WASH Sustainability: All Roads Lead to Rome
March 29, 2011
Author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (HarperCollins 2010)
Every era has its own WASH sustainability challenges - taken together, they teach the universal lesson of its necessity for every society in history’s basic development and prosperity, and sometimes for the rise (and decline) of great powers and turning points of human civilization.
Take ancient Rome. The grandeur and manpower strength of the Roman Empire and its robust capital of 1 million people was sustained by its 11 gravity-fed aqueducts that brought clean, wholesome water—in amounts comparable to what we enjoy today--over a 306 mile network through settling and distribution tanks to supply 1,352 public fountains and basins for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, 11 huge imperial baths, 856 free or inexpensive public baths, private homes, before flushing out the city’s waste to the Tiber through an extensive sewer network.
The first aqueduct was completed under the Appia Antica in 312 B.C. and two more were added to meet Rome’s expansions following the Punic Wars and the Republic’s heyday. But discord, then civil war caused neglect in maintaining Rome’s water system, and the city and state itself began to totter.
Both were revitalized, and the foundation of the new Augustan imperial age laid, in 33 B.C. when Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ great plebian general and lifelong friend, became Aedile, or Mayor. In a single, remarkable year, Agrippa, at his own personal expense, rehabilitated 3 decaying aqueducts, built a new one, added hundreds of public fountains and baths, and cleaned out the sewers, including the original great sewer built by Rome’s 6th century BC Etruscan founders that still flows under the Forum today. Rome’s water system became Agrippa’s passion: He wrote a detailed manual on its upkeep and upon his death bequeathed his slaves as its maintenance crew. In the process, he launched the modern concept of public municipal for services for the poor as well as the rich (Rome’s rich still got the lion’s share, but the poor were allocated 10%) that endures to this day.
The building and maintenance of Rome’s water system closely paralleled the rise and decline of its Empire. Over 5 centuries it sustained its power and civilization. The aqueducts’ neglect and ruin was reflected in Rome’s abominable decline: By the end of the 6th century, the city had only 30,000 half-starved residents, crowded around a filthy Tiber that acted as both its sewer and drinking supply. Even as late as 1870 when Italy became a state, long after Rome’s revival and aqueduct renovations by the Renaissance Popes, Rome’s population had recovered to only 200,000.
One million population may not sound like much of an achievement by today’s standards, but for most of human history cities have been unsanitary death traps with populations replenished only through influx from the country sides. In 1800 only 6 cities in the world could sustain more than half a million people. Only 2.5% of the world’s population then lived in cities vs. 50% today—a number projected to rise to 70% in coming decades.
The event that made this urbanization and another extraordinary demographic transition—the quadrupling of world population in the 20th century to 6 billion—possible was the Sanitary Revolution of the mid-19th century. It started in London, in response to waves of epidemics of cholera and other water-borne filth diseases that killed tens of thousands and threatened the efficacy of the urban crowding brought about by the early Industrial Revolution. Decades of political dithering over purported high costs and excessive central state power (sound familiar?) was suddenly broken in the hot summer of 1858 when the Thames backed up with rotting sewage to create a ‘Great Stink’ that Parliamentarians, hard upon the river, could no longer escape. Goaded by the prevailing theory that disease transmitted by bad smells, the legislators--alarmed for their personal health—passed sanitary reform. It took them only one month!
Then, as today, the engineers knew what to do—the technical challenges are far simpler than the political inertia and incompetence at the core of the problem. London’s reforms ignited a virtuous circle of sanitary competition throughout the industrialized world that helped sustain the 20th century’s extraordinary growth in wealth, population, human health and longevity.
Today, these first generation industrial era pipes, many buried deep beneath large metropolises, are decaying and in desperate need of hundreds of billions of dollars of renovation. Leakage is rampant. Water short cities like Mexico City and New Delhi lose up to 40% of their supply through leakage; water main bursts are common in Baghdad; for half a century, New York City has been in a slow motion race against a catastrophic collapse of the city’s two antiquated, unmaintainable water distribution tunnels by arduously constructing a modern replacement system 75 stories underground.
Renovation of obsolete infrastructure is one layer of today’s WASH sustainability challenge. Another is delivering water to urban slums for the first time. Some success has been achieved in Latin America by delivering bulk sewer and drinking water at wholesale costs to central distribution points, then letting local leaders handle basic maintenance and payment collection within the neighborhood. A third distinct WASH sustainability challenge is for rural communities where simple connections to wells that people currently walk to is a big issue.
One commonality of all WASH sustainability challenges is that water and services must be properly valued at close to its true cost—and paid for. This need not mean the poor go without. Tiered pricing that allocates a rising rate to high volume users encourages conservation and can subsidize free or nominal costs for the lowest, human need usage levels.
The roads to WASH sustainability, in short, are uneven, layered, and follow many divergent routes. In a globalized society in which no one is insulated from the feedback effects emanating from the health, humanitarian, and political economic crises of failure, all must be traveled simultaneously. In the end, all the roads lead back to Rome.