Colourless, odourless, tasteless: water is not only the most fundamental element on planet earth, but also the trickiest to define. It is something that many people in the world take for granted, only noticing it when there is too much of it, or not enough. It wasn’t always thus. A pharaoh in Ancient Egypt could rise or fall by the success of the annual Nile flood. Throughout history, what have been dubbed ‘hydraulic societies’ grew up in places such as Mesopotamia (the land between two rivers: modern Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey), Mexico and China. To control the water, despotic leaders commanded huge slave labour forces to build ditches, dams and dykes and maintain them.
The Romans were also very keen on water. When Rome was in its zenith eleven aqueducts served the city. The Romans were discriminating about water quality and judged each source by the transparency and taste of its water. Aqua Marcia, which drew water from the Anio River 92 kilometres away, was regarded as the aqueduct with the finest water by Pliny the Elder, probably because its water was also the coldest. The next best water came from a spring 23 kilometres to the north, which today ends at the Trevi Fountain.
This Italian obsession with water did not die out with the Romans. In Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Prince Don Fabrizio Salina pours himself a glass of water. “Only water is really good,” he thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.
Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, was in no doubt of water’s importance, insisting that oil engineers drilled 50 water wells for every one oil well. As a Bedu he knew that water is life, but nowadays, even in the UAE, a twist of the tap brings endless water, even if the taste leaves something to be desired. A new campaign led by Goumbook, an NGO, is trying to persuade residents of the UAE to abandon their plastic bottles of water and drink filtered tap water.
Tatiana Antonelli Abella, co-founder of Goumbook, told reporters that many residents were under the impression that bottled water is better than tap water.
“In fact, it’s even worse for you”, she said at the launch of the campaign.
“The amount of chemicals that are extracted into water from being in plastic that is exposed to movement and heat is known to cause health problems.”
According to the Regulation and Supervision Bureau’s water quality regulations 2014 report tap water supplied for purposes of drinking, washing, cooking or food productions “should be wholesome,” meaning “it can’t be detrimental to public health.”
Ms Abella said the municipality checks on its water supply quality several times a day. She agreed that its taste could be improved, hence filtering it in your own home was the safest and most palatable way of drinking it.
From a matter of taste, one would have to disagree with Ms Abella, however noble her intentions. I very much doubt that even filtered overnight the Dubai tap water would be tasty.
Some years ago I attended a water tasting in Paris run by Dominique Laporte, the former best sommelier in the world, at Galeries Lafayette. We were assessing the relative values of Badoit, Perrier, San Pellegrino (an Italian import, considered rather inferior by the French), and Chateldon, which Louis XIV reputedly glugged back by the gallon. Chateau Chirac, the nickname the Parisians give their tap water from the days when Jacques Chirac was mayor of the city, did not get a look in, though it is a relatively pleasant drink, not salty or tainted with the addition of fluoride. I don’t think that a glass of Dubai Municipality water would have made the cut either, and I know of few expatriates that drink the stuff. Some don’t even clean their teeth with it. And while one applauds the effort of Ms Abella, I don’t think most residents of the UAE will be weaned off their bottled water any time soon. The question then becomes: if I am going to drink bottled water, which should I drink?
Assuming taste is a not a factor – at the Parisian water tasting it was as much about ‘mouth feel’ and how long the bubbles lasted, rather than the exact taste, which is about as hard to describe as the taste of air. Water is quick to pick up the characteristics of anything it comes into contact with. The cleaner the water, the less it tastes. Most water experts agree that one should drink mineral water. Why? Because even the modest amounts of minerals found in regular drinking water play a beneficial role in your health. Calcium and magnesium are important for strong bones, while magnesium also helps to regulate your blood pressure.
The next thing to look out for is the amount of sodium. The mineral profile varies greatly from brand to brand, reflecting the source waters. That’s what gives each mineral water its own texture and flavour, but it also may determine which one to choose if you’re considering the nutritional benefits. Vichy water, for example, from the centre of France is very high in sodium. Some people love the salty taste, but you should be aware that a litre of Vichy water contains half the recommended daily sodium budget.
Monviso water, which comes from the highest spring in Italy and is available in the UAE, has one of the lowest sodium contents in the world, only 0.00003%. The low sodium content is important to prevent water retention and cleanse the kidneys. San Pellegrino, in contrast, which is also from Italy, Perrier from the south of France, is low in sodium and has a moderate amount of calcium, but it doesn’t provide a whole lot of magnesium. (If you really want a lot of magnesium, eat bananas).
It is no surprise that bottled water companies spend a lot of time on designing their bottles. Perrier bottles are said to have been modelled on juggling clubs that the then owner of the spring, an Englishman, used for exercising. The Welsh water Ty Nant is more famous for its beautiful blue bottles than for the water they contain. This was either an oversight or a deliberately provocative act, for originally blue bottles were the preserve of pharmacies, and usually they contained poison. The best selling wine at Colette’s water bar in Paris comes in a bottle designed by Philippe Starck. It is also the cheapest.