Drinking Water: A History

  • By James Salzman
  • Overlook Duckworth
  • 320 pp.

Should access to water be considered a human right, available free to consumers, or a commodity that can be sold for profit?

“Unsafe drinking water is the single largest killer in the world,” asserts author James Salzman.  His history of drinking water examines two main problems: locating sources of clean water and delivering it fit to be consumed. The author explores the question of whether water should be considered a human right, available free to the consumer, or a commodity that can be sold for profit.

As the subtitle indicates, much of the book describes the problems of finding and delivering water in both the recent and more distant past. One chapter deals with the magical role of water in various cultures, from the journey of Ishtar to the Underworld in search of the “water of life” in ancient Mesopotamian tales, through Ponce de Leon’s quest for the “fountain of youth” in the early 16th century, to the mid-19th-century story of Bernadette of Lourdes. At Lourdes today, “pilgrims contribute up to $300 million to the local economy” through tourism and sales of souvenirs including, of course, bottled water.

Taking up the question “should water be a basic right or a marketable good,” Salzman surveys ancient cultures, noting that 6,000-year-old water-storage facilities were found in Jordan and flushing toilets existed in Minoan Crete by 1700 B.C. Water law, as well as engineering, is ancient. Jewish law regarding water has been traced to 3000 B.C. Both Jewish and Islamic traditions prioritize access to drinking water over agriculture, or as the author calls it, the “right of thirst.” Salzman notes that sharia, the word for Islamic law, translates as “the way to water.”

The author analyzes the role and management of water in Rome, where the famous aqueducts originally supplied water for a social purpose. Roman bathhouses, which were important centers of social gathering, required more water than was available from local wells and springs. As the population of the city grew, polluting the Tiber River, aqueducts were constructed. Water was supplied free to public basins, but at a charge for those who wanted it piped directly into their houses or baths — an example of water as both a human right and a commodity.

Rome was also exemplary for its sewer system, constructed in the 6th century B.C., which  kept sewage from both public and private sources from entering the drinking water. When the Roman Empire fell, its sewer system was destroyed through lack of maintenance. Until the mid-19th century, people in Western Europe simply dumped filth into the streets, polluting their water sources to the degree that “the overpowering stench” of the Thames River “forced Parliament to adjourn until the odors subsided.”

Incidents like this, along with outbreaks of cholera, finally led to the discovery that disease was often caused by polluted water, not airborne “miasma,” and that cities could substantially increase life expectancy by constructing sewers.

Salzman explores the various means of treating water to make it safe, from alcoholic beverages to chlorination, as well as the more recent threats to the water supply from not only industrial pollution but also chemical, biological and cyber attacks, as well as the deterioration of pipes.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the analysis of the current bottled-water fad. Since ancient times, bottled water has been sold with claims of healing power. Bottled waters from various springs have been popular in Europe for over a century, but sales of water in bottles remained confined to office water coolers or pharmacies in the United States.  This changed in the late 1970s with Perrier’s major American marketing effort, including sponsorship of the 1979 New York City Marathon. As Salzman describes it, the timing of the fitness craze together with the marketing of bottled water as a healthy alternative to sugary sodas led U.S. consumption to explode to “1,500 bottles of water every second,” which, not too many decades earlier, “would have seemed as ludicrous to most people as bottled air.”

In addition to setting forth the history of drinking water clearly enough for a reader with no technical or scientific background, Salzman backs up his material with 50 pages of endnotes. He ends each chapter with a brief essay on questions such as “Did lead pipes contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire?”; “Was fluoridation a Communist plot?”; and “Does dowsing work?” To find out the answers, spend a few enjoyable hours with Salzman’s book.

Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction, history and memoirs and has edited all kinds of books, from college texts to spy thrillers.

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