Bottled water in Tibet
Bottled water from Tibet is sold across China, often as a high-end product, trading on Tibet's reputation as spiritually and environmentally pure. The Chinese government has recently licenced a massive expansion of the industry, leading to a "gold rush" for water in Tibet. As a result, Chinese companies are plundering Tibet's water with little regard for the environmental consequences or the rights of the Tibetan people from whom it is taken. Now, Western companies are investing in the bottled water business in Tibet.
Threatening Tibet's environment
Water in Tibet is bottled from mountain springs and glaciers - and trades on their image. Unlike China, Tibet is abundant in water but its resources are far from infinite. Because of global warming, Tibet's glaciers are shrinking - they have lost 15% of their mass in the last 20 years. Massive Chinese hydropower dams and water diversion projects in Tibet are already diverting, draining and damaging its rivers. Water is even being bottled from national parks and protected areas, where infrastructure and transportation threaten the fragile natural environment.
The purity of Tibetan water is also under threat from other forms of resource extraction, including mining for copper, gold and silver. Many of these industries simultaneously depend on water usage and generate water pollution, including arsenic, sulfuric acid, mercury and other heavy metals.
“The Tibetan water tower cannot support all the damming and the extracting that is taking place right now. Bottled water doesn’t have nearly the impact that dams and water-intensive industries do, but it’s another big drop being taken out of the bucket."
Water bonanza for Chinese companies
In 2014, under an initiative called “Sharing Tibet’s Water with the world”, the regional government of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) signed contracts with sixteen major companies to expand the water bottling industry in Tibet and, in November 2015, announced a new ten-year plan to expand the industry, with a target of 10 million tonnes of bottled water production by 2025. The expansion – a seventy-fold increase over the capacity in 2014 – is being incentivised with significant tax breaks to companies and a lower extraction fee for water than elsewhere in China.
At least ten companies are currently bottling in Tibet. Their products are sold across China but haven't yet reached Europe or the US. At present, bottling is allowed in nature reserves and at least one company has been granted the right to ban grazing in a 60 square kilometre area around its source spring.
Learn more about the industry and the threat it poses in our brief report: Bottled Water in Tibet
Tibet Spring 5100
One of the most ambitious and well-connected companies operating in Tibet is Tibet Water Resources Ltd, which produces the high-end Tibet Spring 5100 brand. The company has strong links with the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government and just a year after launching in 2006, it became the “official drinking water” of the 2007 National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and was granted the honour again in 2012. Up until 2013, the company had received government subsidies worth more than US$50m. In 2015, its longstanding commercial relationship with a state-owned railway company came to an end amid rumours of corruption.
The company has long planned to export beyond China, and skin care products using its water are already available in some foreign locations.
Tibet Water Resources is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and its shareholders include many Western investment funds.