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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (June 13, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---What have "Ally McBeal", "The Sopranos", "Boston Public" and "West Wing" got in common other than being top rated American television shows? The answer lies in the water.

Small square plastic one-liter bottles with the label "Fiji Water" have become ubiquitous in American sitcoms and dramas.

And what began as an almost accidental product placement, has in a short time turned Fiji Water into the No. 2 imported bottled water, with around 45 million liters sold annually, according to the U.S. Beverage Marketing Corporation, behind France's Evian.

Fiji Water exports last year jumped 59 percent to make it a US$ 90 million trade.

For a tiny Pacific nation, which in the past two years has witnessed a coup and a violent military mutiny as well as a collapse in the traditional industries of sugar growing and garment manufacture, it's all pretty remarkable.

Even as gunmen held the nation's government hostage Natural Waters of Viti Ltd. was building a US$ 21 million bottling facility at Yaqara, at the base of the Nakauvadra Mountains on Vitu Levu island.

Fiji Water has cashed in on the mythical reputation of the South Seas -- enhanced in Hollywood blockbusters like "The Truman Show," where the hero (Jim Carrey) wanted to escape to Fiji, and Tom Hanks was "Castaway" in Fiji.

While the images of Fiji are of sun and sand, the meteorological South Pacific Convergence Zone parks itself over Vitu Levu, guaranteeing the capital, Suva, a relentless 3,000 millimeters (120 inches) of rain annually.

The jungle-clad rugged mountains of the interior are mostly wrapped in heavy cloud and Fiji's isolation, 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Australia, ensures rainfall remains untainted.

Natural Waters general manager Ian Lincolne said the rainfall on Nakauvadra filters underground to collect in an aquifer at the base of the Yaqara River Valley, where the water is bottled at the source.

"Carbon dating by a U.S. laboratory has shown the water to be more than 450 years old," he told AFP.

"Taste is a consequence of source and the source of Fiji water is a remote and undeveloped mountain range in Fiji."

The company, which pays a royalty and a lease fee to the traditional landowners, says they are harvesting the resource in a sustainable way and its consumption of water remains much less than what goes into the aquifer.

Canadian millionaire David Gilmour founded the water export business, opening the Yaqara operation in 1996 and exporting in a small way in 1997.

At one point during the 2000 coup, self-proclaimed nationalists occupied the Fiji Waters plant, along with other areas, but after negotiations with locals, they left and production resumed.

Gilmour tried to use the coup to get his water into the international spotlight as hoards of journalists descended on Fiji, but with little success.

Instead he opted for another tack, getting the distinctive bottle on television shows, largely for free at first.

Lincolne, an Australian, says the product placement is still part of the marketing mix, although he admitted it was no longer free of charge.

They face competition in the U.S. from 400 brands of bottled water chasing a share of the market annually worth around US$ 6 billion.

"The bottled water industry is characterized by fierce competition, low margins, a capital intensive nature, constant change and consolidation," Lincolne said.

"The market is extremely dynamic and many organizations are trying a variety of strategies to improve their position."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:  Website: 

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