A good deal of attention has been paid, and quite appropriately, to the explosive worldwide growth of carbonated soft drinks. From their origins in the United States, these beverages have spread until they are now not only readily available, but on the way to becoming market leaders almost everywhere, from small back-country settlements in Asia to Africa to the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe. And all this has developed in a remarkably few years.Perhaps because this history of rapid worldwide penetration is so dramatic, the extraordinary global growth of another beverage has attracted considerably less notice. Nevertheless the recent, rapidly accelerating growth of bottled water represents a phenomenon no alert beverage marketer can overlook

Although soft drinks outsell bottled water around the world today by about three to one, the difference in their growth rates is noteworthy. In the last five years, bottled water sales have surged by more than 25 percent, to a worldwide total of more than 61 billion litres, while the advance of soft drinks - albeit from a substantially larger base - has been below 21 percent.

While soft drinks spread around the worldfrom their initial start in the United States, bottled water has been a popular standardin countries around the world for generations, and was at best a niche product in theStates until the early 1970's. Perhaps that is why the recent rapid growth of bottledwater sales around the world first commanded attention following its surprising surge inthe states. There, consumption grew from just over a billion litres in 1975 to better than13 billion in 1997. In the five-year span from 1992 to 1997, it surged by an astounding 45percent!

In that same five-year period,international growth was also rapid, although not equalling those percentages. Forexample, consumption in Germany rose 11 percent. In Spain 12 percent, and other areas havematched or exceeded that pace. In just three years, 1992 to 1995. Mexican bottled watersales jumped 20 percent.

Analysis of per capita consumptionpractically paints a portrait in depth of the market, providing significant insight intowhat has been happening, and why. In the United States, the per capita figure reachedapproximately 45 litres annually in 1997; up from 30 in 1992. This can be compared withconsumption of 138 litres annually in Italy. 130 in France and 103 in Germany, while inSaudi Arabia the number was 50 and 15 in Argentina.

These figures include a wide spectrum ofbottled water types; still and sparkling waters from a variety of mineral and othersprings and wells, seltzers and club sodas, filtered and otherwise treated waters fromstreams and other surface sources, including desalinated ocean water. They also reflectthe various forces impinging on the market.

One is clearly the increasing pressure onthe traditional natural sources of waters, generating a widening concern for the safety ofmunicipal supplies. Accompanying this concern is a heightened realisation of how essentialwater really is. And third, we are witnessing a growing appreciation of its own veryspecial qualities, making water (and especially bottled water) an almost perfectrefreshment beverage.

In effect, it can be said that water -and specifically bottled water - is being rediscovered as a highly desirablealternative to other beverages. Water, consumers are realising, is non-fattening andhealthy; in the popular terminology; dietetic and "good for you". And, in itscontemporary single-serve packaging, it is highly portable. In short, it is anexceptionally versatile beverage, adaptable to an almost infinite variety of usageoccasions.