No Bottle

Rose George

  • Drinking Water: A History by James Salzman
    Overlook Duckworth, 320 pp, £9.99, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 7156 4528 4
  • Parched City: A History of London’s Public and Private Drinking Water by Emma Jones
    Zero Books, 361 pp, £17.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 78099 158 0
  • Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource by David Sedlak
    Yale, 352 pp, £20.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 17649 0

On a green hill above a lake in my local park in Leeds, there is a handsome stone structure. The Barrans Fountain was built by the Victorian clothing manufacturer Sir John Barran, once also the city’s mayor. He must have been a man with ambition. A building he constructed in the city centre is Moorish and beautiful, a small glimpse of Granada in the middle of West Yorkshire, though it was nothing more grand than a warehouse. And he wasn’t content with providing just one water spout for visitors to Roundhay Park: his circular fountain has eight. Four on the outside walls, four on the inside. What munificence! Today, not one of the spouts works. Park users are instructed to head instead for the Lakeside Café, or ‘for the more exclusive bottled variety, the Mansion!’

I think frequently about water supply because I often go running, but I am also often forgetful, leaving my water bottle behind. After an hour or so of running, I begin to look out for drinking water, and I never find any except the kind that comes in a plastic bottle from a shop, or the kind that could be given if I had the nerve to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for it (which I did recently in Cornwall, and was offered ‘Water? Or a gin and tonic?’). In all the parks and woods that I run through, there are only the stone ghosts of fountains, signs of a time when providing clean, safe drinking water to the general public was seen as a civic duty, enough that Sir John Barran would install four braces of them for the citizens of Leeds, at great cost. Even schoolchildren in England aren’t entitled to water fountains, though it is known that children concentrate better when they are properly hydrated.

Old societies in parched areas – Jews, Arabs and Africans – had conventions about providing water to strangers, and they were civilised ones. Sharia, the environmental academic James Salzman writes in Drinking Water: A History, means ‘the way to water’. There were limits to what Salzman called the Right of Thirst: you could ask for water, but not for enough to slake the thirst of your camels or your fields. Water, in Salzman’s account, can be symbolic, ritual, vital. Every living thing depends on it. The prize that Tantalus couldn’t reach was water. Even viruses go dormant when deprived of it. Symbolic, ritual, vital, sure: but it’s also difficult, unwieldy, fragile. Water is heavy, so it’s hard to get it up hills, and unwieldy, so difficult to contain or pack. It’s for these reasons the occupants of the International Space Station drink recycled urine. It’s also easily contaminated. It has been, at various times and in various places, a cultural, social, political or economic resource. It can be fought over and squandered. It can create great riches, for the companies and shareholders who monopolise our water supply today.

In England, Margaret Thatcher’s government abolished state-owned regional water authorities in 1989, and water was privatised. Eleven of England’s 18 water utilities are at least partly owned by foreign entities, including the giant conglomerate Macquarie (Thames Water); HSBC (Yorkshire Water); and the American equity fund KKR (South Staffordshire Water). Severn Trent recently resisted a takeover by a Kuwaiti oil fund. Scotland’s water is still in public ownership, and the Welsh get water from a non-profit company.

Meanwhile, in the absence of drinking fountains there are bottles, and more bottles. Given the scale of our mania for bottled water, it is hardly as exclusive as Roundhay Park believes. Bottled water is not an innovation: all the best Georgian and Victorian spa towns and shrines sold it. But its recent rise began in the 1980s, partly because of water contamination scares: in 1988, twenty thousand residents of Camelford in Cornwall drank aluminium sulphate along with their water, suffering mouth burns, nausea and diarrhoea; in 1994 a hundred people in Milwaukee were killed by drinking water infected by cryptosporidium. Between 1993 and 2003, bottled water consumption in Britain rose from 570 million litres a year to more than two billion. Americans open 1500 litres of bottled water every second, and drink more bottled water than milk or beer, though tap water is often a 500th of the price. These figures are the result of dedicated marketing and advertising. In 2000 a Pepsi executive said: ‘The biggest enemy is tap water.’

