Politics and Water: The Great Stink

Post by Elaine Robinson and Andrew Allan

This week is World Water Week. To honour this event, today’s post will be looking at an example of the relationship between politics and water challenges, one of the issues being covered at the Stockholm event this year.

Getting the attention of political leaders can be difficult, especially if they are not directly affected by the problems. Last month, July 13th marked the 150th anniversary of the Royal opening of Victoria Embankment, part of the River Thames in London. Featured prominently on a memorial there is a representation of Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works. His ideas, of which the Victoria Embankment is an integral part, led to the sewer system that still underpins London today. This system only came into being because the politicians in Parliament were so overwhelmed by the stench of the sewage-laden Thames outside their windows.

During the 1800s, various types of waste flushed into the River Thames, resulting in diseases such as cholera as well as producing a terrible odour. Such was the state of the river that it was featured in newspapers of the time, and major figures such as Charles Dickens wrote about the “offensive smells” of the river in letters to friends. In an especially prescient letter titled Observations on the Filth of the Thames, Michael Faraday described the foul-smelling, dark sludge that the river had become, and warned: “I fear it is rapidly becoming the general condition. If we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if ere, many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.” Faraday sent this both to The Times and the Houses of Parliament in 1855. In 1858, the resulting summer’s hot weather caused the effluence in the Thames to produce a powerful stench, dubbed The Great Stink.

Joseph Bazalgette Memorial
Joseph Bazalgette Memorial. Image Credit: Matt Brown

The work of Dr John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead suggested that outbreaks of cholera could be caused by a dirty water supply, but the theory held at the time was that of miasma – airborne disease caused by foul smells – and thus the idea was not paid much heed. The miasma theory may have been incorrect for outbreaks of waterborne disease such as cholera, but crucially, it led to Parliament agreeing on the construction of a new sewer system for London. The development of the London sewers was part of a mid-19th Century process to improve sanitation in cities, after a number of cholera outbreaks occurred across Europe.

Bazalgette created a new network of sewers, collecting both waste and rainwater. Pumping stations were built, and the Chelsea, Albert, and Victoria embankments were created to aid the development of the sewer system. Over 1,000 miles of underground sewers now cater to London. Bazalgette had the foresight to incorporate a degree of adaptability, to cope with an expanding population, but London’s growth has become such that new development is needed. The Thames Tideway Tunnel – London’s new “super sewer” which began construction in 2016, aims to service this need. Although Bazalgette’s sewer system helped to ensure that diseases such as cholera did not have such a hold on the citizens of London, the sewage was carried out to sea rather than treated.

One the of the remarkable things about the construction of Bazalgette’s system was the lack of action on the part of the politicians at the time: they were only willing to agree to his proposed plans when it directly affected them, rather than the thousands of other Londoners already suffering. In a fiery article on the 18th of June 1858 The Times noted this self-interest: “We can bear the calamities of our neighbours with remarkable self-possession, but when the black ox sets his hoof upon our own foot it is wonderful how filled we are with sympathy for all mankind.”

SDG 6 card
Sustainable Development Goal 6

Work on ensuring access to clean water and sanitation continues at a much greater scale, most notably in the context of SDG Targets 6.2 and 6.3, which focus on sanitation and hygiene, and water quality and wastewater.  2.4 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation services. Diarrhoeal diseases resulting from water-borne contaminants infect millions every year and are one of the most severe threats to childhood health. Ensuring that politicians understand the need for action not only in their own countries but globally is crucial – the fact that Water and Politics is one of the key themes in Stockholm this week highlights how much work still has to be done.

A One-Way Street? Examining the Supply of Environmental Information in Managing Flood Risk in Scotland

Post by Sean Whittaker

This week sees the sixty-seventh Compliance Committee to the Aarhus Convention. The Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998, establishes environmental information rights to the public. Today’s post is by Sean Whittaker, one of the research members of the Uncovering the Environment project at the University of Dundee. His post looks at the co-production of information in relation to managing flood risk in Scotland.

Urban and rural flooding is a significant issue in Scotland. Flooding can damage buildings and infrastructure, disrupt communities, inflict economic losses and cause fatalities. This risk is further heightened by the impacts of climate change. The Scottish Government’s approach to mitigating flood risk relies on the public engaging with flood risk mitigation measures. Yet this engagement, and the necessary flow of environmental information, is more nuanced than may be originally expected.

Car under footbridge during floods
Flooding in the Borders town of Peebles
Credit Tweed Forum

The primary direction of environmental information under such measures is from the Government to interested individuals. This can be seen in the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right for individuals to request the disclosure of environmental information from the state. In Scotland this has been implemented by the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004. Under the Regulations individuals are viewed as passive recipients of environmental information: they are granted access to the requested information by a government which is implied to hold all of the relevant information.

However, viewing the relationship between the state and citizens as a “one-way street” unduly reduces the potential role of citizens in providing information to the state. In reality governments often do not hold every piece of relevant information, and individual citizens can hold or create information which is of great value to flood risk mitigation efforts. This broader approach to the role of citizens in relation to information can be seen in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which places citizens at the heart of disaster risk mitigation efforts.

Recognising the role of citizens in providing environmental information can take many forms. A common method of seeking information from citizens is the use of Environmental Impact Assessments, which enables the public to provide their opinion on proposed plans and highlight any information they feel has been omitted. Another method used by SEPA is Report A Flood, which enables individuals to report localised flooding incidents to SEPA.

Yet an often-overlooked method of citizens producing environmental information is citizen science initiatives. Citizen science is defined as collaborative research involving the public into scientific projects, and differs from the previously discussed forms of public engagement due to the formal partnership between scientists and the public impacting how the data is collected and presented. In Scotland citizen science has been used to monitor rivers that are at risk of flooding, providing data to public authorities which cannot generate this data themselves.

