Water, water, everywhere

From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. Sherlock Holmes


Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge


There is nothing softer and weaker than water.

And yet there is nothing better for attacking

Hard and strong things.

For this reason there is no substitute for it.

All the world knows that the weak overcomes

The strong and the soft overcome the hard.

But none can practice it. Tao-te Ching, Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher


I don’t drink water because fish fuck in it. WC Fields


People may kill each other over diamonds and countries may go to war over oil, but  these expensive commodities would be worthless in the absence of water. Clean drinking water is essential to humans and other life forms. It is not just hydration; water is necessary for our homes factories and offices. It also has enormous societal and cultural significance. For the Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles water was one of the four classical elements along with fire, earth and air. Water is central to religious ritual; Christianity, Hinduism, the Rastafarian movement, Islam, Shinto, Taoism, and Judaism all use water to cleanse their believers. The word appears in the Bible more than 400 times. One theory of history argues that many empires were organized around a central authority that controlled a population through its monopoly of access to the water supply. This created the potential for despotism, by a hierarchical system of control typically based on class or caste.

The science of water is fascinating. 70% of the Earth’s surface area may be covered in water, but it accounts for less than a fiftieth of one per cent of the planet’s mass. The driest place in the world is actually in Antarctica, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which are free of ice and snow and have seen no rain for two million years. This area is also home to Don Juan Pond is the saltiest body of water on earth. Pond may sound quite modest, but with an average depth of less than 15cm, perhaps puddle would be more accurate.  It has a salinity level of over 40%, making it more than twice as salty as the Dead Sea. Because of this salt, it doesn’t freeze, despite the surrounding air temperature of -50°C.

About 65% of the adult body by weight is made up of water. While we do need water to survive, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions. One of the most prevalent myths is that we need to drink around eight glasses (two litres) of water a day. This may have its origin in a 1945 British Medical Journal report which recommended that adults should consume 2.5 litres of water daily but which made it clear that much of this amount is embedded in our diet. Juicy foods like fruit contain a great deal of water, maybe 60%–70%. Even a cooked hamburger can be 40%-50% water. This important caveat seems to have been forgotten in recent years. Drinking lots of glasses of water on top of your normal consumption of food and drink will only make you urinate more. Another misconception is that by the time you’re thirsty, it’s too late-you are already dehydrated. That really doesn’t make much sense. Thirst has evolved over millions of years to be a mechanism to make sure we maintain our fluid balance. It wouldn’t work well if you didn’t become thirsty until after it was too late. In general, we can rely on our thirst; we become thirsty long before we are actually dehydrated. Thirst works, and you don’t have to force yourself to drink if you don’t feel like it.

Some people install water purifiers in their homes to filter out organisms, impurities, or heavy metals from their water. In most advanced countries there shouldn’t be safety issues regarding tap water. If you don’t like the taste, then a purifier could be a good idea. But is not generally a question of health. However you may suspect something more sinister. The fluoridation of tap water has been linked to Communist, New World Order and Illuminati plots to take over the world. The beauty of these theories is their protean nature; they match the ideology and the zeitgeist of when they emerge.

But surely the craziest water myth is bottled mineral water – paying 2000 times as much as tap water is our modern version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The mineral water companies have been able to wrap themselves up in the language of health and wellness – a marketing masterstroke. Powerful slogans like “nature in a bottle” and “healthy hydration” have helped to create a whole new market that just hadn’t existed before. Global bottled water sales have grown dramatically over the past few decades, reaching a valuation of around $60 billion and a volume of more than 115 million litres.

