Cesspits and Pipe Dreams

A Guest Poost by Melinda

“What avails it to send a Missionary to me, a miserable man or woman living in a foetid Court, where every sense upon me for delight becomes a torment, and every minute of my life is new mire added to the heap under which I lie degraded? To what natural feeling within is he to address himself? … But give me my first glimpse of Heaven through a little of its light and air – give me water – help me to be clean.”

Charles Dickens, 1852, address to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association, London

I have always loved reading the stories Charles Dickens although, at times his stories are painful and difficult to endure. The savage treatment of children is especially confronting. Dickens wrote to draw attention primarily to the plight of the poor and his greatest concern was sanitation. When he wrote the enormously popular serialised Bleak House, the flushing toilet was a novel invention. Hailed as a solution to London’s open drains – the recipients of the contents of a million chamber pots every day – the flushing toilet quickly resulted in overflowing cesspits that poisoned waterways and eventually, The Thames. An outbreak of Cholera was blamed on ‘mud fog’, the stinking miasma of filth that hung over the city. The real culprit was dirty water, contaminated by human faeces.

In 2019 Sydney with a reliable network of underground pipes conducting human waste away from our homes, constantly, reliably and without a trace of odour, it’s hard to imagine a life lived in the constant presence of effluent. Not to mention the assorted serious illnesses that accompany a lack of sanitation. We think of inner-city dunny lanes as a quaint novelty. Toilets are a glamorous addition to a newly renovated bathroom and are available with heated seats and built in bidet. We take for granted high levels of cleanliness and hygiene. It is said that civil unrest is only three missed meals away. I expect that water shortages that resulted in unflushed, overflowing toilets would result in similar outcomes. Most of us would not even own a shovel, let alone have the capacity to dig a back-yard cesspit.

Reading historic novels is one way to remind myself of how fortunate I am to live where and when I do. Travelling to places around the world yet to benefit from an effective sewage system is another way. Elsewhere, in places not visited by tourists, more than a billion people do not have access to clean water and over two billion people live without sanitation. Every day UNICEF estimate that 6000 children die of water-borne and sanitary-related diseases. The facts are terrible, far more tragic than the plight of Dickensian London.

Be grateful for our sewerage system. I certainly am.

– Melinda

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