In past times, every town and village on Hvar had its own water supply, with a main well (bunar) or rainwater cistern (gustirna, kišnica) serving the village as a whole, and individual cisterns for families and their animals. Some large cisterns had a carefully constructed collar of stone called a pjover (from the Italian piovere = to rain) round the edge to direct rainwater into the cavity. Family houses often had ingenious water-flow channels to make sure as much rainwater as possible was directed from the roof to the nearest cistern.
The stream called Vir was the main source of drinking water for Jelsa in Austro-Hungarian times, and still serves as a secondary source in present times. Similarly the Slatina stream which runs along the side of Jelsa's main square used to be drinking water, but now, sadly it is a repository for rubbish and the well which it served has been replaced by a drinking fountain fed from the mains water supply.
The cistern which served Petar Hektorović's fortified villa in Stari Grad bears the inscription 'draga voda' ('dear water'). Water is indeed to be cherished. A supply of fresh water is essential to good health. Without it, crops and kidneys fail, and human lives are lost.
Life in Dalmatia was always tough during the long hot months of summer, especially if the winter rainfall was less than usual. That all changed in 1986, when Hvar was connected to a main source of drinking water from the Cetina river on the mainland by undersea pipes which crossed the island of Brač to reach Hvar. This guaranteed most of the island a year-round supply of high quality fresh water. However, many islanders kept their wells and cisterns functioning even they were no longer essential, mainly to water gardens and vegetable patches. It is a wise precaution to maintain an independent water supply, in case the mains supply is cut off for some reason or (God forbid!) becomes polluted. A lot of people prefer the taste of the fresh rainwater from their cistern to that from the mains supply. Cisterns used for drinking water are usually cleaned out periodically, and the water should be checked for purity by the Water Board.
The mainland connexion was radically upgraded in 2013 with modern bigger pipes to provide greater capacity, as the island was in danger of demand outstripping supply. The final connexion of the pipe from Brač to Hvar was completed on 30th June 2013, the day before Croatia's accession to the European Union. The Director of Hvar's Water Board (Hvarski vodovod) Ivan Grgičević described the moment as a historic one, equal to that when the island's water system was first connected to the mainland in 1986. See the video below for highlights of the complex engineering works that the upgrade entailed (narrative in Croatian). When water was scarce, one can understand that people used it sparingly. Now that most of the island has sufficient for normal needs, water should still be used with discretion, certainly not wasted.
Drinking water is essential for life. In olden times - not that long ago - adult Dalmatians habitually drank bevanda at mealtimes (red wine diluted with water), while children drank water. Nowadays adults still drink the bevanda, but children are offered a vast choice of soft drinks, including concentrated fruit juices, flavoured fizzy drinks, so-called 'energy' drinks and teas. Water does not feature high on the list, so a lot of children are growing up without developing a taste for water. Herbal teas are often recommended for babies in preference to water. Consuming flavoured drinks leads children to dislike the taste of water, and so refuse to drink it. But most of the flavoured drinks on sale are not healthy options, and in recent years many countries have introduced legislation to discourage and limit their sale to children.
There is no substitute for water as the basis for adequate hydration. We get fluids from other sources, including foods, but they do not replace the need for water. Water drinking is a habit that must be encouraged. There is debate about how much water one should drink during the day. In my view, it's not a question of drinking a certain quantity, but rather of keeping the body systems well hydrated and not allowing them to become depleted. As a basic guideline, I recommend drinking a small glass of plain water, perhaps 2 dcl, at the start of the day, and then again at regular intervals, perhaps every hour, until the early evening. Feeling thirsty means you are already dehydrating, so you need to drink to prevent thirst. In hot climates, you need to drink more water, and if humidity is high you may need mineral supplements such as salt tablets as well. Active sports and physical activities such as gardening or labouring will increase your need for water. Because their heat control mechanisms are different from adults', children dehydrate at a faster rate, and should be given water throughout the day. Every summer on Hvar, children are admitted to the emergency department and put on fluid- and salt-replacing drips, because they have dehydrated - a problem which simply would not arise if they drank enough water while playing and swimming in the heat.
Not drinking enough water can lead to various problems, some of them serious. Dehydration can cause calf cramps, especially at night, and dry skin. It can contribute to muscle strains or tears in the legs or back during exercise or physical activities, also kidney stones and a variety of problems relating to the circulatory system, including blood clots. Telltale signs of dehydration include dry lips, dry skin, dark-coloured urine and a tendency to muscle cramps. A simple test is to lie on your stomach and bend and straighten one knee quickly five or six times: if the hamstrings on the back of your thigh cramp up, you are probably dehydrated.
If you are not used to drinking plain water all day, every day, now is the time to start! Do not try to drink a lot in one go, it is better to drink little and often. Also, if you are drinking water regularly, you need to maintain your body's salt levels to avoid hyponatraemia, which can cause many symptoms including unconsciousness or even death. Assuming your diet consists of freshly prepared food, add a little salt to your main meal, do not avoid salt, as is sometimes advised. If you carry water with you when travelling, use a glass bottle carried in a plastic bag in case of breakage. Plastic bottles may contribute to cancers, and are known to harm the thyroid gland, especially in pregnant women and newborn babies. If you cannot avoid using a plastic bottle, do not re-use it. Depending on where you live, you may choose to filter your drinking water. Some places in the world have an adequate supply of drinking-water, but it is not as pure as it could and should be.
Hvar's high quality drinking water is part of the island's opportunities for healthy living. We have to hope that the younger generations learn to enjoy this resource, to use it wisely and to conserve and improve on it for the generations to come.
Links: Hvarski Vodovod - Hvar Water Board, website in Croatian
http://www.who.int/topics/drinking_water/en/ World Health Organisation
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-drink/ European Commission
© Vivian Grisogono 2013
UPDATE, July 2016
Eco Hvar is kept informed of the tests on Hvar's water supply, which are carried out regularly. As the water is not tested for herbicide contamination (this is rarely done anywhere in the world), in 2015 Eco Hvar sent a sample of tap water to a Spanish laboratory. Happily, the result came back completely clear. There's no room for complacency where drinking water is concerned, so it is reassuring to know that every effort is made to keep our water safe at all times.