Mining the earth’s most precious resource
Originally posted in the "BBeyond Magazine" "Mining the earth’s most precious resource". Published on the 7th of November, 2022.
MORE PRECIOUS than gold, diamonds, fossil fuels and uranium put together, freshwater is life itself, of increasingly limited supply and without substitute. The unchecked depletion of the world’s aquifers in the 21st century and the pollution of water sources – whether through human activity and/or salt contamination – are stocking up a potential catastrophe.
The presence of the little-talked about PFAS (or ‘forever chemicals’) in virtually all tap water has to meet European safety levels of below 100 nanograms per litre (ng/l) but this ought to be set at zero, considering its link to cancer and other diseases.
Water packaged and sold in plastic bottles is a big industry, projected to reach $334 billion by 2023. At its worst, water sold in plastic packaging is contaminated with microplastics and toxic chemicals from the packaging.
Even at its absolute finest, bottled water is ‘engineered water’ – it has undergone various processes of filtration, whether deionization, distillation, or reverse osmosis, all aimed at achieving the same goal: separating contaminants from the water.
From the mainstream bottled water brands to the most ‘exclusive’ fashionable ones, manufacturers are selling processed water or water stripped of minerals.
The world’s purest natural water
Finding this one-of-a-kind water has been every bit as tortuous and complexity-ridden as finding a gold mine. This story begins with a single family, the Muhrs.
Patriarch of the family Karlheinz is a banker, his wife Elizabeth is a trained environmental engineer specialising in hydro power.
In the late 90s, Karlheinz held regular private mini-summits at his home country Austria (the family have multiple homes on different continents). At one of these the topic was inflammation in the body, which causes most if not all latent disease and influences ageing.
The Muhrs had a question: if there is one thing we could do to prevent inflammation, what would it be? The presenting health expert answered, simply, drink water instead of processed juice or soda.
While a common-sense answer, Karlheinz wanted to dig deeper: is all (potable) water equally health-promoting, or could there be an ideal source of water out somewhere in the world?
Karlheinz had co-founded a wine newsletter with a college friend, and understood the importance of soil composition as well as the uniquely French notion of the terroir. So, in a way, he was already ahead of the game in terms of understanding provenance. Unsatisfied with the expert’s answer, as many of us would be, Karlheinz went on a journey of discovery, sweeping up his entire family in the process.
His three children were in their teens at the time and did not at first take kindly to the edict of ‘no more sodas, no more juices’. It is to his credit that he was able to turn them into converts, with the ensuing years of research into water becoming a family semi-obsession.
Most bottled waters carry no information on their labels and are not required to do so. So the Muhrs set out to define what quality water really meant.
Their fact-finding mission took two years, with Karlheinz contacting countless experts in the process and collating data that is now neatly encapsulated on their Hallstein brand’s website.
The highest quality water for human consumption requires the following qualities: low minerality; low sodium and nitrogen content; high, naturally occurring oxygen; precise natural PH; acidity; alkalinity, and a whole host of other quality parameters.
From defining it to finding it
Having established these ideal credentials, the Muhrs set out to find the ideal drinking water.
‘We assumed there was a water [brand] on the market that we’d find to fit all the criteria. We did not, so we went to the geologists next’, Alexander Muhr (Karlheinz’s son and CEO of Hallstein water) explains.
Indeed, the question of whether this ‘ideal water’ existed in nature was, at that point, academic. The family contacted a number of geological institutes to try and establish where in the world the geological conditions for their conceptual product existed. Multiple criteria were considered, such as ice age periods, glacial protection from contamination, etc.
The potential locations were narrowed down to Argentina, the Canadian Rockies, and Dachstein Mountain in the Austrian Alps. The latter, identified by every expert as the highest probability location for a suitable aquifer, seemed like the obvious place to start.
Extracting water from an underground aquifer is much like drilling for oil, explains Alexander, ‘due to the geological formations that would yield an oil resource – the way rock formations fold into angles in one another. This creates pressure underground as well.’
Once a site has been identified, test drilling has to take place to establish an economically viable resource. The project was met with complete scepticism by local geologists. The Muhrs were fortunate that the Austrian National Forest Service invited them to drill, on the basis of international experts’ conviction for the aquifer’s existence.
The resulting well was awesome in size and scope at 215m deep, equal to the height of the Empire State Building. Drilling was eventually capped in 2005 and then a two-year testing began to establish both the water’s composition and depletion rate.
In fact, there was no depletion: ‘the well is completely naturally replenishing’, says Alexander, ‘which means that as long as we only fill what comes out naturally, the resource will never deplete. Due to the pressure underground, the aquifer resource is unaffected by other water underground.
‘If, however, we were to pump the water out at a rate higher than its natural exit rate, there is a possibility that other water would enter the aquifer, changing its properties/quality.’
It is easy to imagine the excitement and sense of triumph the family must have felt at this stage. A study on the health benefits of their find was carried out by a health group in Germany and an academic journal is publishing a peer-reviewed study in December of 2022.
From mining to market
Taking water from this pristine and precious aquifer is carefully and scientifically calibrated so as not to take more than is naturally exiting the source. This means supplies are naturally limited, and command a premium price to match.
At the time of writing, the price of the Muhrs’ Hallstein Water ranges from US$6 to US$10 per litre (excluding shipping). While it is significantly higher than the typical retail offering – or indeed plain tap water – it compares favourably with other artesian and luxury brands.
Some of these tout their unique and unusual sources: Ô Amazon captures water from the humid air of the Amazon rainforest (US$110 per litre); Berg and Svalbarði (US$46 per litre and US$185 per litre, respectively) mine icebergs. Others lean into exotic mineral properties, such as the magnesium-rich ROI (US$59 per litre), with tasting notes like ‘double alka-seltzer’ or a coin bath.
Most absurd are those whose exorbitant price tags have nothing to do with the water at all. The Hollywood inspired Bling starts from a fashionable $219 per litre as its entry point. The ornate, crystal-encrusted bottles of Fillico Jewelry Water works out at a stupendous US$1390 per litre. Not one for casual sipping. In this context Hallstein Water, with its focus on purity and defined drinking quality, seems very reasonable.
Beyond the mores of the well-to-do, it is clear that water remains a luxury of daily life for many. According to the UN, one in three people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. The Muhr family supports Operation Water, a charity whose mission is to ‘deliver clean water solutions to the greatest number of people in need, at the lowest cost per person, by developing sustainable and scalable infrastructure projects’.
Hallstein Water, bottled either in glass bottles or BPA-free plastic jugs, is available in Europe, the USA, Canada, and the Bahamas (the Muhrs have a home in the islands). The family encourages clients to take out a monthly subscription.
After all, as Alexander puts it: ‘if they believe that they are getting the best, and healthiest water one can buy, why drink anything else?’