The road to civilization leads through the sewer

I was reading recently about toilets.  More specifically, about how Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates and co-Chair of their foundation, has been pushing hard to provide toilets to impoverished people in various regions of Africa and India.  Having observed that poor sanitation contributes to the death of a million and a half children every year, the Gates Foundation has helped position toilets as a modern, trendy convenience – so successfully that “women are refusing to marry men without toilets.  ‘No loo, no “I do.”’”

Which reminded me that I had earlier been reading about toilets in India.  In New Delhi and many rural areas without proper sanitation, school dropout rates have been highest among girls in substantial part due to restrictions on where they can pee.  While boys may relieve themselves where and when they like, girls are constrained by ancient religious and cultural strictures that require that they hold it until they can find someplace suitably secluded.  To address this problem, the Aga Khan Foundation and others have installed new toilet blocks at a rural school – and now fifteen of the girls there are going on to higher education.

Which called to mind something I’d seen earlier about how the ancient civilization in the Indus Valley, founded in about 3300 BC, had  sophisticated urban sanitation infrastructure, with sewerage and drainage systems more sophisticated than those in many parts of India and Pakistan today.

No, really, it’s not that I’m obsessed with toilets.  It’s that all the articles popping up lately reflect that  sewage sanitation (for which toilets are, of course, a linchpin) is increasingly being recognized as a fundamental prerequisite to civilized life.  This is something that the ancient Indus Valley people evidently understood, but we’ve sometimes forgotten in modern times.

Which brings us to Chicago, that most modern of cities.  Most of you reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise, are fortunate enough to have toilets.  Beyond that, however, we Chicagoans still lack complete modern sewage sanitation in our city.  And that lack is making our collective life substantially less civilized than it ought to be.  I am referring specifically to the failure of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, despite repeated calls from many quarters, to disinfect the sewage that it dumps into the Chicago River.    And to the endless delays by the District in completing the tunnel and reservoir plan designed to end raw sewage discharges to the River during rainstorms.  And the whole primitive-bordering-on-insane practice of using valuable fresh water from Lake Michigan to dilute our sewage rather than cleaning it up properly.

Clearly, the comparison is limited.  We are privileged to have the basic life-saving sanitation that many developing nations do not.  The point is not that our sewage treatment failures are equivalent to a lack of toilets, but that in both cases the lack is a constraint on more civilized ways of living.

Recreational opportunities for ourselves and our children, and the ability to enjoy our natural surroundings in safety, are important measures of urban livability.  The germ-laden sewage being dumped in our Rivers, which threatens canoers and kayakers and anglers with risk of water-borne diseases, stands in the way of the recreational opportunities that dwellers in a modern river-based city should be able to expect.  It is holding us back from the sort of full urban waterfront renaissance happening in other modern cities in our nation – Baltimore, San Antonio, Monterrey, and many others.

So, it seems, we have something to learn from the women who refused a walk down the aisle to marry a man without porcelain; and the college-bound girls from the toilet-equipped school.  We must demand, in our city, that our sanitation system be upgraded to meet modern standards, so that we can enjoy our beautiful River waterfront without fear and revulsion.  Now that would be civilized.