Nepali Times

Contaminated water in taps, a scarcity of drinking water, higher urban living standards and the tourism industry have all combined to boost the production of bottled drinking water in Nepal. What\'s more, Nepal\'s budding hydro sheikhs are preparing to export Nepal\'s Himalayan water to Europe and East Asia.

Could "Gosainkunda" be as famous one day as "Evian"? Or, "Pokhara" overtake "Perrier"?

Bottled water is now an industry with a turnover of more than Rs 200 million a year. Six years ago, it was almost zero, and the market is still growing by about 50 percent a year. With new export markets being tapped it could one day have the same stature as the carpet industry once had, according to industry sources.

Nepal has one of the lowest figures for access to safe drinking water among developing countries. More than 32 percent of Nepal\'s 23 million people drink unsafe water, and one of the main causes of death among children is diarrhoeal dehydration caused by contaminated water.

Some would say that the water supplied in Kathmandu taps by the Nepal Drinking Water Supply Corporation is the real "mineral" water since it is contaminated with so much chemical and organic pollutants. It is the poor quality of tap water along with shortage of water that has led the people to start buying water.

Bottling water sounds simple: find a source, bottle the water and sell it. But it is more complicated than that: the source needs to be analysed for purity, a sterile bottling plant has to be set up, the workers need regular health check-ups, the output has to be continually tested for bacteria levels, and finally the product has to be sold in Kathmandu\'s increasingly copy-cat market and overseas buyers found.

An average investor interested in a state-of-the-art bottling water plant needs to put in as much as Rs 400 million, but the Nepali market today has about companies which began with investments as low as Rs 50 million.

In an industry that closely guards its sales figures, it is hard to compare performance. Sanjay Dugar, Managing Director of Aqua Minerals Nepal, says: "I\'m not a large player in the market, but a respected one. We go for quality."

Sunil Malla, national sales manager of Thirst-Pi, claims his is the widest selling brand. Thirst-Pi, which bottles water from a spring in Dakshinkali in a Rs 90 million plant, is also going for ISO 9002 certification within a year. Malla says exports to Europe are planned, but he may need to change the name of his brand before he does that.

There have been unscrupulous water companies which reportedly bottled and sold the water directly from the tap until the trick was discovered and the industry hounded them out. There is also some illicit re-bottling going on.

Now there are water companies that not only have the Nepal Standard certification but are also eyeing to market Himalayan water in Europe, Japan and Korea.

"It is technology that has made this possible," says Dugar, whose plant in Balaju cost Rs 370 million. "There used to be a time when the source of water mattered, now with the reverse osmosis technology widely available, it has become less important."

As the market grows, it may be only a matter of time before distilled water begins to come in the "mineral" water bottles we are getting so used to.

Water is a growth industry all over the world, thanks mainly to increasing pollution of water sources and the health bug that has bitten those that can afford the drink. Evian, the world\'s leading brand, sells natural spring water tapped in the French Alps. The water is filtered through a natural process which, the company says, takes 15 years to reach the bottle after if falls on the mountain as rain.

One Nepali water bottler says it produces pure Himalayan spring water through a similar process. Nara International Himalayan Spring Water, the Nepali-South Korean venture, has set up a factory near Dhunche to tap water from a spring inside Langtang National Park.

Its 13,000 sq m factory complex is located near Dhunche, and is already producing bottled water for the Kathmandu market. Its launch last week was postponed because landslides blocked the Dhunche road.

"We\'ll be in the market in about a week," says Shankar Shakya of Nara. The company has plans to export the spring water to South Korea, where it is expected to sell at about one dollar a bottle.

The water source is fed by melting snow seeping through 3,000 metres of Himalayan bedrock, according to a company brochure. Since it is tapped from within a strictly controlled conservation area the water source is well protected.
The safety aspect of the water industry is also going high tech, and there are now standards for pH levels, permissible bacterial content (under specific testing conditions), etc.

Experts say even bottled water may contain some bacteria but that is fine as long as it does not have harmful germs. The bacterial content in the water depends on many things including, testing conditions, the packaging material used and even storage and display environments.

There is no water testing laboratory in Nepal but given the sensitive nature of the industry-where sales could plunge the moment there are reports that the water is substandard-many companies try to keep their product within the parameters set by the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA).

Earlier this month an independent pathologist tested bottled water brands and released the bacterial counts in the media.

For lack of specific local standards, it was difficult to compare if that was good or bad.

Companies like Aqua have tried marketing Nepali water in India and Japan, but did not have much success. Indian sales were discontinued after customs
hassles and the water did not sell well enough in Japan, according to Dugar.
Nara, with its South Korean partners, could fare better but that will depend on the marketing and distribution network. If it does well, Nepal could enter a new hydro industry for Himalayan waters.

Water price
Aqua 100 1 litre Rs 15
1.5 litre Rs 18
750ml Rs 10
Bailey 1 litre Rs 15
Bisleri 1 litre Rs 12
LA 100 1 litre Rs 12
Mt Peak 1 liter Rs15
Thirst-Pi 1 litre Rs 15
1.5 litre Rs 18
Today 1 litre Rs 15
Yes 1 litre Rs 15

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)