In spite of pressure from campaigners over the environmental impact of rising bottled water sales, per capita consumption continues to rise in the UK. And, writes Annette Farr, the recent mains water contamination scare in Northamptonshire provided an opportunity for some subtle point-scoring in the 'tap versus bottle' debate.

As often happens when mains water supplies become contaminated, the recent discovery of cryptosporidium in the water supply in Northamptonshire resulted in a run on bottled water at local supermarkets. At such times, consumers are extremely happy to have access to clean bottled water for drinking, with bottled water producers seen as the heroes of the hour.

The events in Northamptonshire have a certain added piquancy when seen in the context of the 'tap versus bottle' debate. As in other countries, the bottled water industry in the UK is facing pressure from campaigners on sustainability grounds. Activists maintain that rising sales of bottled water have adverse environmental implications and are urging consumers to return to the tap.

While not wishing to be seen to be profiting from consumers' misfortunes or casting aspersions on all mains water suppliers, representatives of the bottled water sector are clearly in a position to make some capital out of the current situation which could leave Anglian Water customers having to boil water for drinking for weeks to come.

Jo Jacobius, director of British Bottled Water Producers, alludes to remarks made in a recent BBC TV documentary by Government Minister Phil Woolas, backing the campaign to reduce bottled water consumption on environmental grounds. "When the Minister commented against bottled water earlier this year, we expressed astonishment at how quickly the Government appeared to have forgotten just how essential bottled water is in times of crisis," says Jacobius. "Bottled water suppliers fulfil a vital role in providing safe drinking water both in times of crisis and for those who choose to drink it as a healthy, natural alternative to other liquids throughout the year."

Meanwhile, Nick Taylor, general manager of Welsh natural mineral water producer Ty Nant, remarks that the chemical treatments required to ensure such outbreaks do not occur are what differentiates tap water from natural mineral water. "It is these measures, the need to eliminate pathogens through use of chemicals that differentiate treated tap water from untreated natural mineral water."

However, recent figures suggest the bottled water industry does not need to rely on mains water scares, or the opportunities for point-scoring they may offer, to encourage consumers to buy bottled water. It would appear that the various media campaigns and anti-bottled water coverage, of which the documentary featuring Woolas was the most notable, are not altering people's perceptions of bottled water, especially when temperatures rise.

The latest 2008 bottled water sales figures suggest that, contrary to predictions, consumers are not turning their backs on bottled water. According to AC Nielson, sales of bottled water rose by 23.2% year-on-year for the week ending 10 May 2008 and by 21.7% for the week ending 17 May. Also figures from researcher IRI reveal that volumes rose by 5.5% year-on-year in the four weeks to 17 May 2008.

While some media reports indicate a slowdown in sales, the Bottled Water Information Office says these claims are based on April's sales figures which showed poor year-on-year comparisons. It rained and snowed in some regions during April this year, compared to April 2007 when the UK experienced a heat wave. May, by contrast, showed a return to form, as evidenced at Abbey Well. "Warmer weather has already had a positive impact on sales and we anticipate that the current bout of good weather will lead to increased sales as we move into the summer," says managing director Tony Robson.

However, Danone Waters, producer of the UK's two best-selling bottled water brands, Evian and Volvic, recognises that much has to be done to restore the momentum of bottled water after a weak performance in 2007. After last year's poor summer weather, Danone believes brands have to get their message out to consumers - that natural mineral and spring waters undergo no chemical treatment - and get consumers back into the habit of buying bottled water.

Liz Forte, shopper marketing manager at Danone Waters, explains: "The bottled water segment is much more seasonally reliant than other soft drinks categories and changes in the temperature can trigger a noticeable effect on water sales. In terms of immediate consumption, if the temperature rises from 14ºC to 25ºC, retailers will see a 75% increase in sales, and if the temperature rises to 30ºC, water sales will increase by 125%.

"Consequently, the bad summer in 2007 had a severe impact on bottled water. However, if we strip out the summer months of May to July, then bottled water showed growth of 1.9%, versus the previous year, with plain still water showing good growth of 4.1%."

This year the company's focus is on three major campaigns to build sales and overcome the impact of weather: the Evian detox campaign, now in its eighth year; the global initiative Volvic 1 for 10 where for every one litre of Volvic sold in the UK, Danone Waters and World Vision will generate 10 litres of safe drinking water in communities across Africa; and sponsorship of Wimbledon (2008 is the first year of a five-year deal). Also this year Danone is increasing its field sales force by 50%.

Wimbledon has also presented an opportunity for Highland Spring through its sponsorship of Andy and Jamie Murray. Throughout Wimbledon fortnight advertisements appeared in selected national and Scottish newspaper titles, supplemented by an online promotion offering consumers the opportunity to win Andy Murray-signed tops.

Market analyst Datamonitor reports that British consumers have increased their consumption of bottled water at the fastest rate in Europe over the past five years - a CAGR of 8% from 2002 to 2007 pushing per capita consumption to 41 litres - and whilst ethical and environmental consumption are serious concerns, manufacturers and marketers are demonstrating their commitment to sustainability by reducing packaging and carbon emissions. For example, over the past 15 years Danone has achieved a 30% reduction in the weight of PET bottles and has increased the proportion of miles its products travel by train to 70% of the total distance.

What is more, per capita consumption bottled water consumption is forecast to rise by a CAGR of around 7% between 2007 and 2012. This would result in the average UK consumer drinking 57.8 litres of bottled water per year in 2012; that is, so long as the sun shines.