Water, water, everywhere... but you can't hose the garden

We've got nothing to complain about, says James Williams. Imagine life in the days of flushers, mudlarks and the Great Stink

James Williams

This must be the wettest drought on record. And the most confusing. There is a hosepipe ban in the South of England, yet Wales is so awash with water it has offered to sell us some much-needed supplies. For weeks it rained incessantly, but water companies have been forced to admit they can't stop our precious resources from leaking away. What is going on?

Water supply is a complex area. We may complain about being unable to wash the car, but our problems are insignificant compared with greater worldwide water supply issues (see panel, top right). The difficulty of creating a water supply system that is effective and meets the needs of a large population is not a new phenomenon. And it is not only drinking water that needs to be considered: how we deal with our waste is an equally big problem.

In Victorian London, sewage was a major issue. In the 1850s it is estimated that 150 million tonnes of sewage a year was washed into the Thames. The effect was to "kill" the river: bacteria thrived, but the fish all died.

In August 1854, a cholera outbreak in Soho killed 127 people in three days. People fled the area, fearful for their lives. Ultimately it claimed 616 lives. The source of the infection was traced to a water pump in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) by physician John Snow, who made the link between the spread of cholera and contaminated water. It was a common misconception of the day that disease could be spread by foul-smelling air; a remedy, used in the Houses of Parliament to try to stop the stench from the foul Thames, was to soak curtains in a solution of calcium chloride. But the Great Stink, as it was named, did have one positive outcome: the building of an extensive sewer system by engineer Joseph Bazalgette.

Over a six-year period, from 1859, 450 miles of main sewers were constructed, fed by 13,000 miles of smaller local sewers. That sewage system is still in use today. It struggles to cope with modern demands, and during periods of very heavy and unexpected rainfall the sewers may still overflow, with stinking effluent causing minor contamination problems.

Servicing our sewers isn't a job that many would see as an enticing career prospect. But in Victorian London, night-soil men were employed to clear human and animal waste from the streets. "Flushers" went into the sewer system to remove blockages and keep waste flowing out into the Thames Estuary. "Mudlarks" sifted through the mud on the banks of the Thames looking for items of use or value, while "toshers" scavenged in the sewers. Today we have romantic notions about some of these trades, but in Victorian times being a mudlark was a deadly occupation, and very much the preserve of the poor.

Few people would want to be a flusher today, but the fact is that they do still exist. In 2010 an estimated 1,000 tonnes of oil and congealed fat blocked the main sewers under London's Leicester Square. The only way to remove it was to send in the flushers, who dug the fat out by hand (well, shovel).

Most of what was common in Victorian London we may consign to history. No longer do the poor have to work as toshers, mudlarks and flushers. But perhaps it is time we updated some of the infrastructure that has been a more long-lasting legacy. Without it, water, or the lack of it, will continue to be a nagging issue.

As an island nation we are surrounded by water, so it is no surprise that one solution to water shortages in the South East is already being trialled. In 2010, Thames Water built the UK's first major desalination plant in Beckton, East London. It can provide enough drinking water for 1 million people in times of severe drought, but this is far short of what is needed nationally. We might not have to worry that our streets will flood with sewage, and cholera, caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, is no longer a concern in the UK. But we should beware complacency.

Globally, the number of cholera cases has increased since 2000, with outbreaks most often reported in sub-Saharan Africa (where many people struggle to access safe drinking water) and Asia. Worldwide, cholera affects 3-5 million people and causes between 100,000 and 120,000 deaths a year.

In years to come, when we consider lessons on the "great drought of 2012" and teach children the history of our sewer systems and the work of Bazalgette and Snow, we should not forget the experiences of those who survive in real drought, with no proper sanitation. We may have solved some of those problems in the UK, but there is much more to do to protect our water resources - and much, much more to do worldwide.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work


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A global problem

- Worldwide, 70 per cent of water is used in agriculture and irrigation; only 10 per cent is for domestic use.

- Fewer than one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a proper toilet.

- More than half the developing world's primary schools do not have access to water and sanitation facilities. Without toilets, girls typically drop out of school at puberty.

- Each year, 443 million school days are lost due to water-related diseases.

- Girls under the age of 15 are twice as likely as boys their age to be the family member responsible for fetching water.

- Almost 64 per cent of households rely on women to fetch the family's water when there is no water source in the home.

- In developing countries, up to 80 per cent of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation.

- Worldwide, nearly one in five deaths among children under the age of 5 is due to a water-related disease.

- More than 884 million people do not have access to clean and safe water. Thirty-seven per cent of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Source: The Water Project (www.thewaterproject.org)

What else?

Key stage 1: Water is life

Encourage pupils to consider how vital water is to survival with carmengp's compendium of creative activities.

Key stage 2: Stinky Britain

Explore just how unhealthy Victorian Britain was in a lesson from Louisa28.

Key stage 3: Flood

Help pupils understand flooding with an interactive storybook from TESiboard.

Key stage 4: Outbreak

Find the cause of a cholera outbreak in London in an exciting science investigation from mrharperbhs.

Water: the diamond of the world

The British Council and the Open University have created a short film, Water, A Precious Natural Resource, as part of their Belief in Dialogue series. The film explores water use, problems of limited water access and what privatisation and climate change may mean for the future.

Watch it at http:bit.lyKihTP2

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources036.

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