[VIEWPOINT]Bottled water: it's even a weapon

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[VIEWPOINT]Bottled water: it's even a weapon

An average adult needs about two liters of water a day. About half of that can be supplied through food, but the rest needs to be replenished by drinking it.

Water is a necessity for everyone, but like eating, drinking is not merely a biological behavior. Throughout the history of mankind, the source of drinking water has changed from rivers, waterfalls and wells to treated water coming through the taps in industrialized societies.

Unfortunately, tap water today hardly passes for drinking water. Pollution has made us think of mineral water first when we look for a drink.

The history of mineral water in this country is not quite 10 years old, but it has grown to be a major industry with more than 80 companies taking in hundreds of billions of won (hundreds of millions of dollars) in revenue. Bottled water has become a necessary part of life today. It is a staple in relief supply to flood victims, and a must-have at protest demonstrations. On congested roads, as traffic crawls to a stop, the first thing you will notice is the number of peddlers selling bottles of water that pop up. In the closing days of the Asian Games in Busan earlier this month, bottles of water were the only thing that the North Korean cheering squad asked for.

And it seems that the emergence of bottled mineral water has been accompanied by a change in the way people drink water. In prehistoric times and even later, humans slurped, lapped or cupped their hands to drink water. Later, natural gourds emerged as drinking vessels. When glasses and cups came into common use, it became low-class behavior to put one's mouth up against a tap or kettle. And the high-born turned up their noses at drinking water from anything but crystal drinking glasses; even chinaware was considered a bit declasse. So water became associated with class distinctions.

Now with the spread of mineral water in bottles, there has been a reversal of sorts in those class issues. It was out of concern for alienating the lower Korean social classes that the marketing of bottled water, which carries a heftier price tag than tap water, was not licensed until March 1994. But today, mineral water has come to be accepted across the Korean social spectrum.

And with that growing popularity, drinking straight out of the bottle has also become an acceptable practice. Even the high-minded guru of the Chinese classics, Kim Yong-ok, does not use a glass when he appears on television. At most conferences and seminars, bottled water has long replaced elegant teacups and shapely water glasses. If you insist on characterizing the degree of class of the meeting, the question would be whether there is a glass next to the bottled water or not, or perhaps whether it is a glass or a paper cup. The National Assembly has joined this national acceptance of bottled water. When Represen-tative Chun Yong-taek looked for a weapon to wield against fellow lawmaker Ha Soon-bong during a heated debate in the National Assembly last month, he went for a water bottle.

But the acceptance of bottled water is a reflection of the pollution in the world; it is the antithesis of all mankind's accomplishment. Despite representing an equalizing influence, bottled water can be seen as a downgrading of human culture.

There are also positive aspects to the culture of bottled water. All people need it, rich and poor alike. Unlike the customs involved in drinking tea or alcohol, there is no aspect of power relationships or complicated formality.

Water is an appropriate lubricant for free-flowing discussion and debate. It is disappointing to see the persistent absence of bottled water on televised clips of cabinet meetings at the Blue House. Not only is there no bottled water but there are almost never any teacups. Perhaps the ministers are too busy taking notes and tense, as if taking an examination, when the president speaks. But nothing could be further from the public's hopes for the government. We want no pompous formality, but conscientious attention to the realities of the country and its problems.

* The writer is a professor of sociology at Hallym University.

by Jun Sang-in

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