This phenomenon began with just one brand – Perrier. They were able to change consumer perceptions and turn water into an object of desire. It’s the 1980s and yuppies are on the prowl. It’s the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. The Pac-man video game is all the rage. Political correctness is emerging on university campuses. With Perrier’s brilliant first campaign and its catchy slogan, “eau-la-la”, the distinctive green bottles begin to appear at chic restaurants and at dinner parties. It was marketed as the Champagne of mineral water, the ultimate aspirational middle class product. During the Eighties, sales increased more than twenty-fold to 150 million bottles a year. The French company looked set to dominate the market until the appearance of the cancer-causing chemical benzene in this supposedly healthy elixir. They were forced into every company’s worst PR nightmare – a worldwide product recall. Out of circulation for eight weeks, Perrier never really recovered.

As still water began to supersede carbonated water, two companies, Danone and Nestlé emerged to fight it out for world domination of this increasingly lucrative market. At the upper end of the market Danone have Evian, which comes from several sources near Évian-les-Bains, on the south shore of Lac Léman. In 2009 1.5bn litres of the stuff were drunk. Evian has a brand image associated with luxury and is popular among Hollywood celebrity types. Nestlé has tried a different approach, harnessing technology to make Pure Life. They use a multi-step filtration process that involves reverse osmosis and/or distillation, with minerals then added to improve its taste. The advantage of this technique is that you can use the local municipal water almost anywhere on the planet, reducing transportation costs dramatically. In recent years these two European multinationals have been joined by two American soft drink giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola. These four players now dominate the market. Coca-Cola, though, has also had its own PR disaster. Dasani, a purified tap water, with a mark-up of 3,000%, had to be recalled after traces of bromate were found in some of their bottles.

Mineral water has evolved a pretentious language similar to that of wine. Spanish chef José Andrés’s Los Angeles restaurant Bazaar has a water menu, which Christie Bishop satirises in her blog pardonmycrumbs.com:

Wattwiller Still (500ml) – $10 Its pedigree dates back to Roman times, with the source ultimately controlled by the monks of the Abbey of Murbach in 735 AD. With salty aftertaste, this elite water delivers terrific calcium, magnesium, sulphate, and fluoride.

Speyside-Glenlivet Still (750ml) – $10 Speyside is drawn from the 500 million year old Braes of Glenlivet rock formation, situated inside the Crown Estate of Glenlivet. At a total mineral content of 58 mg/litre, it is light, slightly alkaline and virtually sodium-free and nitrate-free.

Lauretana Still (750ml) – $10 Lauretana proclaims this is the most microbiologically pure, natural drinking water known to the world. Bottled in a unique 750 ml clear glass bottle designed by the famous Ferrari coach-maker Pininfarina.

Gerolsteiner Sparkling (1000ml) – $12  Drinking Gerolsteiner is the closest thing to taking mineral supplements. It is in the naturally carbonated classification, with the signature low pH associated with most of the high-TDS “nat carbs,” and has been a famous health tonic since 1888.

Vichy Catalan Sparkling (1000ml) – $12 Ancient water with an astonishing 3,052 milligrams per litre of Total Dissolved. There are no missing minerals or salts in Vichy. You get plenty of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, fluoride, and silica in this medicinal potion.

When Bishop asked whether The Bazaar had a water sommelier, the hostess said that they didn’t but called it “a really interesting idea…” This is the genius of capitalism. Whereas Soviet socialism used to take raw materials and produce goods that were worth less than the original value of the inputs, capitalism takes something cheap and creates incredible added value.

What about the future of this essential liquid. Access to safe drinking water has improved steadily and substantially over the last decades in almost every part of the world. But we need to do better. A rural peasant woman in modern Malawi spends 17% of her time fetching water. Some people see a dark future. By 2030 water demand will exceed supply by 50% in some developing regions of the world. There are a lot of unanswered questions. How can we provide water services to the poor? Will desalination be our salvation? How will climate change really affect the water cycle? Water needs to be at the centre of our policy agenda. Let’s hope that we can use water to deliver peace, food, growth, and hope. The alternative is war, hunger, poverty, and despair.


One Response to Water, water, everywhere

  1. Alberto says:

    Interesting trivia, just in case…

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