Wow, Yikes, Hmm

Keep sewage away from drinking water.

It doesn’t seem like an amazing idea, does it? I expect that you could get agreement on this point from all Canadians. It’s just something we know, you know? Hasn’t it always been this way?

No. It first started being a significant problem about 10,000 years ago when we stopped being primarily hunters/gatherers and began being farmers and dwellers in one fixed spot. Still, it was a long slog until someone had a better idea than getting excreta out of your dwelling by throwing it into the street – or, maybe, until they had the technology to implement that idea. It was 3000 B.C. before latrines were first linked to a city’s sewage system in what is now Pakistan, and it wasn’t until 100 B.C. that a Roman decree *required* city residents to use latrines connected to the sewage system that ran under the streets. Of course, in those pre-modern-medicine days, the incentive to use plumbing wasn’t better health: It was less smell.

However, progress is worse than slow: it’s fickle. After the fall of the Roman Empire, things went backward for quite a while. In mid-18th-century England, all the Brontë sisters died young from, at least in part, lifelong consumption of water contaminated by sewage. Oh, and by a local graveyard. Oh, yuck.

Sadly, the Brontës died just about the time that an English doctor was connecting the dots between cholera outbreaks in London and the adjacency of water pumps and underground sewage pipes with unsealed joints. Then came Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except, of course, it isn’t. Unsafe water is still part of current affairs, whether it’s from no sewage systems or from cross-contamination by sewage systems or from industrial pollution or from inadequate treatment systems or from a lack of distribution systems to households. You can browse these graphs on Our World in Data for the global outlook, or you can Google “water advisories in Canada” for something a little closer to home. Check both long-term water advisories (those in place for more than a year with no apparent upper limit) and short-term advisories. And search the Auditor General’s 2021 report for the words “recurring water advisories,” to wit:

For example, 1 community had a short-term advisory for 363 days, followed less than 4 months later by another short-term advisory that lasted for another 325 days. (Paragraph 3.53)

And consider this caveat:

She [the AG] found many cancelled long-term unsafe drinking water advisories have been achieved through temporary measures, which may not last until permanent solutions are in place. – Kenora Miner and News

It makes the Government’s own reporting on lifted long-term advisories seem like a shell game, no?

Anyway, the failures/weaknesses/self-servingness of the modern administrative state notwithstanding, what strikes me about this sad/uplifting/frustrating history is this:

  • Wow. We’ve come a long (if slow) way. I hope we can hang onto our progress.
  • Yikes. What do I know about how to survive and thrive without the help of a functioning advanced society? How fast would we forget the basics, where we even know them?
  • Hmm. What wisdom or knowledge from previous generations and societies have we forgotten or otherwise misplaced? And what things do we do now that future generations will roll their eyes over?


This entry was posted in Thinking Broadly and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Wow, Yikes, Hmm

  1. Tom. Watson says:

    That’s a fascinating tracing of the history of the linkage between sewage and disease.
    In 1977, we hauled our travel trailer to Jekyl Island, Georgia. We wondered why an island in the Atlantic Ocean had a huge swimming pool in its town-centre. One night when the tide was out, we saw a lot of small black flecks in the ocean water. The reason was that the town just up the shoreline dumped raw sewage into the ocean..

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Well, as I understand it, Ottawa has a combined stormwater and sewage system that overflows directly into the Ottawa River when there’s a lot of rain. In 2016, that happened 28 times for enough waste to fill 217 Olympic-size swimming pools. It’s amazing to me.

  2. Judith Umbach says:

    Good topic. I am ashamed of Canada for communities with almost permanent unsafe water conditions. We know better and if any country can afford safe water, we can. Problems exist and must be addressed all the way to solution.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Yes, it’s hard to believe it happens here. It’s harder to forgive or excuse it, although clearly it’s not easy to provide clean water on super-remote reserves. But we seem remarkably ready to forget – and to tolerate poor performance in this area.

  3. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – an interesting article so of course I have comments.

    Sewage Treatment (Caution! Reading the following may cause some readers to gag.) When I was a serving member of the CAF the Water Supply, Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants (WSPOL) Technicians were responsible for operating and maintaining the military water treatment plants and the military sewage treatment plants. The highlight of any sewage treatment plant tour was when the WSPOL Tech took a glass of water from the plant outfall and drank it to prove that the discharge from the sewage plant was now potable water.

    When I was stationed in Lahr, Germany, in the 70’s the Germans had calculated that the volume of water taken from the Rhine River for human consumption and industrial uses and then returned to the Rhine after being used meant that that water had gone through 33 human or industrial processes before it reached the North Sea.

    The City of Ottawa just completed a $232 million combined sewage storage tunnel, the CSST, last year to store storm water and sewage underground during major storms rather than let the excess that the treatment plant can’t handle go directly into the Ottawa River. That stored water is then released to the sewage treatment plant in amounts the plant can handle after the storm passes. Storage is provided by a 10-foot or 12-foot diameter pipe that runs from west to east approximately under Wellington Street. There is also a connector that runs south to north just west of Bank Street. More information on this project is available through a Google search for Ottawa combined sewage storage tunnel or Ottawa CSST.

    BTW: The Ottawa sewage treatment plant is downriver on the east side of Ottawa from the water treatment plant which is on the upriver or west side of Ottawa.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    I’m glad some others leapt into the sewer before me. I knew I wanted to respond, but felt wordless ( yes, me!).

    I see this as a class-and-privilege issue. The wealthy and powerful have always managed to live “upstream” of the effluent. A tour of Sudbury will take you past the open field where, originally, ore was smelted on wood fires; the hourly paid workers had houses downwind while the managers had houses upwind. In Haiti, the rich live in the (relatively) clear and cool air up the hill in Petionville; the poor live in the fetid and festering open sewer that is Port au Prince. It Canada, the poor in Attawapiskat and hundreds of other Indigenous communities have unsafe drinking water; not Ottawa or Toronto. Lytton burns to the ground, but the province is busting its butt to save Apex Man Resort…

    I still have, somewhere, a picture of contrasts. On one side of fence, the lush green fairways of a well-watered golf course near Nairobi. On the other side of the same fence, an endless sea of mud-brown buildings jammed together with not a speck of green visible, the squatter town of Mathare.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I think that’s right, and it was ever thus. I also think that although most Canadians don’t expect (or want) there to be perfect equality of outcomes, we do expect that some basics be attended to for everyone. Clean water is one of those basics. Or not . . .

Comments are closed.