Precious Water: As More of the World Thirsts, Luxury Water Becoming Fashionable Among the Elite

Priyesh Shinde carries Veen bottled water before serving it to customers at the Conrad Hilton hotel in Pune, India, Thursday, May 4, 2023. Veen, a fine water that is bottled in Bhutan, is primarily sold in luxury restaurants and hotels in India. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

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.

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.

A villager pours water into a canister as others gather around a well to draw water in Telamwadi, northeast of Mumbai, India, Saturday, May 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

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.”

Ganesh Iyer, managing partner of Zero Percent India, which includes Veen Waters, speaks during a workshop on water at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Pune, India, Thursday, May 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

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.

Workers push a trolley loaded with cartons of Veen mineral water before loading it into a truck inside a bottling plant near Samtse, Bhutan, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

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.

Saturday, May 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Aarti Sandeep Kawade fills buckets and pans with water for cooking and washing clothes and dishes inside her dwelling in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, May 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Migrant workers wash their clothes near a well which serves as a bathing area outside their rented accommodations in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, May 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
A woman fills bottles with water on her front porch to keep at home in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, May 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

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.

The ancient Parthenon temple is reflected in a window as people sip samples of fine water during an international water tasting competition held in Athens, Greece, on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

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.”

Women gather around a well to draw water in the village of Telamwadi, northeast of Mumbai, India, Saturday, May 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

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.

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