No Bottle

Rose George

  • Drinking Water: A History by James Salzman
    Overlook Duckworth, 320 pp, £9.99, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 7156 4528 4
  • Parched City: A History of London’s Public and Private Drinking Water by Emma Jones
    Zero Books, 361 pp, £17.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 78099 158 0
  • Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource by David Sedlak
    Yale, 352 pp, £20.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 17649 0

On a green hill above a lake in my local park in Leeds, there is a handsome stone structure. The Barrans Fountain was built by the Victorian clothing manufacturer Sir John Barran, once also the city’s mayor. He must have been a man with ambition. A building he constructed in the city centre is Moorish and beautiful, a small glimpse of Granada in the middle of West Yorkshire, though it was nothing more grand than a warehouse. And he wasn’t content with providing just one water spout for visitors to Roundhay Park: his circular fountain has eight. Four on the outside walls, four on the inside. What munificence! Today, not one of the spouts works. Park users are instructed to head instead for the Lakeside Café, or ‘for the more exclusive bottled variety, the Mansion!’

I think frequently about water supply because I often go running, but I am also often forgetful, leaving my water bottle behind. After an hour or so of running, I begin to look out for drinking water, and I never find any except the kind that comes in a plastic bottle from a shop, or the kind that could be given if I had the nerve to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for it (which I did recently in Cornwall, and was offered ‘Water? Or a gin and tonic?’). In all the parks and woods that I run through, there are only the stone ghosts of fountains, signs of a time when providing clean, safe drinking water to the general public was seen as a civic duty, enough that Sir John Barran would install four braces of them for the citizens of Leeds, at great cost. Even schoolchildren in England aren’t entitled to water fountains, though it is known that children concentrate better when they are properly hydrated.

Old societies in parched areas – Jews, Arabs and Africans – had conventions about providing water to strangers, and they were civilised ones. Sharia, the environmental academic James Salzman writes in Drinking Water: A History, means ‘the way to water’. There were limits to what Salzman called the Right of Thirst: you could ask for water, but not for enough to slake the thirst of your camels or your fields. Water, in Salzman’s account, can be symbolic, ritual, vital. Every living thing depends on it. The prize that Tantalus couldn’t reach was water. Even viruses go dormant when deprived of it. Symbolic, ritual, vital, sure: but it’s also difficult, unwieldy, fragile. Water is heavy, so it’s hard to get it up hills, and unwieldy, so difficult to contain or pack. It’s for these reasons the occupants of the International Space Station drink recycled urine. It’s also easily contaminated. It has been, at various times and in various places, a cultural, social, political or economic resource. It can be fought over and squandered. It can create great riches, for the companies and shareholders who monopolise our water supply today.

In England, Margaret Thatcher’s government abolished state-owned regional water authorities in 1989, and water was privatised. Eleven of England’s 18 water utilities are at least partly owned by foreign entities, including the giant conglomerate Macquarie (Thames Water); HSBC (Yorkshire Water); and the American equity fund KKR (South Staffordshire Water). Severn Trent recently resisted a takeover by a Kuwaiti oil fund. Scotland’s water is still in public ownership, and the Welsh get water from a non-profit company.

Meanwhile, in the absence of drinking fountains there are bottles, and more bottles. Given the scale of our mania for bottled water, it is hardly as exclusive as Roundhay Park believes. Bottled water is not an innovation: all the best Georgian and Victorian spa towns and shrines sold it. But its recent rise began in the 1980s, partly because of water contamination scares: in 1988, twenty thousand residents of Camelford in Cornwall drank aluminium sulphate along with their water, suffering mouth burns, nausea and diarrhoea; in 1994 a hundred people in Milwaukee were killed by drinking water infected by cryptosporidium. Between 1993 and 2003, bottled water consumption in Britain rose from 570 million litres a year to more than two billion. Americans open 1500 litres of bottled water every second, and drink more bottled water than milk or beer, though tap water is often a 500th of the price. These figures are the result of dedicated marketing and advertising. In 2000 a Pepsi executive said: ‘The biggest enemy is tap water.’

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