It’s not hard these days to find health warnings against the abuse of alcohol. There is even research suggesting that even moderate amounts of alcohol may be related to increased incidence of the three big killers cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
I discovered early in my drinking life that I am subject to vicious hangovers, once lasting for three days. Even when I drink moderately, alcohol tends to interfere with my ability to sleep through the night, and makes my joints sore. I used to think I was unfortunate in that I had to forego the short-term pleasure of even a single drink if I wasn’t willing to pay a higher longer-term price, and I used to console myself that at least I knew what it was that was responsible for my pain.
I am a lot luckier than I realized. Today we might be bombarded with so many appeals for money to provide safe drinking water for the poor and dispossessed in so many countries that history has forgotten just how universal this problem has been until recently. Very recently.
Even in the early 20th century, the majority of earth’s population did not have access to safe drinking water. It wasn’t an addiction to prefer beer, wine, and coffee to water. In moderate amounts, at least, alcohol wasn’t lethal. Water was.
The primary reason for this was sanitation and the disposal of faeces and urine. Few people had toilets of any kind, and even those built by the Romans or installed in medieval castles did not provide for adequate sewer systems. On farms, water wells were dug close to the house and barnyard animal droppings and cesspools often dug in basements contaminated the water. Cities were even worse. Toilets were sometimes built by rivers, but this eventually polluted cities’ entire water supply. When toilets were unavailable – which was most of the time – human waste was dumped directly onto the streets, where horses also contributed their droppings. These conditions led to massive outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera, and accounted for more than half of all infant and child deaths.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that scientists discovered how much disease was carried by water-borne infections. So it wasn’t until the late 1800’s and early 20th century that even major prosperous cities like London and New York began to filter and chlorinate water and set up systematic garbage collections. Records show that life expectancy increased more rapidly in the US as a result of these changes than in any other time in American history.
Since 1980, the change in sanitation standards in less developed countries has been phenomenal. Today 82% of the world’s urban population and 51% of the rural population have proper sanitation facilities, and the advances are continuing at a rapid pace. For the last 25 years, an average of 285,000 people a day have been given access to clean water and sanitation. That’s 12,000 people an hour, every day for quarter of a century. I’ll drink to that.
I might even feel tremendously lucky to click my glass of clean water against your goblet of wine as we wish each other a happy and prosperous New Year.
Happy 2017 – whatever it visits upon us!