Harvard Square Observer: A World Without Water

Ernest Cassara

Since my wife is in the process of writing a chapter for a Festschrift, to be published in honor of a professor in Germany on her retirement — a very nice practice — she had signed up for reading privileges at the British Library in London. I thought I would also sign up for a reading pass. I chose the topic: "The Infrastructure of Great Cities." Although I will move on to other cities as I progress in my study, logically enough, I concentrated first on London. My interest was not only intellectual. Could not help but notice that the water in our hotel was particularly offensive this trip. I wondered if I was drinking the Thames! Well, my initial study revealed that, indeed, some of the water comes from the Thames. But, the rest? I could not determine in the time I had available.

On the BBC, we did learn that London is experiencing a drought, Mayor Ken Livingstone letting be known that he only flushes the toilet when absolutely necessary!

Although I have never been one to carry a bottle of H2O with me, in London I spent a fair number of pounds sterling to provide for this life's necessity in our hotel room. I was quite interested to read how the companies justified their products:

"Vivat (Gently Sparkling) Carbonated Spring Water. Vivat spring rises in the rolling hills of
Pembrokeshire. It boasts an exceptionally pure analysis, as water filters through limestone
and sandstone rock, giving it a refreshing taste. . . . Bottled at source at Vivat Spring,
New House farm, Prince's Gate, Narbeth, Pembrokeshire, Wales, U.K."

"Buxton. The Peak District. Still. Natural Mineral Water. Source St Ann's Spring. We can't
improve natural perfection but we can protect and preserve it. Buxton Natural Mineral Water
comes from a unique source 1500 metres below the beautiful Peak district. Filtered through
ancient limestone for 5,000 years, it is truly as pure as nature intended. Buxton — Preserving
Britain's Purity. Bottled at the source in England by: Buxton Mineral Water Company LTD."

And, this:

"Evian. Natural Mineral Water. Evian Natural Mineral Water is characterized by its lightness
and Balanced composition. . . . Perfect bottled purity. . . . Evian water is as unique as its origin,
15 YEARS of filtration through the heart of THE FRENCH ALPS." This is accompanied by a
picture of snow capped mountains.

After some number of purchases, my Better Half came to believe that I bought the stuff for the labels!

While we were in London, it just so happened that Channel 4 broadcast a program with the title, "A World Without Water." It televised a number of third world countries and the struggle of their citizens to get water. In many cases, folks without wells are serviced by entrepreneurs who carry large containers, and, daily, for a price, pour some into a householder's container.

But, most troubling of all was the fact that the World Bank, as a condition of providing loans to struggling countries, requires them to privatize their water supplies. In other words, those countries that have developed municipal water supplies must surrender them to private companies.

This brought to mind an experience in Yorkshire, when my wife and I were visiting friends a number of years ago. Clive and I headed out one day for a long walk that took us into the hills. I was amazed at the gushing streams of water that descended into the valley. Yet, not long after, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher persuaded the Parliament to privatize local water authorities. One of the results was that, not long after their local municipal water authority had been sold to private investors, Clive wrote to say that their taps had run dry, and that he and his wife and their neighbors had to go with containers and carry water from tank trucks of the private company. I do not know how long that continued.

But, speaking of Thatcher — who, I must frankly admit, always comes to mind accompanied by several swear words — when we enjoyed a sabbatical year in 1962-63, in Cambridge, England, and its great, ancient university, the U.K. was in process of nationalizing the railways. I still remember the name "Dr. Richard Beeching," who was in charge of "rationalizing" the system. Britain had had the same experience with private companies as the U.S., companies that were more concerned with carrying freight and making money rather than serving passengers. The nationalized system worked very well, until, that is, Thatcher came along.

The result was laughable. Not long after she had broken up the system and sold its parts to private companies, my wife and I were standing in the railway station in Newport, Wales, waiting for a train to arrive to bring us north to Hereford. It did not. Instead, we were treated to an announcement that the company did not have enough "drivers" — British for "engineers" — to provide us with a train. But, the voice promised that the company was in process of training new ones.

How come? It seems that the private company, to save money, had fired a number of "drivers," when it took over, and, too late, realized its mistake.

But, I began this discourse on the subject of water. In the U.S., as far as I know, we all enjoy water from municipal water companies. Its quality, of course, varies. Our water in Harvard Square is excellent, because the City of Cambridge possesses its own reservoir. (If Thatcher were in charge, we would no longer be referred to as the "People's Republic of Cambridge," and we might have to go down the street with buckets to a tank truck!)

Enough of this speculation. As I said above, I have not been one to carry a bottle of water with me. On the other hand, I cannot be completely innocent, for I have in front of me on my desk, as I type, an empty container, which reads, "Fiji Natural Artesian Water . . . Bottled at the Source. . . . The Taste of Paradise. The origin of Fiji Natural Artesian Water is rainfall [that, I suspected!], which over decades filters into an aquifer deep beneath volcanic highlands and pristine tropical forests on the main island of Viti Levu in Fiji. Separated by over 1,500 miles of the open Pacific from the nearest continent, this virgin ecosystem protects one of the purest waters in the world."

Of course, in Harvard Square, folks most likely would be carrying a bottle of Poland Spring water. Years ago, Poland Spring in Maine featured a huge hotel, which was quite famous as a watering hole. Once the hotel was destroyed by fire, the folks came up with idea of bottling the water. The rest, as we say, is history. Of course, Poland Spring water became so popular that the company was bought by Perrier. Don't know who owns it at the moment.

Of course, Poland Spring water has all kinds of competitors, such as Aqua Fina, which, I believe, is tap water that has been filtered.

The Poland Spring label is worth reading. You may find the aqua you are sipping actually originated in Fryeburg, or some other locality. Which raises all kinds of difficulties. Some folks from the area are worried that the company is going to drain their aquifers dry. So, there is resistance to the company branching far a field from Poland Spring.

In any case, I have become so thirsty discussing water that I think I'll carry my "Fiji" bottle to the tap and fill it with good, refreshing, water from the People's Republic of Cambridge. Join me?

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