A new study published in the US says that bottled water consumption has more than doubled globally in the last six years and is heavily taxing the world's ecosystem.
Emily Arnold, the author of the report published by the Washington-based environmental group the Earth Policy Institute, says bottled water can cost 10,000 times more than tap water despite often being no healthier.
"Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing, producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy," she says.
The study says that at as much as $2.50 per litre, bottled water actually costs more than petrol.
It added that the US was the largest consumer of bottled water, with Americans drinking 26 billion litres in 2004. Mexico came in second at 18 billion litres followed by China and Brazil at 12 billion each.
Working up a thirst
Top 10 bottled water consumers in 2004 (billion litres)
1. United States 25.8
2. Mexico 17.7
3. China 11.9
4. Brazil 11.6
5. Italy 10.7
6. Germany 10.3
7. France 8.5
8. Indonesia 7.4
9. Spain 5.5
10. India 5.1
In terms of consumption per person, Italians came first at nearly 184 litres, or more than two glasses a day, followed by Mexico and the United Arab Emirates with 169 and 164 litres per person respectively.
The study said that demand for bottled water soared in developing countries between 1999 and 2004 with consumption tripling in India and more than doubling in China.
That has translated into massive costs in packaging the water, usually in plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is derived from crude oil, and then transporting it by boat, train or on land.
"Making bottles to meet Americans' demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 US cars for a year," according to the study.
"Worldwide, some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year."
The plastic bottles pose a further environmental risk once the water has been drunk.
The study, citing the Container Recycling Institute, said that 86% of plastic water bottles in the United States end up as rubbish and those buried can take up to 1000 years to biodegrade.
Top bottled water consumption per person in 2004 (litres)
1. Italy 183.6
2. Mexico 168.5
3. UAE 163.5
4. Belgium 148
5. France 141.6
6. Spain 136.7
7. Germany 124.9
8. Lebanon 101.4
9. Switzerland 99.6
10. Cyprus 92.0
Source: Earth Policy Institute
In addition, some 40% of the PET bottles deposited for recycling in the US in 2004 ended up being shipped to China.
The study said that the rapid growth in the industry has also led to water shortages in some areas.
It said that while consumers tend to link bottled water with healthy living, tap water can be just as healthy and is subject to more stringent regulations than bottled water in many regions, including Europe and the United States.
"In fact, roughly 40% of bottled water begins as tap water," the study says. "Often the only difference is added minerals that have no marked health benefits."