This article is in support of the Imagine a Day Without Water campaign – a national online movement to raise awareness about the value of water and water infrastructure.
By David Drake, Technical Director
In 1854, 29-year-old Henry Whitehead, assistant curate of St. Luke’s Church in London, recorded the tragic death of a family on Berwick Street. In the space of two days, a widow watched helplessly as her eight children died from cholera, then she herself succumbed to the disease. This tale had become common in 19th century European cities, with more than one million recorded cholera deaths between 1829 and 1896. The tremendous loss of life drove researchers like Dr. John Snow, Louis Pasteur and Henry Whitehead to investigate the disease and discover that cholera was transmitted by contaminated water. The governments of London and other major cities across Europe responded with health regulations and massive drinking water and sewage control infrastructure projects. Largely as a result of these and other public health efforts, cholera essentially disappeared from western Europe after 1896.
Infrastructure projects in 2016 are not that different from those in the 1800s: Transportation, communication, power utilities, and sewage and drinking water systems. Today, however, these systems are considerably more complex and expensive. Maintenance costs have forced governments with limited funds and tax-resistant residents to make hard choices on what will be fixed next.
In the early 20th century, choosing what to maintain was easy: Keep the water flowing; keep the water safe. However, things have changed in the last 30 years. As mobile, high-tech, consumer-driven citizens, we tend to focus on the things that affect us minute to minute: The Internet is down again; I hit another pothole; the lines at the airport will make me miss my flight. As a society we want these things fixed today because we think we can’t live without them. The truth is we can live without the Internet; we can drive around the pothole; and missing the flight won’t be the end of the world.
On the other hand, we take for granted that, day in and day out, water and sewer systems simply work. We twist the faucet handle and clean, safe water pours into the cup. We flush the toilet and the waste disappears down the drain. In this case, the truth is we can’t live otherwise. There’s no substitute for water. And, any amount of contaminated drinking water is too much.
The residents of 19th century England remembered the curse of cholera, and so, had no trouble understanding the right priorities: Clean, available water and effective sanitation systems. Twenty-first century decision makers need to put our tax money where it will do the most good.