Salzman examines paucity of safe drinking water in the world

Forget war or climate change, the single largest killer in the world is unsafe drinking water, writes Joan Oleck

Drinking Water: A History
James Salzman
Overlook Press

"In developed countries, we do not think much about drinking water on a daily basis. It is plentiful, safe and easily available," writes James Salzman in his fine new book Drinking Water: A History. We don't think, he says, about the quality or quantity of our H2O. "We simply turn the tap or open a bottle of water.

"Most of us do not know the source … and do not particularly care to know. Water supply is seen as a government or corporate responsibility, not an individual concern."

Yet that lack of concern quickly disappears when we move a few thousand kilometres geographically, or a few dozen years in time. At that point or in that place, drinking water - life's most basic requirement - becomes a very big concern. Consider, for instance, what happened with Olde London's Broad Street pump.

In the 1850s, the pump's well, in Soho, was popular locally for its clear, tasty drinking water. The problem was, that water also carried deadly cholera. In one of many intriguing anecdotes, Salzman, a professor of law and the environment at Duke University, tells of how one John Snow, a London physician, tracked cholera deaths back to the pump, even for consumers who lived in far-off Islington and Hampstead and sent servants or family to fetch the water.

A now-famous "Ghost Map" came out of the report Snow wrote in 1855, showing a cholera cluster one-quarter mile around the pump. Armed with this evidence, the determined doctor persuaded Soho officials to remove the pump handle - in one fell swoop halting the spread of the disease and founding the modern field of epidemiology.

Snow's work, of course, hardly ended waterborne disease. Wells tainted by our forefathers' tendency to dump rubbish near water supplies and failure to prevent street run-off prompted historic epidemics: in 1832 cholera killed 900 people in Philadelphia and 3,500 in New York; yellow fever struck Philadelphia in 1793 and New York in 1795. More mundanely, water polluted with human waste simply made life unpleasant: 1858's "Great Stink of London" caused Parliament to adjourn. And in 1748 New York, a visitor was heard to quip that the water was so bad horses from out of town refused to drink it.

But, equine palates aside, "For most of human history, safe drinking water has been the exception, not the norm," Salzman soberly writes. "The greatest threat to human well-being in the world today is not climate change, Aids, or warfare. Unsafe drinking water is the single largest killer in the world."

Certainly, many over the centuries have laboured to reverse this circumstance. The demand for safe water has been a constant, Salzman writes, but what has evolved is our relationship with water, along with societal conceptions of what threatens health and makes water unsafe. Snow, for example, fought the common belief in his day that disease spread through airborne mists containing poisonous "miasma"; he helped usher in germ theory.

Another example: communal drinking cups at school faucets and water barrels on trains were once the (dangerous) norm. Then, in 1909, the state of Kansas banned this practice and other states followed; the disposable paper Dixie Cup (1907) was born. Other turning points include the first filtration (through sand) of municipal water by Glasgow, Scotland, in 1827, and the realisation (Middelkerke, Belgium in 1902) that adding small amounts of chlorine to water kills microorganisms. A particularly horrific realisation occurred as recently as the 1990s in Bangladesh, where a massive World Health Organization initiative to sink "tubewells" into the aquifer "monstrously transformed into the worst case of mass poisoning in the world", Salzman writes.

It turns out that wells in 59 of 64 of the country's regions contained natural arsenic levels exceeding WHO standards - with 10 per cent of wells containing more than six times that level.

The WHO quickly took action, painting the worst wells red. But rural people - mostly women - continued using them. They knew arsenic's dangers, but apparently preferred slow death by poison to the immediate torture of walking kilometres each day to water sources, balancing heavy jugs or jerry cans on their heads, losing critical time from paying work and schooling, and crippling their bodies.

Drinking water's collision with cultural and economic factors is so poignant, so thought-provoking, readers may wonder why Drinking Water wasn't written years ago. Why do we have piped water in the developed world? One influence was the Romans' engineering feat of moving water long distances via stone aqueducts. The clever Romans also introduced piped water to urban communal lacus, underwriting them by taxing those who piped the water directly to their homes. When did bottled water arrive on the scene? That would be the Middle Ages, when communities around holy wells created distinctive water bottles (ceramic, not plastic) so that pilgrims could take the precious stuff home and guarantee awestruck neighbours that this was the real thing.

New York's debacle in cleaning up its water is another fascinating tale. Following the yellow fever of 1795, the first US Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton persuaded state legislators to privatise, not publicly finance, water. Thus arose the Manhattan Company, whose broad powers to select any land and waters it desired, without obligation to repair streets torn up from pipes, provide water for fires, or open its books, enraged customers.

It wasn't water Assemblyman Aaron Burr (infamous for subsequent acts) cared about: What he wanted was to lead the new company, using its unlimited bank charter, which allowed the institution to devote barely 10 per cent of its $2 million funding toward waterworks. That's how it got away with laying just 23 miles of pipe, using local polluted water, and gouging customers.

"It is true the unpalatableness of this abominable fluid prevents almost every person from using it as a beverage at the table," one man wrote to a local newspaper. Eventually forced out of the water trade, the company landed on its feet as the powerful Chase Manhattan Bank (today JPMorgan Chase). A chastened New York then returned to public funding for water, building the enormous Croton Reservoir project, which now draws from watersheds 200km north of the city and transports 4.5 billion litres a day.

Of course, water over the centuries has been more than business; it's been spiritual, too, from Ponce de León's Fountain of Youth to Saint Bernadette's visions at a Lourdes grotto, to the common religious imagery of a river crossing to the afterlife. A heartening factor along the way: the recognition in both the Quran and the Jewish Talmud that water from natural sources comes from God, making its "sale" a desecration.

In the Quran, this concept is the "Right of Thirst"; the dramatic well scene in Lawrence of Arabia (where one Arab kills another for partaking from his tribe's well) is a British screenwriter's invention, Salzman points out.

The "Right of Thirst" remains relevant to this day: In 2010 the UN General Assembly resolution proclaimed a human right to "safe and clean drinking water", and that concept underlies modern privatisation fights whose description constitutes the book's strongest passages.

One such fight took place in McCloud, California, where citizens beat back a bid by Nestlé Waters North America to bottle 1.97 billion litres of the town's glacier spring water, in the process creating a threat to local ecology and offering the town just one cent per 64 litres (to be sold at retail for $45).

Another water fight: Cochabama, Bolivia, where citizens violently protested the private consortium their government had contracted to manage water and wastewater services.

The government's cancellation of Cochabama's contract sent locals back to buying water from vendors - which was not necessarily a good thing. Water "is a gift from God", a privatisation opponent in Argentina once told the president of Veolia Environment, which supplies water to 100 million people worldwide. "Yes," the executive dryly replied, "but He forgot to lay the pipes."

Regardless of the economic questions involved, the human right to safe water remains major news. It can be seen in a legal ruling in India (where 17 per cent of people have no access to clean water) that forced municipalities there to improve water quality. It's present in Zambia, where a marketing campaign for a product called PUR (a sachet that purifies water) was a resounding success - because people put more stock in something they have to buy.

The right to clean water also reverberates in a US non-profit that raises millions to build wells in the developing world. It's there in new water treatment technologies, such as desalinisation (a major focus in the Middle East), large-scale distillation, the "LifeStraw" (for individual water purification), and even plans to mine water from asteroids.

The Wall Street Journal has said that water is the "21st century's equivalent of oil". And that sounds right. Foiled by the citizens of McCloud, Nestlé is working to open three other regional locations, to take what Mother Nature created from hydrogen and oxygen, then sell it in plastic bottles to willing buyers.

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.