We have become so used to environmental portents that whenever we hear good news we blink in disbelief, so blink away: It appears that the various concerted efforts to get people in Japan to save water has paid off.

In Kanagawa Prefecture, for example, per capita water consumption dropped from 21.55 cubic meters a month in 1998 to 19.98 cubic meters a month in 2004. In Tokyo, consumption during the same period went down by 6 percent, and in Chiba Prefecture by 9 percent. The Japan Waterworks Association, which represents 1,500 water departments, says that between 1995 and 2003 average water use per day per person decreased from 391 liters to 363 liters. According to an Asahi Shimbun feature published last March, this decrease was brought about mainly through technology. A single flush of a toilet in the 1970s consumed 20 liters of water, while the same action today only uses 10. New drum-type washing machines use half the water older machines use, and as living spaces get larger more people are buying dishwashers, which on average need about one-tenth the amount of water that hand-washing requires.

The decrease can also be attributed to a change in public consciousness. Consumers have internalized the call for conservation in such a way that they no longer think they need as much water as they used to; meaning, they don’t consciously conserve but simply use less as a matter of course. This is certainly good news, especially for Japan, which is one of the world’s most notorious water hogs. Another Asahi article reported that Japan is the world’s No. 1 importer of “virtual water” (kasosui), a term that describes the amount of H2O used to produce certain items. For example, it takes about 20 tons of water to produce one kilogram of beef in terms of growing feed, maintaining livestock etc. So while Japan itself doesn’t directly consume this water, the countries it imports food from do, and some of these countries are undergoing water crises of their own, not to mention acute desertification.

Japan is famously lacking in natural resources, but it has always been blessed with an abundance of water despite the occasional seasonal shortage. The success of decades-long conservation schemes is more or less a symbolic victory, proof that people can be made to change wasteful habits.

However, the water utilities’ success has resulted in lower revenues. The situation has become so serious in Kanagawa, in fact, that the prefecture’s water department announced that it is going to increase water rates for households by 20 percent. Years ago it was assumed that water consumption would only increase as time went on, and so the government built lots of dams in order to create reservoirs. Since these reservoirs have started supplying water they require huge amounts of money to maintain. The new Miyagase Dam in western Kanagawa costs 60 billion yen a year to operate, and Kanagawa residents aren’t using enough water to pay for it and the debt incurred to build it.

The same is true of dams throughout Japan. The irony of the dilemma was summed up by a Kanagawa waterworks official who told Asahi, “We asked residents to conserve water, but just because we now have more water it doesn’t mean we can ask them to use more.” Why not? It seems that Tokyo, which is facing similar economic shortfalls with regard to water usage, but has decided not to increase rates, recently began an unusual PR campaign with the implied aim of boosting water consumption. At kiosks and convenience stores throughout the city you will find 500-ml bottles of water called Tokyo Sui on sale for 100 yen. These bottles contain normal tap water. It sounds like a stunt by one of those anticorporate guerrilla cooperatives.

In his Asahi Shimbun column, Yukichi Amano derisively mentioned that a friend of his from Nagoya bought several bottles during a trip to Tokyo “as souvenirs for his family.” But then Amano himself filled a glass with water from his faucet and took a drink. “It was good,” he writes. “What was my life like before I started drinking bottled water all the time?”

In much the same way that a certain consciousness about water conservation has taken hold, another type of consciousness has prevailed that says tap water is bad to drink. Part of this belief is experiential. Tap water in many places really does taste bad. But the global beverage industry has been very successful in convincing people that bottled water is by definition superior to tap water.

In the early ’90s, buying water in bottles was considered a silly extravagance. Now it’s a part of modern life. There are still many regions in the world where tap water is foul-tasting or hazardous to your health, but Tokyo went to great lengths over the past 10 years to improve its water supply by cleaning up reservoirs and watersheds, devising new filtering methods, replacing pipes, and reducing the use of chlorine and other disinfectants. The problem is that it’s difficult to get people to change their outlook. That’s why Tokyo is bottling its own water.

Once people realize it tastes good and is available in their own kitchens, maybe they’ll stop buying bottled water, which is itself environmentally undesirable because of the packaging. People look upon bottled water as a lifestyle statement, anyway. A few weeks ago the Fuji TV variety show “Kasupe” looked at the most expensive bottled waters in the world. No. 3 is Voss from Norway, which Madonna made famous by saying she drinks nothing else. No. 1 is a mineral water from Fukushima that costs 3,000 yen a liter. The celebrity guests were given samples and told it was this precious liquid. They effusively praised its purity and then were told that what they’d drunk was actually tap water. Great joke. Even better PR.