Water: there's nothing else on this great green earth we're willing to pay for that has such an abundant supply. Certainly in the North American context, where we have a relatively great supply, there's a certain predictability to the earnings of water utility companies. But in the emerging markets too, demand for water, sewage and treatment services is exploding. Here we highlight a number of companies that have bubbled up to our attention in this mostly clear, tasteless and colorless field.

IN PICTURES: Eight Ways To Survive A Market Downturn

Water on Both Sides of the Atlantic
We start in France where Veolia Environnement (NYSE:VE) stock pays investors about 5.4% annual dividend and trades for $29.43 (Friday's close). The stock has tremendous momentum behind it, having surged over 50% from 52-week lows of just $19.14 a couple of months ago.

Veolia Environnement is based in Paris, has a market cap of about $14 billion and has separate water, wastewater and environmental services. It operates in over 40 countries worldwide and employs more than 330,000 people.

Profitable Mid-Atlantic Operators
Closer to home, Middlesex Water Company, (Nasdaq:MSEX) offers a 5% payout and trades with a P/E of just under 17. The company's core business involves commercial and municipal contracts to operate both water and wastewater systems in New Jersey and Delaware.

Middlesex Water has been on the move recently, expanding its operations into North Carolina, where it will service a newly built, luxury, single-family home development. Amidst the economic turmoil of 2008, this 100 year old company still found fit to raise its annual dividend.

Artesian Resources Corporation (Nasdaq:ARTNA) also operates in Delaware, distributing and selling water to residential, commercial and governmental customers. The company's stock sells with a trailing P/E multiple of about 16.5 and pays an annual dividend of 4.50%. The stock is up about 20% since its March lows, largely on favorable earnings this quarter.

Artesian grew year-over-year quarterly revenues by 13%, from $12.3 to $13.9 million in 2009.

South Atlantic Powerhouse
Our final stop brings us to the sunny shores of Brazil, an emerging market powerhouse, where Companhia de Saneamento Basico do Estado de Sao Paulo (NYSE:SBS) provides water and sewage service to 366 municipalities in the state of Sao Paulo, including the city of Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is one of the world's largest cities and servicing its water needs – particularly those of its substantial poor cohort – is no easy feat.

SBS has a market cap of $3.6 billion, trades with a P/E of slightly over 7 and has appreciated in value by a remarkable 125% from its 52-week low. The company recently announced it would pay dividends to shareholders in 2010 (those of record as of May 28, 2009).

The Wrap
The whole world over, people are still drinking clean water and looking for ways to dispose of the dirty stuff. That's not likely to change. For those companies who can efficiently service new and existing clientele, there are big gulps of profits to be had. (For more, take a look at Water: The Ultimate Commodity.)

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