29th July 2014

Should restaurateurs charge for tap water?

Sitting in her north London restaurant, Juliette Banner pours herself a glass of what is probably the most expensive tap water in the world.

Thames Water charges the Crouch End restaurateur less than a tenth of a penny for each litre it pipes, or about 0.02p per glass. Yet, for the past three years, Banner has been asking her customers to cough up 15p per glass, an astonishing mark-up of almost 75,000 per cent that would, if slapped on wine, cause a riot in even the most refined Chelsea restaurant.

The difference is that Banners, a low-key bistro where no two chairs are the same and whose patrons include the musicians, artists, and media types who dot this leafy corner of the capital, donates all the money it makes on tap water to WaterAid, a UK charity that helps some of the 1.1 billion people in the world for whom a glass of safe drinking water is just a dream.

Banner's brainchild has been so successful – more than 6,000 diners have so far donated more than £10,000 – WaterAid has taken on her initiative and is in talks with at least one major restaurant chain in the hope that, soon, all the country's food outlets will start offering water for small change that could make a big difference.

"It's outrageous that in the 21st century a sixth of the world's population can't get clean water," says WaterAid's fundraising chief, Alan Machin, who heads up the charity's Tap into WaterAid campaign. "If one restaurant in London can raise £10,000, a significant sum in the world's poorest nations, think what we could do as a country."

Banner, the former partner of the troubled radio presenter Andy Kershaw, was inspired by a growing consciousness that in the UK we take for granted easy access to tap water. But, concerned that customers might sniff at a charge for what she calls "one of the last free things in life", Banner sat on her bright idea. "People told me I was mad, and when I went round to other restaurants, and showed them information packs, it was like hitting my head against a brick wall," she recalls, "but I had a feeling that it would work."

And work it did. Banner slipped information sheets into her menus, whose pages bulge with exotic offerings such as Cambodian chicken skewers and Malaysian fish curry, and the pennies soon started piling up. "The response was fantastic," she gushes, "the customers were so tickled by it because it seems so cheeky to ask people to pay for tap water, but they loved it."
Banners still feeds and waters diners who prefer not to donate, and the restaurant continues to stock mineral water, but Banner says sales of bottled water are down. The news will delight campaigners who say our national obsession with packaged water – the industry is worth £2bn in the UK alone – is "morally indefensible".

Defra minister Phil Woolas invoked the ire of the bottled water industry by making the comments on the BBC's Panorama last month. But he is unrepentant: "I find it arrogant and in defiance of all logic that there are more than a billion people in the world who don't have access to safe water and yet, here we are with pure water on tap, buying the stuff in bottles. I'll say it again – it's morally indefensible."

Every day, we knock back some six million litres of bottled water in the UK – enough to fill almost two Olympic swimming pools. We pay an average 95p a litre, almost 1,000 times the price of the average litre of tap water. The industry, which has grown 200-fold in the past 40 years, produces 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year as firms ship in half a million bottles, the majority from France.

It was from across the Channel that we also imported the original fad for mineral water, which was scarcely available in the 1970s. Visitors to France would admire sophisticated Parisians sipping at water from elegantly crafted green bottles, and come home keen to buy into the chic way of life. Canny ad men at firms such as Perrier brilliantly filled a gap in the market. British firms, including Buxton, soon sprang up and, before long, a flash flood of new brands had appeared. In recent years, bottled water from as far afield as New Zealand has hit shelves and, in 1997, Fiji Water began exporting water "drawn from an artesian aquifer, located at the very edge of a primitive rainforest, hundreds of miles away from the nearest continent".

What Woolas calls our "daft" obsession with packaged waters hit new highs, or lows, last year when the London hotel Claridge's revealed a menu featuring 30 varieties of water, including 420 Volcanic, which it imports from Tai Tapu in New Zealand and shifts at £50 per litre.

But many observers say the nation's 40-year love affair with bottled water is ending, with even waiters at fancy restaurants no longer turning their noses up at requests for tap water. "I think an increasingly environmentally conscious public is beginning to understand the impact of the bottled water industry and realises how ridiculous it is," says Woolas. "I've had a bigger response to my Panorama interview than I have had to anything I've ever done, and almost all of it has been overwhelmingly positive."

Also in Banners is Papa Diouf, WaterAid's project manager in Burkina Faso, one of 17 countries where the charity works. Diouf speaks about what 15p from diners at Banners can buy in Burkina Faso, where little over half of the population has access to safe drinking water, and shows how countries afflicted by water shortages suffer in more ways than we might imagine. "In many areas, people have to walk two hours to fetch water from places where it may not even be clean. That's two hours there, an hour collecting water, and two hours back."

Diouf tells how, traditionally, women are in charge of fetching water and, as a result of the demands on their time, girls don't go to school and mothers don't have time to take care of their families. To help, WaterAid works with partner organisations to dig bore holes, which cost around £6,000, and bring safe water to the doorsteps of hundreds of villagers. The charity has helped more than 32,000 people in Burkina Faso alone gain access to clean water.

As Banners begins to empty after the lunch-time rush, staff separate another day's donations. If Banner, Machin, Diouf and Woolas have their way, it could soon be happening all over the country.

The real cost of drinking water

  • 0.1p – the average cost of a litre of tap water in the UK
  • 95p – the average cost of a litre of bottled water in the UK
  • £50 – the cost per litre of 420 Volcanic, imported from Tai Tapu, New Zealand
  • £2bn – the value of the UK bottled-water industry
  • 1.1 billion – the number of people across the world who have no access at all to safe drinking water
  • 200,000 tonnes – the estimated amount of carbon dioxide produced each year by the bottled-water industry
  • Six million litres – the amount of bottled water that UK drinkers consume daily
  • 5,000 – the number of people who die every day as a result of diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation

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