Monday, 31 March 2008

Victorian resistance to sewers

I’ve just been re-reading (on a long-haul flight – often these days one of the few opportunities there are for serious reading) the amazingly interesting paper From cesspool to sewer: Sanitary reform and the rhetoric of resistance, 1848−1880 by Michelle Allen (University of Virginia), which appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture in 2002. Whereas we civil and public health engineers celebrate the achievements of our Victorian forebears in sewering our towns and cities – praising, for example, the works of Bazalgette who sewered London following the Great Stink of 1858, Ms Allen documents the moral indignation felt by some Victorians against the advent of sewers – she reports that “the sewer ... [was] frequently represented as an instrument of social chaos, threatening the ideals of spatial division and social hierarchy in the Victorian urban context”. Social chaos? Extraordinary to us now (though some of today’s professionals blame the flush toilet and the sewer for at least part of today’s urban ‘environmental chaos’). Ms Allen reports that some opponents of sanitary reform “reasoned that sanitary legislation not only encouraged but also required government interference in private life and that once this precedent was established, it would be impossible to limit the government’s sphere of action”. Other Victorians were extremely concerned about the wastewaters from poor districts “infiltrating” wealthier areas. Another problem was sewer gas [until late Victorian times water- and excreta-related (and other) diseases were commonly thought to be due to ‘miasmas’ – bad air], and this gave rise to much anti-sewer propaganda until proper U-traps were developed and used as standard under all sinks and baths in all houses.

Of course, today we’re used to government ‘interference’ in our lives, though not many of us would think that building and plumbing regulations represent interference. We recognise that individual freedom to live unhealthily has to be curtailed if it poses a threat to the lives of others (so the law does not require us to wash every day, or even at all, but it does require us to dispose of our wastes in approved ways).

[Another very interesting paper is Why did they become pipe-bound cities: Early water and sewerage alternatives in Swedish cities (Public Works Management & Policy, 2002). The lead author, Jan-Olof Drangert (University of Linköping), is an internationally recognised and very passionate EcoSan advocate, but this paper gives a dispassionate history of the development of piped water supplies and waterborne sanitation in Sweden in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.]

What’s all this to do with IYS2008? Well, for a start, “Look to the past for guidance into the future” (Robert Jacob Goodkin). But also we need to recognise that continuing to condemn the poor to live unhealthily and die young because they continue to lack adequate sanitation is no longer socially acceptable and we need to address and solve this lamentable situation soon. In Victorian times the sewerage engineers won the day over the anti-sewer brigade, and today’s sanitation professionals need to win the day over those indifferent to the sanitation needs of the poor and once and for all get rid of the laissez faire of the status quo. They’ll need political support of course (Richard Feachem was, probably still is, fond of quoting “There are no solutions without political solutions”). In IYS2008 such political support is readily forthcoming (no politician is actually going to advocate no sanitation for the poor), but we have to make sure this support is translated into action – fast. This is a major task but one which in IYS2008 and beyond should be pursued with unflinching dedication.