Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, December 31, 2004

The Greater Catastrophe?

The world will be sorting out the lessons, practical, ethical and metaphysical, from the tsunami catastrophe for years to come. The deeper philosophy is for other forums. (No pedants please: the Latin plural fora is not commonly used in English any more) But there is an important practical lesson appropriate to this blog.

I have read on Eschaton that some of our friends over at Free Republic, mired in their usual bigotry and ignorance, think there is not really any need for major infrastructure rebuilding because those places are primitive and backward and how much does it cost to replace a bunch of straw huts anyway? In fact, beyond the immediate loss of life, the terrible injuries, the bereavement and dispossession of millions of people, the possibility of an even greater disaster looms. The destruction of clean drinking water supplies could ultimately kill more people than the wave, if the world community cannot solve the problem in time.

The public health movement began with the problem of drinking water and the related problem of carrying away sewage so that it would not contaminate the clean water supply. In the late 19th Century, cities in the United States were horribly dangerous places, where many babies died and the average person didn't live much past 40. This all changed, however, long before antibiotics and other scientific advances enabled doctors to do more good than harm. The major causes of premature death were tuberculosis, and water-borne diseases. The American Public Health Association was formed to campaign for water and sewage systems. We take these for granted today, which is why we can take our lives for granted.

In the poorer countries, diarrheal diseases from contaminated drinking water remained the leading causes of death until well into the last century, and they still are in parts of Africa. But knowledge of sanitation, drilling of wells, and construction of sanitary systems have made a huge difference in major portions of what we used to call the Third World. The destruction of these facilities in the areas affected by the tsunami has created an unimaginable peril. Let us hope that the world can respond effectively, and in time to the emergency need; and effectively, over the long term, to the challenge of rebuilding. Meanwhile, send your cash.

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