28/06/2012 11:49 BST | Updated 28/06/2012 11:49 BST

Bottled Water in India: Rapid Growth at What Cost?

As a fundamental aspect of human life, drinking water is non-negotiable. In much of the Western world, choosing bottled water over tap is a matter of preference, for those who don't like the taste of their local tap water. However, in countries like India bottled water is more of a necessity than a choice, due to the lack of a readily available clean water supply. The bottled water market in India has exploded as a result, with an estimated 1 million bottles sold per day. Unfortunately this comes at a price, because the bottling industry has been stressing natural water resources and leaving a mountain of waste in its wake.

Factors Leading to Current Growth

There are millions of Indians in rural and urban areas alike without regular access to clean, sanitary drinking water. Even in Mumbai, residents in some districts only receive access to tap water for two hours out of the day, and this period of time decreases as you go out into more rural areas. This has caused a high demand throughout the country for bottled water as a solution, for those who can afford it. The price of daily bottled water can add up. A more suitable investment for the future may be installing home filtration systems, such as Bibo home water coolers which are now available in the UK.

Although the global economy has been unsteady at best in recent years, the Indian economy continues to improve, growing at a slow but steady pace. This has been attracting international investors and increasing the amount of disposable income that the growing middle class has to play with. Foreign investment in India grew in 2011 at a rate of nearly 50% from the year before. While for many Indians bottled water is seen more as a matter of necessity for those who want an adequate hygienic drinking supply, for others it is now also becoming more of a lifestyle choice or status symbol.

Top Bottled Water Providers

Private traders provide a quasi-subscription service to households with the delivery of drinking water in large, reusable plastic containers. It's also possible to buy bottled water virtually anywhere in the country, from the top three providers. Parle Bisleri is the leading contender in the market, occupying 39% of the market share in 2010. PepsiCo comes in second with its international Aquafina brand, and Coca-Cola ranks third.

Depletion of Water Resources and Environmental Impact

The main source of water for these industry leaders is groundwater. However, this is also the source of water for most of the communities in India, leading to tension between the bottling plants and the local communities. This has stressed local resources, particularly in areas with bottling plants that are prone to drought, such as the state of Rajasthan. India's Ministry of Water Resources has rated 80% of the groundwater in Rajasthan as "over-exploited." Further tension has arisen over environmental damage caused by the bottling plants themselves. A lawsuit was filed against the Coca-Cola Company by the Indian state of Kerala in 2011, for water contamination and soil degradation.

Meanwhile, plastic bottles continue to pile up in landfills and oceans, with the bottled water industry causing 1.5 million tons of plastic waste annually according to the Sierra Club.

Prospects for the Future

The bottled water industry in India is expected to continue experiencing rapid growth in the future, because demand remains high for clean sources of drinking water. The growth rate is estimated to climb at an average of 30% for the next five years. With this growth may also come an increase in sales of flavoured bottled waters, as major players such as Bisleri continue to produce new products of this nature.

Yet as the industry grows, the environmental damage of bottling plants should not be discounted. Ideally a more efficient infrastructure would be able to provide more households with clean tap water. Alternative filtration methods such as home water dispensers may also be considered to help lessen the impact of the massive footprint that bottled water is leaving in India, as well as on a global level.