In the Gospel of John, a Samaritan woman meets Jesus at a well. He asks for a drink; she is shocked, because Samaritans and Jews mustn’t associate with each other. Jesus rebukes her: ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’ This ‘living water’ has divine quenching powers of the kind, Jesus assures her, that will make her never thirst again. There are many modern-day Jews, Christians, Samaritans – all sorts – who think that water should still be God’s gift, usually when the latest bill arrives, or rates are increased. Water comes free from the clouds – if you want to drink rainwater, the water utilities see no need to charge you for it – but in that form it doesn’t conform to health and safety regulations. Locke knew this in 1690. What was given by the ‘spontaneous hand of nature’, he wrote, was altered when mixed with labour: ‘Though the water running in the fountain be everyone’s, yet who can doubt but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour hath taken out of the hands of Nature where it was common.’ And with water, much labour is involved. In the 12th century, as Emma Jones writes in her patchy history of London’s water, William Fitzstephen wrote of ‘special wels in the Suburbs’ where the water was ‘sweete, wholesome and cleare’. Water no longer has to be sweet by law, but it does have to be ‘wholesome’, a word that appears in drinking water standards in both the UK and the US. Wholesome water can’t contain micro-organisms or parasites that can damage human health, or high concentrations of chemicals. The fact that it generally doesn’t is now taken for granted, but it came about only through centuries of ingenuity.

Everyone who writes about water – whatever claim they make about the uniqueness of their approach – takes a similar path through water’s past, to come to conclusions, sort of, on its present and future. They all praise the Romans and Victorians, the heroes of water supply. The Romans, because they managed to supply their citizens with a daily ration of water comparable to the amount used by people today. Though their aqueducts were celebrated (more accurately, the elevated sections of aqueducts), these made up only 5 per cent of the water management system, and they were costly and frequently failed. Today, the wonderful engineering of complex and intricate sewer systems beneath our feet goes unnoticed, just as most of the infrastructure of Roman water did, a vast and clever system that harnessed rivers and used canals and pipes. For David Sedlak, who divides the past, present and future of water into four ages, this was the beginning of Water 1.0, when the Roman model – sewers to remove dirty water and clean pipes to supply it – was copied in European cities. Drinking-water treatment is Water 2.0, which is where the Victorians come in. The names of the Victorian sanitary superstars are by now familiar enough: Chadwick, Snow, Bazalgette (Sir Joseph, who gave London its sewer system, preventing thousands of early deaths). They were men who campaigned for better public health in a dirty city, where cholera, which arrived by ship in Sunderland in 1831, killed tens of thousands. Snow’s valiant campaign to prove that cholera came from London’s drinking water is now venerated, but it was ignored by a scientific establishment which believed it was carried by ‘miasmas’.

In Snow’s London, one in every two children died from ‘water-related diseases’, though actually these were faeces-related diseases. Similar euphemisms are still used to describe the cause of death, worldwide, of 1.5 million children under five every year from ‘dirty water’, rather than ‘diarrhoea caused by faecal contamination of water and food’. By the late 18th century, London’s water was supplied by competing private companies. Oversight of their water intake was lax, and the Thames was a river of sewage. The conditions were optimal for the spread of cholera, one of fifty communicable diseases which travel in the faecal particles that often end up in food and water, particularly if, as in the case of the Southwark and Vauxhall water company, your water is taken from the river directly downstream of a sewage outfall pipe. Snow’s great insight was to recognise that people who breathed the same air didn’t all die, and that S&V customers were dying at a rate 22 times higher than those of the Lambeth Water Company, whose intake was upstream of the outfall pipes. But Snow’s research would go ignored for decades. It was only because of the 1858 Great Stink, with the Thames smelling so powerfully right under the windows of the Houses of Parliament, that legislation to install thousands of miles of sewers was passed, in just ten days.

