Things That Promote Human Flourishing: Clean Water

Those of us who inhabit the developed world have full lives and tend to take our high standard of living for granted. The house we live in, the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the food we eat, the time we have to pursue things we want to do; the amazing fact is that it is not due to ‘luck’ or some accident of history—rather, we are the beneficiaries of a political, cultural, moral, and economic system that has a proven track record of increasing human flourishing.

One of the foundational building blocks of our high standard of living is the infrastructure that collects and treats sewage generated by the those who live in the community. Without this system, waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery would be commonplace, as it unfortunately is in much of the underdeveloped world today.

According to a 2009 World Health Organization (WHO) report, “every year more than 3.4 million people die as a result of water related diseases, making it the leading cause of disease and death around the world. Most of the victims are young children, the vast majority of whom die of illnesses caused by organisms that thrive in water sources contaminated by raw sewage.”

The story of the development of the collection, treatment, and recycling of sewage is in some ways ancient and in others cutting-edge. For an example of the ancient, consider the Romans who were master engineers and builders. Through their ingenuity they built what they referred to as the ‘Cloaca Maxima’, which literally means ‘Greatest Sewer’. The ‘Cloaca Maxima’ was used to drain marshes around the city of Rome and transmit sewage to the River Tiber. Without the ‘Cloaca Maxima’ and the network of sewers that transmitted foul water away from where people lived, the City of Rome would have been a place of squalor, disease, and social upheaval.

Sewage treatment as we know it in the west got its start due in large part to the Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain. People began to move into the cities to work in factories, and the concentration of humanity had an obvious effect: In the early 19th century, the Thames River in London (or as the locals called it, ‘The Great Stink’) became an open sewer and in 1854 caused a public health disaster with a Cholera epidemic. In the ensuing years London built a complex system of sewers, and as a result, incidents of Cholera diminished.

Then In 1913, two engineers from Great Britain, Edward Ardern and W.T. Lockett, developed a sewage treatment process called ‘Activated Sludge’, which is the standard way sewage is treated in the developed world to this day.

The ‘Activated Sludge’ process uses naturally-occurring bacteria to ‘eat’ the waste in the water, resulting in treated water that doesn’t foul the environment or cause human disease. The bacteria that ‘eat’ the waste need a place to grow and oxygen to breath, so sewage treatment plants using the ‘Activated Sludge’ process have large tanks where the bacteria live, suspended in the water they’re treating while an air supply system injects air into the tanks so the bacteria can carry on the treatment process.

These days, sewage treatment has become more efficient and less costly through advances in engineering, increased knowledge of microbiology, and other improvements of the ‘Activated Sludge’ process. A generation ago, sewage treatment was concerned mostly with responsible disposal of treated sewage, but with increases in technology and know-how, treated water is increasingly being used to supplement drinking water resources by using highly-treated recycled water instead of drinking water to irrigate parks, golf courses, freeway greenbelts, cemeteries and crops used for animal feed. This is particularly important in areas of the country that have low annual rainfall such as the southwest portion of the United States.

How did this overlooked, often taken-for-granted ‘miracle’ of sewage treatment occur? In much the same way we, over time, enjoy more technologically-advanced smart phones, high-definition television sets, and personal computers at reduced cost: People were free to pursue and share knowledge and apply that knowledge in a way that led to their efforts being rewarded which also resulted in a direct benefit to society.

So whether it’s sewage treatment or smart phones, the society that has a political, cultural, moral, and economic system that places a high value on human freedom and rewards innovation results in greater human flourishing.

*Marshall Power Locke has been involved in the environmental field in the area of wastewater treatment since 1985. He can be reached by e-mail at


One Comment on “Things That Promote Human Flourishing: Clean Water”

  1. […] in politics, business, education, religion, the arts, etc. as part of a series of ‘Things That Promote Human Flourishing‘ posts I’m planning for the […]


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