In the last two decades, the number and variety of bottled waters has mushroomed, signalling a shift in the status of water as a commodity. The increasing importance of these mineral waters is achieved through the rebalancing of the particularities of waters and their exchangeability; a resurgence of the use-values that animate capital's appropriation of nature and its creation of exchange-values. Similar to tap water, a bottle of any mineral water is consumed as an industrially-produced and distributed object with universal qualities. Unlike tap water however, bottled waters are produced, advertised and consumed as unique, unlike all others. In this talk I argue that this turn to drinking diverse and unique “waters” is actually a re-turn to very old ideas about the character of water. These ideas trouble the unitary concept of “water” at the heart of the public water systems that were built in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Hamlin 2000; Gleick 2010). Bottled water is seen as better than tap water because of a paradoxical belief that it is at once empty of impurities yet full of beneficial qualities. I present a history of mineral waters in Mexico, and evaluate the usefulness of recent approaches in anthropology – ontology; new materialism – for understanding this evolving political ecology of waters.


Casey Walsh is an anthropologist working on the political economy of the Mexico-US borderlands, showing how water, land and labour have been organized to produce commodities in areas marked by aridity. His socioeconomic and cultural history of irrigated cotton, Building the Borderlands was published in 2008. He also looks at the use and management of mineral springs, in a new book entitled Mexican Water Cultures, and the politics of grapes and groundwater management in California. He is Director of Latin American and Iberian Studies Program, UCSB and with Simon Batterbury, edits the Journal of Political Ecology.

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