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J R Soc Med. 2004 March; 97(3): 142.
PMCID: PMC1079330

Art and medicine 3: Bouvez, by Dr Leon Cobb

Water has been termed `blue gold' and the availability of safe drinking water is one of the world's more glaring inequalities. Thus this picture, inviting us to drink in the message of water and health, was an appropriate entry for the Brooke Epidemiology Art Prize, arranged jointly by the Section of Epidemiology and Public Health and the Medical Art Society. The work, in acrylic, uses a glacier blue glaze to register the dream of the young African man for clean water, while the black and red impasto (seen as dark contrast in the black and white reproduction) represents the ever-present dysentery and other infections transmitted by the water in his environment. Entrants were asked to provide a commentary with their work: in his, Dr Cobb included statistics to underline the contrast between the developed and developing world. In the developed world, the bottled-water business is worth £1 billion a year, not least because bottled mineral water costs a thousand times more per litre than the essentially identical product from the tap. Meanwhile, in many parts of Africa and other water-poor countries, the drinking water sources frequently contain concentrations of faecal or thermotolerant coliforms as high as 100 000/dL when the WHO guideline is 0/dL. Over 1.1 billion people in the developing world have no access to safe drinking water and climate change is increasing water shortages, predicted to affect more than half the world by 2032.

Even without the eloquent theme of blue gold and red danger in Bouvez, the painting's message of plentiful and fashionable water here, and clean water as more a dream than a reality `over there', is sharply realized. Water is becoming a valuable market, and the World Trade Organization and industry groups think that the only way to handle this increasing scarce resource is to set a price on it. The global toll annually from waterborne diseases is around 3 million deaths.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press