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There are many heroes of hygiene. Louis Pasteur wanted to find a way to stop French wine spoiling and discovered the ‘infusoria’ – microscopic living creatures – that lived in liquids, including drinking water. Alexander Cruikshank Houston, a bacteriologist, began his career by studying the infusoria that could be used in ‘bacteria beds’, a standard treatment for removing organic solids from wastewater (bacteria munch it away) still in use today in older treatment plants. From waste to water is not an uncommon career path: wastewater is simply the result of our being unable to think of anything better to do with our waste than to mix it with six litres of clean drinking water with every toilet flush. This is habit, not necessity: toilets can be flushed with greywater, the discharge from showers and baths; Hong Kong toilets are flushed with seawater. There was outrage in 19th-century England when Bazalgette’s sewers set seemingly for good the paradigm of waste being transported away by water. Excrement was a useful fertiliser, and suddenly we were rendering it useless by diluting it with drinking water. Marx fumed at the monetary loss of so much good fertiliser (rather than at the dirtying of water that had to be cleaned again). Excretions of consumption, he wrote, ‘are of the greatest importance for agriculture. In London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and one-half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.’ Victor Hugo was lyrical about the loss: the ‘tumbrils of mud’ that made up nightsoil were ‘the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening.’ Many ‘sewage doctors’ drew up plans that could allow London sewage to be transported to Kent and Essex ‘sewage farms’ in great pipes equipped with taps. Water and gas were beginning to be available on tap: why not liquid sewage for farmers?

But water won, and so did sewers. The new paradigm of waterborne waste treatment went unchallenged until recently. But I’ve jumped ahead. We’re still only at Water 2.0, according to Sedlak’s rather clunky taxonomy, the age of water treatment. In 1905, Houston was summoned to Lincoln to assist in a typhoid outbreak, where he ‘tensely observed the behaviour of a certain goldfish in a tank’ to which hypochlorite of soda had been added. This wasn’t a new concept: Maidstone had sterilised its mains pipes in 1897 with chloride of lime to deal with its own typhoid outbreaks. The Lincolnshire goldfish thrived, and over the next three decades chlorination became a standard way of purifying water into failsafe potability. He is barely known now, but Houston was described in his obituary, with some reason, as ‘the most progressive authority of water purification not only in England, but in the British Empire, and probably in the world’.

The provision of water proceeded smoothly for a few decades in the 20th century, until there emerged what Sedlak calls the ‘chlorine dilemma’. In 1974, Robert Harris, an employee of the Environmental Defense Fund, conducted research in New Orleans and found that ‘men whose drinking water came from the Mississippi River had a 15 per cent higher chance of dying from cancer than men who consumed well water.’ (Apparently nobody asked women how their health was.) Harris suspected that carcinogens were present in chemical waste from factories, run-off from farms still using DDT and the partially treated sewage of Chicago, Minneapolis and St Louis.

In the UK, meanwhile, similar alarms were being sounded about synthetic organic chemicals, and especially trihalomethanes, a byproduct of the reaction of organic materials with chlorine. Sedlak manages, for the most part, to write like someone who isn’t an engineer, though after half a dozen pages on the intricacies of removing trihalomethanes I had to take a break to get a glass of water – tap, not bottled. But his engineer’s mind holds multitudes of curious facts: that there were people who thought 14th-century Jews poisoned wells with the plague; or that Finding Nemo was set in Australia because it’s one of the few places a tropical fish could find its way to the ocean without being mashed in a wastewater treatment plant – until recently Sydney dealt with its sewage by shooing it along eight-mile pipes into the sea, with barely any treatment. This questionable practice – sewage is the largest marine pollutant – continues in places such as Victoria in British Columbia, and only stopped in Milan, for instance, in 2003.

Milan came late to the era of Water 3.0, which Sedlak defines as a revolution in which sewage treatment plants became a standard feature of urban water systems. He doesn’t mention Milan, but like Salzman and Jones, he does confine his attention to the industrialised urban model of drinking water. I am sympathetic to this narrow vision, since outside cities things are less simple. ‘If you think sanitation is complicated,’ a sanitation activist said to me once, ‘try water; it’s even more bent.’ Bent, perhaps, but it’s also an urgent problem, when 783 million people still lack it. Then again, 2.5 billion still have no adequate sanitation, though more development funding and attention (still not enough) goes to supplying clean water.

