The large amount of water vapour in the Earth's atmosphere makes it extremely difficult to observe water in interstellar space, except under unusual conditions (e.g., masers). The Short Wavelength Spectrometer (SWS; de Graauw et al. 1996) on board the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) provides an unique opportunity to study the ro-vibrational fundamental bands of water in absorption against bright infrared continuum sources. Such absorption line data have several advantages over emission observations. For example, only a pencil beam to the infrared source is probed, which minimizes the complications due to the small-scale physical and chemical heterogeneity of star-forming regions. In addition, lines from all rotational levels are present within a vibrational band, so that the complete spectrum yields a direct estimate of the level populations and excitation temperature along the line of sight. Other molecules, such as CO, HCN and C2H2, can be observed with the same technique, leading to accurate relative abundances. The main limitation of the ISO-SWS grating is its low spectral resolving power, λ/Δ λ ≈ 1350 at 6 μm, since the lines are intrinsically much narrower. This limits the sensitivity, so that only high column densities can be detected, and complicates the interpretation because detectable lines are often saturated. The low spectral resolution also blends the lines, making it difficult to determine the equivalent widths unambiguously. The ISO-SWS is therefore particularly sensitive to molecules in warm gas with relatively large line widths (Δ V > 3 km s−1).