August 22, 2011

The Revenge of Water

by Barbara Goldberg

In the July 29th issue of “The Week,” one of my favorite publications, an eye-opening article appeared with the above title, excerpted from a book by Charles Fishman, “The Big Thirst.”  “Water warriors” like me and others spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the lack of safe water in the developing world.  But what about water in our own backyard?  Was there a time in the history of the United States when people died of unsafe water?  Absolutely.  And what did we as a nation do about it? Plenty.  Unfortunately, many governments in the developing world can’t afford to help their people adequately and so they suffer.

The following excerpts from the above mentioned article are noteworthy:

In the decade from 1905 to 1915, as dozens of water systems around the U.S. installed filters and chlorination systems, we went through a revolution that profoundly improved water, and human life, forever. Between 1900 and 1940, mortality rates in the United States fell 40 percent.

How much did clean water matter?  Simple filtration and chlorination of city water supplies reduced overall mortality in U.S. cities by 13 percent. Clean water cut child mortality in half.  From 1900 to 1940, U.S. life expectancy at birth went from 47 years to 63 years. In just 40 years, the life span of the average American was extended 16 years.

That first water revolution ushered in an era—the one we think we still live in—in which water was unlimited, free, and safe. And once it was unlimited, free, and safe, we could stop thinking about it. The fact that it was unfailingly available “on demand” meant that we would use it more, even as we thought about it less.

The figures are dramatic. In 1955, the U.S. Geological Survey said that rural Americans without running water in their homes used 10 gallons a day per person. (That same year, each cow used 20 gallons per day.) For newly “electrified” farm families, with pumps, and for city families, that number was already 60 gallons per person. Today, it’s 100 gallons per person at home.

The ease with which water enters and leaves our lives allows us an indifference to our water supply. We are utterly ignorant of our own watermark, of the amount of water required to float us through the day, and we are utterly indifferent to the mark our daily lives leave on the water supply.

Right now, 40 percent of the world’s 6.9 billion people don’t have easy access to clean water. By 2050, there will be 2.4 billion more people on the planet. They will be thirsty.

The three things that we have taken to be the natural state of our water supply—abundant, cheap, and safe—will not be present together in the decades ahead. We may have water that is abundant and cheap, but it will be “reuse water,” for things like lawn watering or car washing, not for drinking; we will certainly have drinking water that is safe, and it may be abundant, but it will not be thoughtlessly inexpensive.


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