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By Kendra Helmer, USAID

Back to Our Roots ... Darn It

I, like many water and wastewater automation and control engineers, found myself in this field knowing little about the history of its evolution.

My current employer, Schneider Electric, asked me to create a training session for some employees who do not work in our field every day. I took the opportunity to dive deep into this history. As you might guess, the evolution of our field is very closely tied to the elimination of waterborne diseases. However, you might not be aware that the main disease was cholera.

During the 19th century, Europe and North America were under siege by this disease. Hundreds of thousands were losing their lives. In 1854, Dr. John Snow convinced the leadership of London that the SoHo cholera outbreak was related to contaminated water in a single well on Broad Street. This was revolutionary because germ theory was not known at the time and diseases were commonly thought to be transmitted via foul, or bad, air. Snow’s suggestion that water was the medium that helped to spread the disease flew in the face of accepted wisdom. However, the outbreak stopped after the pump handle of the well was removed.

While it was commonly accepted by the 1890s that cholera was waterborne, it was not universally understood that water treatment could stop cholera and other waterborne diseases. In 1892, cholera struck Hamburg, Germany. What makes this outbreak interesting is that Altona sits on the opposite bank of the same contaminated river, but residents in this city were spared the disease. Altona was using a slow sand filter while Hamburg was not.

Between Altona and Dr. Snow’s findings, the groundwork had been laid for the connection between disease-contaminated water and treatment with sand filtration, which could eliminate some waterborne disease. This knowledge is the basis for the conventional treatment philosophy used today.

Tragically cholera and other waterborne disease propagation in today’s world are often linked to a lack of education and wealth. Poorer countries often cannot afford water treatment technologies. Corrupt governments also siphon scarce resources from the water treatment arena. Furthermore, government policies and local traditions can sometimes get in the way of education.

Cholera recently raised its ugly head in Haiti. Considering what Haiti has been through, it is tragic that the people must face this hardship. But, since the earthquake, they are back in the nineteenth century. Thus, despite all of progress in the past 150 years, we are still right back at our roots.

Perhaps cholera has another lesson to teach. This time it might be to take the time and effort to make sure everyone is protected from waterborne disease. Not just the people living in wealthy, advanced countries.

Posted by Grant Van Hemert, P.E., Schneider Electric Water Wastewater Competency Center on Nov 02, 2010

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