With original stories from London's archives, Parched City tracks drinking-water obsessions through a popular architectural, environmental and social history tale. Naturally we meet Dr John Snow, but we also encounter lesser known characters: the flamboyant temperance activist Samuel Gurney, who was on a mission to cover London with drinking fountains; the bacteriologists who paved the way for the drinking water quality we enjoy today in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Grace and Percy Frankland, and Dr Alexander Houston.
Sifting through the archives for these drinking water details in the grander engineering narratives, the author reveals micro-stories of London; including the drill for home water treatment during the Blitz, when Milton became a household brand. Environmentalists, water industry professionals and designers collide in Parched City's coverage of more recent history, with divergent views on how London might be liberated from its daily plastic avalanche of waste from bottled water containers. Jones' fresh research into the explosion of the bottled water industry in the 1980s – including the country's first and only water strike – reveals that the thirst for packaged water was not only down to successful advertising campaigns. Events leading up to the water, and waste-water, industry's privatisation in 1989 unravel why a mistrust of London's tap water may linger.
This is something, Jones argues, that the water industry must publicly confront. Is the city's water supply completely safe now? If London's tap water is pristine, why are public drinking fountains not springing up everywhere to herald the new age of high-tech desalination, amongst Thames Water's menu of engineering triumphs? Who should be responsible for providing drinking fountains and maintaining them? Why are the capital's convenience stores' fridges bursting with bottled water brands in the twenty-first century, and why is this ludicrously expensive product so ubiquitous throughout the UK and beyond? If drinking water is a basic human right, as the United Nations proclaims of the 'developed' as well as the 'developing' world, why has it become so thoroughly commodified as a product? From Londinium to the Olympic Games, Parched City investigates these critical questions of water access, ownership and quality.
"Ditching bottled water is a win win situation; it's kind to your pocket and to the planet. In the UK, unlike many parts of the world, we are lucky enough to have clean water in every home and yet we don't realise our good fortune. Parched City explains how the good fortune happened, and why bottled water is an extravagance too far."
– Jenny Jones – London Assembly Member for the Green Party
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Emma M. Jones is a Dubliner by birth and a Londoner by chance. She studied architectural history at the Bartlett, University College London and currently works in modern medical history research at Queen Mary, University of London.