Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Plumbing - Caring for the World's Most Important Invention

Drinking waterI spent a bit of my post on Monday suggesting that certain infrastructure needs should be given greater priority. At the time, I was thinking about roads and traffic. Today, recent events in my hometown of Louisville, KY have me thinking about water and plumbing.  I've heard it said that plumbing may well be the most important invention of all time, and while there's certainly room for debate on that statement, I think that a very strong case can be made.

As one source puts it:
Prior to the widespread use of indoor plumbing, many people died of dysentery, cholera and other sanitation-related diseases. There are no exact figures on the number of lives that have been lost due to a lack of indoor plumbing, but it's been estimated to be in the millions worldwide. In terms of an invention's impact on society and its ability to save lives, I believe indoor plumbing is even more important than penicillin.
Here's another:
I’m hard pressed to think of any other single invention that has stopped so much disease and death.... John Snow didn’t need to sequence the Vibrio cholerae genome to stop people from dying in London in 1854 — he didn’t even know what V. cholerae was — but a pattern of deaths showed him that to stop a cholera outbreak all he needed to do was shut down a fouled well. Without waterworks, the crowded conditions of the modern world would be utterly insupportable — and you only have to go to a poor city without clean water to see this....

I’d even go so far as to put the importance of the invention of waterworks on an evolutionary scale with things such as language. For hundreds of millions of years, life on land has been crafting new ways to extract and hold onto water. With plumbing, however, you don’t go to the water — the water comes to you.
I've heard it said that, because the existence of plumbing has kept disease and death at bay, human beings have had more time and energy available to do so much more and to create most of the other inventions that might be named in a "most important inventions" debate.  Our human need for water is so basic, that it stands to reason that its convenient and sanitary availability has served as a foundation for many of our other achievements.

All of which is to underscore the need to keep the infrastructure for getting clean water to our communities well-maintained.  If we are able to identify and deal with potential problems before a large water main bursts (as happened in Louisville, although I want to be fair to them by noting that they have been undertaking exactly such a program for years now), a huge amount of time and energy could be saved.

I expect that one common excuse for not taking care of infrastructure needs is "we can't afford the expense," and especially in our current economy, it's understandable to be sympathetic to such an argument.  But when one considers the consequences of failing to take care of those needs, the obvious response seems to be "we can't afford not to."

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