In this way, it is important to not underplay the role of individuals in providing and generating environmental information themselves. While the Government does act as the primary source of information, this does not mean that citizens cannot contribute or create valuable information of their own. Indeed, citizens contributing environmental information, either held or generated by them, can improve environmental protection efforts and bridge the gaps in the state’s own knowledge. This is not always easy: the different forms of citizen participation each have their own benefits and risks, which must be managed. However, the benefits of opening up the “one-way street” can be significant, and the Government should not be quick to discount the information that can be provided or created by citizens.

Celebrating Dr Ignaz Semmelweis

Post by Andrew Allan, Chris Spray, and Elaine Robinson

Yesterday was the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian ‘father of infection control’. It was Semmelweis who identified the need for hand washing by surgeons in order to prevent the spread of disease, presaging the later work of Pasteur and Lister on germs. The story of Semmelweis’s innovation, his ultimate failure to convince the authorities and his ignominious death is a tragic one, the reverberations of which are still of great relevance today.

A portrait of Ignaz Semmelweis
Ignaz Semmelweis

Semmelweis was an obstetric surgeon in Vienna’s main hospital in the 1840s. The hospital ran two maternity units, one doctor-led and the other run by midwives. The mortality rate in the former had risen to three times that of the latter, following the decision by Semmelweis’s superior to introduce autopsies to the hospital. Surgeons in the first clinic would work on cadavers in the morning before moving to the obstetric wards, but crucially would not wash their hands in between. Although he did not fully understand the transmission process, Semmelweis reasoned that some as yet unidentified diseased matter from the autopsies might be the cause, and this could perhaps be removed by effective hand washing. If correct, then the number of women infected with puerperal fever and subsequently dying could be reduced. Despite the observed success of hand washing measures in the hospital in bringing down the number of deaths, the medical establishment refused to accept his findings. There were a number of reasons for this, not least their resistance to change but perhaps also because they could not admit that their malpractice was actually killing women. A frustrated Semmelweis was committed to the brutality of a Vienna asylum which ultimately killed him.

Many analogies and extrapolations can be made from this story in relation to modern day water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices and gender imbalances. Applying a liberal degree of artistic licence, there are also possible echoes in the wider area of integrated water resource management. There is an immediate topicality in relation to the benefits of hand washing in the context of COVID-19, but a wider interpretation highlights the need for evidence-based policy. Policy and its implementation need to be responsive to improvements in scientific understanding – recent reporting on the fact that many US flood maps have not been revised for years and therefore no longer accurately reflect flood risks is a case in point. The IWRM paradigm is supposed to be a self-improving system, but this fails if it does not incorporate scientific progress.

Diagram of hand and soap
Semmelweis discovered the importance of hand washing in clinical practice

The Semmelweis experience also illustrates the need for precautionary approaches. The reason his approach worked was not understood at the time, but the authorities at the hospital rejected his theory despite its demonstrable benefits. A more precautionary response would have sought to capitalise on the advantages for maternal health and to work out the scientific detail later. Many of the reasons that prevented Semmelweis’s conclusions being put into more general practice apply to the governance of water resource management, whether through institutional inertia; knee-jerk responses to indigenous knowledge, foreign expertise and citizen science; or failure to adapt to changing climatic circumstances.

Supporting better decisions across the nexus of water-energy-food challenges

Today we have a guest post from Fortune Gomo, a Hydro Nation scholar at the Centre, about the findings of her PhD thesis, which she successfully defended in March.

Post by Fortune F. Gomo

Our planet Earth is facing increasing environmental pressures, and this has resulted in resource shortages, leading to water, energy and food insecurity, hampering economic development, social and geopolitical tensions and irreparable environmental damage. In addition, there is an imperative need to improve the livelihoods of the ‘bottom billion’ who have no access to clean water, electricity and are undernourished, of which a significant proportion are in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 75% of the population in the region are employed in agriculture, with a significant proportion of smallholder farmers; and 20% of the electricity generated in the basin coming from hydropower. In Malawi, 98% of electricity comes from hydropower, and more than 80% of the population is employed in the agriculture sector.

The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus approach recognises the crucial interdependence of the three sectors. But there is a lack of integrative approaches and tools for policy makers, businesses and land managers that enable better decision making across a range of scales. Through this study, we sought to understand the intersectoral and cross-scale challenges and interactions of the WEF sectors in Malawi.

I interviewed some key national stakeholders in the WEF sectors in Malawi to identify the key challenges in the WEF sectors and understand the WEF system of Malawi (Figure 1). I used the DPSIR (drivers-pressures-states-impacts-responses) framework to understand the intra-sectoral and inter-sectoral interactions of the identified challenges. Understanding the challenges and how they interact can enable policy makers and decision makers to integrate not only across sectors and across scales, from local to regional and address the challenges for sustainable development.

WEF System of Malawi (adapted from Altamirano et al., 2018)

From the interviews with the national level stakeholders, and from reviewing the existing WEF policy framework in Malawi, we found that the responses to the challenges identified, i.e. the policies, strategies and plans, prioritised sectoral expansion for all three sectors to improve access to water and energy and to increase agricultural production and productivity.

The agricultural sector was found to be key to the WEF nexus in Malawi. The sector also utilises a large proportion of land and water resources and needs some energy input for the achievement of its policy objectives, especially the irrigation expansion objective. This makes it imperative for the agricultural sector to work together in an integrated manner with the water and energy sectors to achieve their goals through maximising synergies by collectively addressing common challenges, and minimising trade-offs across sectors.