Sedlak thinks things can be better, at least in the flushed and plumbed world, because of Water 4.0. We need Water 4.0 because 3.0 is broken in so many ways. Although Sedlak is serene about the micro-contaminants in municipal water that many find disturbing (I wonder at powerful medicines being regulated above ground, yet chucked and mixed at will into the sewage system), he has other concerns. All those bottles, when we could be drinking sustainably from taps for a fraction of the cost. Sewers that are overloaded, poorly maintained and neglected; soft, absorbent ground that is paved over so that water can’t penetrate, leading to an even greater burden on the sewer systems, and to perfectly legal discharges of sewage into the nearest river when sewers are overflowing, which can happen even after a short, sharp rainstorm. (Don’t go swimming in a river after heavy rain.)

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In the age of Water 4.0, we come to understand that although the molecules in our ice cubes are no different from the ones drunk by dinosaurs, water can run out. Under UN Resolution 64/292, passed in 2010, access to water is now a human right: each person on the planet must have a water supply that is ‘sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses’. These uses ‘ordinarily include drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene’, which together require between fifty and one hundred litres of water a day. In one US government survey, the citizens of Palm Springs were found to be using three thousand litres a day per person. That is only the visible extravagance. Our hidden water usage is huge, because of the vast quantities of water used to produce everything we eat and consume. Four litres to grow one almond; twenty for a head of broccoli; an amazing 17,000 litres for a beefburger, once you account for the water used to hydrate the cattle and irrigate the crops that feed them. Agriculture uses 80 per cent of all fresh water, and there is no longer enough. In Water 4.0, we realise that with a warming planet, water evaporates more quickly, and can be held for longer in the atmosphere, so that there is less ground and surface water.

If the new water revolution came to pass people living in California would no longer increase their water use by 1 per cent in the fifth month of a terrible drought. The toilet manufacturers of the world might decide that composting, low-flush or generally more sustainable toilets could be marketed, saving us a fortune in money and energy cleaning wastewater to such a degree that it’s drinkable. The citizens of Water 4.0, unlike the citizens of Toowoomba, Australia, or of Orange County, California, wouldn’t object to drinking ‘reclaimed wastewater’: sewage effluent that has been cleaned by reverse osmosis so that it is cleaner than most drinking water – a passage from ‘toilet to tap’ that most people still find horrifying. (If the cleaned wastewater is passed through an aquifer, it was discovered in Israel, people mind less.) They would at last start drinking desalinated water, 59 years after the US set up its Office of Saline Water, and 53 years after John F. Kennedy said: ‘If we could ever competitively – at a cheap rate – get fresh water from saltwater, that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.’

Those guzzlers of bottled water would realise that the pure mountains or springs on the label signify the opposite of purity, because bottled water is far less stringently checked than tapwater. In the US, it isn’t mandatory for bottled water manufacturers – unlike water utilities – to report violations of water quality or check for such things as E.coli. Thankfully, even if the chutzpah is hard to swallow, 40 per cent of American bottled water comes from the municipal tapwater supply anyway. Most important, in Water 4.0, we realise how fragile these seemingly solid pipes and plants are, as the citizens of Ennis in Ireland did when between 2007 and 2009 they had no water on tap after their supply became infected with cryptosporidium. They had to boil their water as if they were slum-dwellers, though they lived in County Clare, in the belly of an Irish tiger economy. Perhaps, though Sedlak doesn’t have to address this because the US hasn’t privatised its water suppliers wholesale, we would question the sale of this great necessity to private and foreign owners who are beholden to shareholders. Locke may have wanted proper compensation for the labour required in providing water, but he might also ask why privatised water suppliers routinely seek to impose higher price rises than the publicly owned ones, then post millions in profit. Or why some water utilities seem to have avoided – or, in the words of Thames Water, ‘delayed’ – paying corporation tax. Maybe they’re just making the most of water while it lasts.