Editorial: navigating watery facts... and hogwash

Which is more disappointing: finding what you thought to be a true fact is actually a myth or finding what you thought to be a myth to be actually true? I've experienced both while putting together this special issue on water. 

If urban legends are always about what happened to a friend of a friend, then the telling of 'urban mythical facts' always seem to start with the phrase "Apparently, right, and this is absolutely true…" or "You're not going to believe this and I thought it was surprising but I read somewhere that…".

The first 'fact' regards how much water you should consume in a day. Water is the stuff of life, a basic need not only for humans but plants and animals everywhere. So how much is the right amount for you? In a way it's a basic piece of information that perhaps we should all know, but it's obviously not a simple question: it will vary from individual to individual, with climate, according to how active you are and many other factors. But surely there ought to be a minimum recommended amount or some kind of guidance?

"Yeah, I know, right, and you're not going to believe this, but you have to drink eight glasses a day or you'll…erm…die." I never believed it and myth-busting websites ridicule it, too, because it seems like so much water to gulp down in a session and everyone is different anyway. Yet there seems to be some truth behind it. When you realise that we're not talking pint glasses (which might be dangerous), but standard ones that add up to just a litre or two, and when it's understood that you can take this fluid in other ways like food, milk, juice, even coffee, it doesn't sound so ridiculous - many of us do it without trying.

In fact, National Health Service advice cites the Food Standards Agency recommendation of one to two litres per day for a temperate climate like the UK, and up to a litre extra per hour of exercise - more in warm conditions. The health advisors are careful not to recommend too much more because that can lead to a dangerous sodium deficiency. This summer, a woman claimed in court that too much water had left her brain-damaged.

"Yeah, but here's something else, right: they can't charge you for that water, no. Under a really really ancient law, you can go into any, like, café or bar or restaurant or whatever in England and they have to give you a cup of water for free - they're not even allowed to charge for it." This, it turns out, is sadly an urban mythical fact. Licenses might sometimes oblige proprietors to offer free water but that's as far as it goes. I was disappointed at this because it is something that I have asserted to friends, relations…a barman once.

It turns out to be rubbish, which is annoying because it ought to be true: we have so much water in England, after all. Or do we? Vitali Vitaliev reports from the water-themed Expo 2008 in Spain, where he heard that shortages are now an issue for the developed as well as the developing world. Phil Chamberlain looks at how water shortages in all communities could benefit from similar technologies. William Houston busts another water myth - that the world shortages are all the fault of humans - and looks at the greater natural forces at work. For more water-themed features, look for the water droplets at the tops of the page, as on this one.

"Anyway, right, apparently there's this effect thing to do with the spin of the Earth that means, right that water always goes down a plughole clockwise in the north, and counter-clockwise in the south…or is it counter-clockwise in the north…"

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