A varied and sometimes erratic record of what I'm learning inside and outside of the classroom

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wonder of (Clean) Water

Photo credit: Roger McLassus
Today I was reminded to be grateful for something that I hadn't thought about for a long time--the ready, constant supply of clean water we have available to us. It also seemed fitting considering I got sick last night, and I am grateful to know that the water I'm drinking isn't going to be riddled with disease-carrying organisms and make me sicker or even kill me. People living at the beginning of the 20th century didn't have the same assurance, when sewage and other waste was dumped directly into streets, as well as rivers and other sources of drinking water, leading to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid. The purification of urban drinking water on a large scale is the product largely of the last 100 years, and it is an ongoing process as developing nations struggle to provide clean, safe drinking water to all of their inhabitants.

Dr. John Snow
The catalyst for the push to develop waste treatment and water purification methods was the discovery that many of the widespread diseases of the early 19th century were waterborne. Maybe I'm weird, but I've always had a strange fascination with methods of tracing epidemics, and one of my favorite accounts is that of John Snow and the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, when he traced the source of the epidemic back to the Broad Street pump. I REALLY want to read The Ghost Map, which explains the story in detail and what it means for us today. In fact, I just bought it off Amazon.com for $0.96+shipping. Happy birthday to me (my birthday is on Thursday). :)

So anyway, the increase of urbanization/industrialization led to increased demand for safe drinking water, and over the past century methods for water treatment have developed on different scales.

Large scale solutions: Dams, aqueducts, chlorination

The Hoover Dam in 1935 (Black Canyon, Nevada) and the Aswan High Dam in the 70's (in Egypt) control flooding, provide water for municipalities and irrigation, and generate electric power. In 1919, civil engineer Abel Wolman and chemist Linn H. Enslow develop a formula for chlorinating urban water supplies, taking into account bacteria, acidity, and other factors relating to taste and purity to determine dosage. These methods, while effective, are financially out of reach for many developing countries, who must turn to other solutions, like the ones described below. 

Small scale solutions: UV Waterworks by Ashok Gadgil and other small-scale purification systems

In watching this video, I was reminded of the quote that "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." There is beauty in the idea that such a "stupidly simple" device could make such a huge difference in the lives of so many people. Clean water and its distribution will continue to be important as long as humans need water, which is as long as, well, pretty much forever.

1 comment:

  1. I've traveled to Malaysia with my Mother a few times and I remember drinking the water and noticing some differences. It wasn't riddled with diseases but it definitely wasn't as 'clean' as water back home.
    It is insane to think how simple clean water is but how much of the world population doesn't have access to it.