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Precious water: As more of the world thirsts, luxury water becoming fashionable among the elite

SAMTSE, Bhutan (AP) — Monsoon rains have finally passed and floods blocking the lone dirt road have retreated enough for a small truck to climb these Himalayan foothills to a gurgling spring. It spews water so fresh that people here call it nectar.

Workers inside a small plant ferry sleek glass bottles along a conveyer. The bottles, filled with a whoosh of this natural mineral water, are labeled, packed into cases and placed inside a truck for a long ride.

Ganesh Iyer, who heads the operation, watches like a nervous dad, later pulling out his phone, as any proud parent might, to show the underground cavern the waters have formed in this pristine kingdom, the world’s last Shangri-La.

Editor’s note: One in an occasional series on water scarcity and the growing demands on a resource vital to life.

This is no ordinary water. It will travel hundreds of miles to some of India’s luxury hotels, restaurants and richest families, who pay about $6 per bottle, roughly a day’s wage for an Indian laborer. Millions of people worldwide don’t have clean water to drink, even though the United Nations deemed water a basic human right more than a decade ago.

Yet, even as extreme heat dries up more aquifers and wells and leaves more people thirsty, luxury water has become fashionable among the world’s privileged, who uncap and taste it like fine wine.

This “fine water” is drawn from volcanic rock in Hawaii, from icebergs that have fallen from melting glaciers in Norway, or from droplets of morning mist in Tasmania.

Connoisseurs, some who study to become water sommeliers, insist this trend isn’t about snobbishness. They appreciate the purest of the pure.

“Water is not just water,” says Michael Mascha, a founder of the Fine Water Society, a consortium of small bottlers and distributors worldwide. He likens consumers of high-end water to foodies who’d drive miles to find heirloom tomatoes or a rare salt. Some drink fine water instead of alcohol.

“Having the right stemware, drinking at the right temperature, pairing it with food, celebrating with water – all those kinds of things are important.”

As a truck rolls out of the Bhutanese bottling plant, operated by Veen Waters India, the 40-some line workers take a tea break along a short row of employee housing. They check their mobile phones and chat, while birds chirp in the background. Laundry hung out to dry flaps in a subtle breeze. It’s a steamy day, even at this higher elevation.

Up a hillside behind them is a mineral spring, once a source of fresh water for nearby villagers, who used bamboo rods as pipes to help funnel some of the steadily flowing clear current into buckets they carried home. Now that source, which Veen purchased from the previous owner more than a decade ago, is kept behind a locked gate for safekeeping.

Veen’s business slowed to a trickle during the pandemic, says Iyer, Veen’s managing partner. But now the company is exporting about 20,000 cases — or 240,000 bottles — of the water into India each month, minus the occasional few that break on their bumpy multiple-day trek. He figures they’ve tapped only about 10% of the potential market so far.

After crossing into India, the trucks carrying the bottled water run through lush green Darjeeling tea plantations, past road signs marking elephant crossings and the occasional cluster of teenage boys cooling off in a rain catchment next to rural villages dotted with banana trees.

Eventually, the cases are delivered to luxury hotels and restaurants many hundreds of miles away in cities like New Delhi, Pune and Mumbai, where Veen is headquartered.

A few wealthy families get weekly shipments. Iyer jokes that the richest of the rich buy so much that they “probably bathe in it.”

Market reports predict even greater demand for premium water worldwide in years to come. In India — now the most populous country in the world, with a rising standard of living and growing concerns about water quality — Veen is poised to help satisfy that demand.

For many Indians, however, the story of water is very different, including in Mumbai’s Dharavi neighborhood, one of Asia’s largest slums, jammed with working families.

There, water arrives in municipal pipelines just once a day, from about 6 to 9 a.m., setting off a flurry of activity as the day’s crushing heat arrives in spring and summer.

The three-hour window for water shapes the neighborhood’s rituals. Men in shorts or underwear lather up in a bath area. Their upbeat banter is constant as they prepare for the day. Residents of this labyrinth of narrow alleyways and small homes brush their teeth while standing on front porches, spitting toothpaste into water that runs along the uneven blocks of concrete on the ground. They fill up buckets and reclaimed bottles to keep water at home. A few women wash aluminum pots and pans or briskly scrub T-shirts, scarves and other clothing.

Still others are more desperate, such as Rekha Nagesh Pawar, who lives with her four children in a tent made out of blue plastic tarps along a busy Mumbai roadway. The water she gets from a neighbor, when he’s feeling charitable, has been siphoned illegally from a public system with a garden hose. She says her husband, a mason, died from a heart attack in 2021, leaving her to beg for money for food.

She frets that there’s often not enough water to bathe her children or wash their clothes. “We have to live in filth,” the weary-eyed woman says.

It’s hard for her to fathom that someone would pay a day’s wages for a bottle of fancy water.

Veen is far from the most expensive in the fine water category. The rarest of all, often bottled in collectable glass, sell for hundreds of dollars apiece.

This scene was on full display when members of the Fine Water Society gathered in April at a swanky hotel in Athens, Greece, for their annual international tasting competition and symposium.

With bottles and glasses lined up before them, judges from several countries sampled various brands, swishing gulps of water and sometimes spitting mouthfuls into canisters, as wine tasters do. Spectators seated before them watched intently. Many were bottlers who’d come to compete.

The judges flipped cards to indicate their scores for each entrant: 92, 98, and so on.

