Back to Blog

Clean Water.
Part 1.

Clean Water. <br>Part 1.

If you’re like me, the thought of clean water doesn’t seem astounding. Clean water is expected, not extraordinary. We simply turn on the tap, and pour a glass of fresh, clean, safe water.  .  . Anytime we want! But this is not a universal truth.  Clean water is one of the earth’s most precious resources, but it is not available to everyone. In fact, an estimated one billion people on this planet (that’s 1 person out of every 8) do not have access to clean, safe water.  Now THAT is truly astounding. And sobering.

For the next few months, we’re going to be looking at the issue of Clean Water. How do we get it? What about those one billion people who don’t have access to it? Please keep reading to find out more about this vital, indeed life-giving, resource . . .

North America, and the rest of the developed world, did not always have this incredible access to clean water. In fact, our great-grandparents, maybe even our grandparents, would have seen that sparkling clean water coming out of the faucet as a wealth of riches. During the first part of the 20th century, waterborne diseases like dysentery, cholera, and typhoid fever were the third leading cause of death in America. In 1900, the occurrence of typhoid fever alone was 100 out of every 100,000 people. Wilbur Wright (“First in Flight”) was among those killed by typhoid in 1912. As scientists discovered the existence of microorganisms in contaminated water around the turn of the century, they began to understand the link between the water and the diseases. Then the push for clean water began in earnest.

The heroes of the day were the civil engineers, who turned to techniques of filtration and chlorination to purify the drinking water. “The results of their efforts speak for themselves: a deadly handful of waterborne diseases virtually eliminated not only in the United States but throughout the developed world; water distribution systems pumping a clean supply into homes, apartments, businesses, and factories and meeting the needs of tens of millions of people in burgeoning new cities and communities; and the rich potential of western lands realized in acre upon acre of irrigated crops. All told, what 20th-century engineers did to improve the water supply wrought a host of stunning transformations—in public health, in living standards, and in both urban and agricultural development.”


“As little attention as it gets, this country’s – and the developed world’s – reliable supply of clean drinking water is one of the greatest human health accomplishments in world history. “


Middelkerke, Belgium was the first city to chlorinate its water, in 1902, and Jersey City, New Jersey, became the first in city in the United States to do so, in 1908, followed that same year by Chicago. In these cities in Europe and America that had introduced chlorination and water disinfecting techniques, death rates from waterborne diseases began to plummet. Within 10 years, more than 1,000 American cities were chlorinating 3 billions gallons of water a day, and by 1923 the typhoid death rate had dropped by more than 90 percent from its level of a decade before.

Here are some incredible statistics:
1900: Typhoid cases numbered 100 per 100,000 people

1920: Typhoid cases numbered 33.8 per 100,000 people

2006: Typhoid cases numbered 0.1 case per 100,000 people (with approximately 75% of those cases occurring among international travelers).

Take a look at this chart from the CDC showing death rates for infectious diseases in the United States from 1900-1996:


*Per 100,000 population per year.

By the beginning of the second World War, these waterborne diseases were virtually nonexistent in North America and the developed world.

It’s not therefore surprising that the CDC calls the last century of water chlorination and treatment “one of the Ten Greatest Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century.”

Want to know more? Check back here next month as we continue to look at CLEAN WATER. 



CDC. History of Drinking Water Treatment.

CPHA: Canada's Public Heath Leader. 12 Greatest Achievements.

Great Achievements. Water Supply & Distribution.

Ecocentric. Drinking Water: Don't take it for granted. Or else.

Wikipedia: History of Municipal Treatment of Drinking Water.