The ‘Blue Gold’ Rush in Tibet

Earlier in October, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China released a 10-year plan to spur the companies across the country to invest in bottled water industry by tapping the Himalayan glaciers in Tibet’s already environmentally sensitive region, according a recent report. Tibet is embracing its new ‘blue gold’ rush era.

Qomolangma glacier water (source: inhabitat)

The government’s target is to reach a bottled water production capacity of 5 million cubic meters per year by 2020 according to a report, although the glaciers are melting at the rate of 4 to 8 meters every year – the glacier melting is measured in loss of length. This is just the start of the ‘blue gold’ rush–more and more companies want to enter this market, including pharmaceutical, confectionery and petroleum firms. The TAR government signed 16 agreements with various investors, totaling 2.6 billion yuan (US $409 million), including state-owned oil producer Sinopec, the second-largest food manufacturing company Bright Food Group and the state-owned power company Three Gorges Group.

Tibet is considered by many to be one of the last sacred places on land, because of its remoteness, uniqueness and purity. For Tibetans, water is not only important for daily use and livelihoods.  It also holds religious significance. Every year, they hang many new prayer flags around water temples, hoping for sufficient water supplies. To show respect for the local deities and other spirits that govern water, they treat water with gratefulness and respect. However, China is now the world’s largest bottled water consumer and a major producer, according to a study from China Water Risk. With the boom of China’s bottle water industry, companies have been eyeing up Tibet’s glacier resources for a long time and ready to start their ‘blue gold’ rush journey.

Tibet 5100 bottled water (source: Marketing China)

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is known as Asia’s water tower and provides a lifeline for China and other parts of Asia, and it has become a hotspot for new firms. By 2014, the government has approved 28 licenses for companies to produce bottled water in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It has attracted companies such as Kunlun Mountain Glacier Water, Tibet 5100 and Qomolangma Glacier Water, which produce bottled glacier water, sold at high prices. The appeal of what is considered the purest water on earth matches current demand well. One of the advertisements of Tibet 5100 water says, “the water is sourced from a unique glacier spring at 5,100 meters above sea level, one of the world’s most remote, pristine and untraversed location.” In 2010, according to the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) State of Environment Report indicated that 40.1% of China’s rivers were unfit for human contact (Grade IV-V+) and 57.2% of the monitored groundwater was rated as badly or very badly polluted. Under such circumstances, many Chinese households drink bottled water, and only 59% drink tap water according to a survey done in 2014.

Tibet 5100 production line (source: thedailyeye)

Tibet is among the most vulnerable place to climate change. Glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau have already shrunk 15% over the past three decades, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. With the continuing trends of global warming, the risks of further glacier retreat are severe. The bottled water industry thus faces an uncertain future, and it will increasingly compete with other groups in Tibetan society that use water for domestic purposes and other, long-established livelihoods. The challenge to find the balance between the economic growth and environmental stability is at stake for Tibet.

To access to the full study report, please click here.

 

 

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Icelandic Richard Branson touts pure water, but at a cost

Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)
Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)

Icelandic businessman Jón Ólafsson has some bottled water he wants you to try that’s as clear as can be.

In 2003, when Ólafsson owned 85 percent of all the music recorded in Iceland, he decided to call it quits from his telecom and media empire and try something new. Providing what might be one of the only links between music and bottled water, Ólafsson started Icelandic Glacial, a premium brand of mineral water that has found an audience in Hollywood and caught the eye of Christian Dior, all of which earned him the nickname the “Icelandic Richard Branson.”

Bottles of Icelandic Glacier water have found their way into TV shows like “Dexter” and the “Big Bang Theory“. In 2012, the bottled water company partnered with Christian Dior to include the water in a line of skin-lightening Diorsnow beauty products available in Asia. Earlier this year, Whole Foods announced the brand could now be found in its supermarkets.

Icelandic Glacial water doesn't come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)
Icelandic Glacial water doesn’t come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)

Of course, part of the challenge of selling bottled water is you are trying to get people to buy something they can get practically for free. Icelandic Glacier’s marketing revolves around its purported purity; the water comes from the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland that is made up of snow and rainwater that, according to Ólafsson, “goes through lava and takes between 400 and 600 years to reach the river.” In other words, not from a glacier at all, though this is hardly surprising. Some bottled water companies simply use water from municipal supplies.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he said Icelandic Glacier water is “the purest, best, cleanest water there is.” These words show an understanding of different ideas about water. Though scientists can document that distilled water is purer than water from other sources, the strong association of water with nature causes water from remote settings to seem better. And what could be more natural than a glacier from an island like Iceland? The company’s website describes the country as “magical and remarkably pristine.”  Ólafsson may have had some assistance in selecting these adjectives. “Our distinguished partners at Team One captured the essence of Iceland and we’re confident it will be embraced by consumers around the globe,” he said, referring to the advertising group he worked with, a branch of the global advertising giant Saatchi and Sattchi.

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Ólafsson has said in interviews that his water contains a pH of 8.4, which helps the body balance out acidic, low pH drinks like coffee and alcohol. While the alkaline diet has been touted as a way to combat disease and promote health, there have been limited scientific studies to test the validity of these claims.

The company’s website states “We take great pride in running a completely sustainable operation, fueled entirely by geothermal and hydroelectric power.” And it received a “CarbonNeutral” certification from the CarbonNeutral Company, a UK-based consulting group that helps businesses cut carbon emissions through the use of carbon offsets. Offsets themselves are not necessarily reductions in greenhouse gases themselves, but “credits” that can be purchased in projects that reduce such gasses. Nonetheless, the company’s operations pose direct threats to sustainability by encouraging the use of plastic bottles and by promoting long-distance shipping.

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Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial shipped 42 tons of bottled water to aid in the relief effort. (photo: Icelandnaturally.com

Of course, Ólafsson’s company is hardly the first to use the cachet of a remote island setting to promote the claim of purity and naturalness in order to market water. Fiji Water bottles its water in the tiny South Pacific nation and ships it all over the world. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial water shipped 42 tons of its water to the country. Again the water’s purity and “green energy” were touted as solutions to Haiti’s humanitarian crisis. One wonders if shipping tiny plastic bottles a distance of 4000 miles to Haiti was an effective way to address the problem of providing clean water after that emergency.

You can read here about a Canadian company that does use actual glacier ice in its vodka.

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