“Who wins here? It’s really sometimes very hard to predict,” says Mascha, who served as a judge. “There’s always a sleeper.”

Twenty years ago, people mocked his fascination with water, which grew from his doctor’s insistence that he quit drinking alcohol. He searched for alternatives that might enrapture him the same way a complex bottle of cabernet once had.

As he tried more waters from small batch bottlers, he discovered like-minded water devotees. That group has only grown.

They discuss “virginality,” or purity. They learn about “terroir,” the environment in which water originates. They compare the total dissolved solids, or TDS.

Waters with low TDS are more like rainwater that hasn’t touched the earth. Those with high TDS — such as Vichy mineral water from thermal springs in France and Catalan — have robust mineral content that may include calcium, magnesium, potassium or sodium, among others.

A few restaurants in countries such as Spain and the United States now have menus that pair food with particular types of fine water. A bolder mineral water, for instance, might be suggested as a companion for a charbroiled steak. More subtle rainwater might be paired with fish.

This year’s champions in each category, from still water to sparkling and super-low minerality to high, came from Austria, New Zealand, Panama, Scandinavia and other parts of the world.

Awards, however, do not guarantee success in what can be a very competitive business, especially for the mom-and-pop bottlers.

“Every brand has to find its unique selling point,” says Jamal Qureshi, founder of the now-defunct Svalbardi Polar Iceberg Water, based on the far-north Norwegian island of Svalbard. “If it’s just like, ‘Oh, you know, we’re a special water from wherever,’ it’s hard to stand out.”

His company, once a rising star in the fine water scene and winner of awards, sold melted Arctic icebergs, bottled in fancy glass containers, online.

The idea was to harvest small floating remnants of glaciers to tell the story of climate change, the proliferation of greenhouse gases and its direct impact on the disappearing Arctic landscape.

People paid $100 (US) for a bottle of Svalbardi. Often, the company sold out.

Then in late 2020, a shipment of 15,000 empty bottles from a supplier arrived broken and scratched, forcing the fledgling company to close down.

Without its opulent packaging, the average consumer might fail to taste the difference in these waters. Even sommeliers say it can take months of practice to determine the subtleties.

“Please smell my water and tell me how good or bad it is,” people sometimes tease Iyer, of Veen, when they learn he’s a certified water sommelier — India’s first, he says. He takes no offense.

But Mascha, of the Fine Water Society, is quick to differentiate fine water from “mega-corporations that exploit water.”

Water sold in clear plastic bottles that are ubiquitous the world over is often simply filtered municipal water that’s distilled and bottled from any number of sources. In many instances, Mascha says, a water filter on your tap would produce the same result, with far less impact on the environment.

When it comes to fine water, he says natural spring water, for instance, must come from a single source and be bottled near that source. He calls the bottlers in his society small “water farmers.”

Solutions to the world’s water problems won’t come easily.

That is the reality of life in water-stressed countries like India, a country that has 18% of the world’s population, but only 4% of its water, according to the World Bank.

Water shortages have sparked protests and conflict. Last year, a man was stabbed and killed in a fight over water in the town of Aurangabad, north of Mumbai.

The Indian government has promised that every household will soon have plumbing and running water — a goal set for this year that has yet to be reached.

“But just because we spend money and put the pipes in, doesn’t mean that people will actually have water in their taps,” says Veena Srinivasan, executive director of WELL Labs, a research institution in Bengaluru, India, that studies water sustainability.

Climate change has only worsened droughts and heatwaves and put more pressure on India’s underground aquifers, as well as rivers that also are polluted by industry, farming and sewage.

India is among many countries that have built huge plants to desalinate sea water. Others, including Singapore, are collecting and cleaning up storm and wastewater to try to solve their water woes.

But solutions like those are in their infancy in many countries, if they exist at all.

That means the commodification of water, and those who profit from it, are likely to become more contentious. Fine water is certainly a commodity too, though its connoisseurs and those who bottle often speak of the importance of respecting and conserving an increasingly precious resource.

Even for them, luxury water is often just that – a luxury.

Iyer only drinks Veen when out at a restaurant. At home, he and his wife consume tap water after boiling it. As many do, he likes to store it in a matka, an Indian red clay pot that is a water cooler. He also still bathes with a bucket, while sitting on a stool, a common Indian custom that also saves water.

“On one hand, we consider water to be holy and divine,” Iyer says. “But we take it for granted. We believe water will always be there.”

In Bhutan, Buddhist prayer flags are a common sight — squares of five colors, strung along bridges and at meditation stops next to scenic mountain roadways. Blue represents space. Red is for fire; yellow is earth; white is air.

Green symbolizes water, a revered resource in a country known for its environmental stewardship.

It is a common custom to place the purest spring water in bowls as a sacred offering in a home or a temple.

Water also has economic benefits for the kingdom, where an abundance of rivers and a small population of about 700,000 mean there is a surplus of hydroelectricity to export, much of it to neighboring India.

Here, water is both pure, and powerful.

Tshering Bumpa, the longtime manager of the Veen bottling facility, understands the significance.

“We are so proud of our water,” says Bumpa, who has dressed in colorful Bhutanese traditional garments to welcome rare visitors to this remote spot in the jungle.

There is enough water to share. At least for now.

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AP’s Theodora Tongas in Athens, Greece; Rajanish Kakade in Mumbai, India; and Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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Martha Irvine, an AP national writer and visual journalist, can be reached at [email protected] or at http://twitter.com/irvineap

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