- you can’t argue with that. So while the ecological environment might suffer as a result of the bottled water industry, the people of Fiji seem to benefit, at least monetarily. For that reason, Fiji Water can also be a positive presence on the island in that it keeps people employed in the short term.
The drama in Fiji—a sinister concoction of environmental damage, an unstable government, and a powerful corporation– is nothing new; but knowing both sides helps us to make more informed decisions about the products we buy.