MEXICO CITY – It’s a simple warning – don’t drink the tap water – and Mexicans take it to heart as much as any foreign tourist does.
Mexicans drink more bottled water than the citizens of any other country do, an average of 61.8 gallons per person each year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., a consultancy. That’s far higher than Italy, and more than twice as much as in the United States.
A rising mistrust of tap water is behind the thirst for bottled water. Other factors are also at play, however, including clever advertising campaigns by multinational corporations and the failure of the Mexican government to provide timely data on water safety.
The boom in bottled water has an underside, too. Empty plastic water bottles litter landfills and roadsides at a rate that alarms consumer and environmental groups. Recycling experts say that only about one-eighth of the 21.3 million plastic water and soft drink bottles that are emptied each day in Mexico get recycled.
Mexicans weren’t always as distrustful of tap water as they are these days.
“Twenty years ago, there were drinking fountains in all the public schools and in most parks,” said Claudia Campero, a Mexico representative of Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group. Now, such fountains are rare.
Some municipal water systems in Mexico have fallen into disrepair, including in the capital, where a 1985 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people broke numerous water mains.
“The infrastructure is very old and obsolete. Even though there has been investment, it isn’t enough. Runoff is seeping into the water system,” said Octavio Rosas Landa, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
For years, many residents grew accustomed to boiling tap water to ensure its safety, but natural gas prices have risen, making boiling expensive.
Not all the water is bad. Some provincial cities have improved their water systems, and Environment Ministry officials say that 85 percent of the water coursing through municipal systems is potable. Consumers, however, don’t know when they might sip the other 15 percent. Many Mexicans simply don’t trust the government to deliver clean, pure water.
That’s where multinational companies with bottled water divisions – such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, France’s Groupe Danone and the Swiss giant Nestle – have found an opening.
“These companies tell people to have confidence in them rather than in the government,” Campero said.
One can hardly turn on the television without seeing an ad of a lithe young woman in a sweatsuit sipping from a bottle of premium water or a woman in a bikini whose svelte physique seems due to the bottle of water in her hand.
On street corners, vendors hawk liter bottles of water. Restaurants don’t offer tap water, insisting that diners buy bottled water. Primary school students must take money to buy bottled water from kiosks.
For big companies, the boom in bottled water consumption in developing countries such as Mexico, India, China and Indonesia has been a godsend, since consumers in Europe, a stronghold of bottled water, have rebelled against throwaway plastic bottles as harmful to the environment.
Not so in Mexico. Former President Vicente Fox, a longtime Coca-Cola executive, looked positively on rising soft drink and bottled water sales, seeing them as a driver of economic growth. Mexicans drink an average of 42.3 gallons of soft drinks per capita annually, surpassed only by U.S. consumers.
The growth of soft drink consumption is slowing in comparison with water, however.
The Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York City says Mexico’s bottled water market composes 13 percent of the world’s total, and has grown at 8 percent for each of the past five years.