This article is another one designed to get people thinking about the hidden parts of our cities. The water and waste systems are easy to forget and are often willfully ignored.
People living in modern cities take sanitation for granted. Many people don’t realize that cities appeared after we developed sewers and efficient garbage removal. Quite literally, sewers are the backbone of civilization. It is misleading sometimes because many cities have truly ancient origins, however they were barely more than villages before sanitation. The problem with have large numbers of people in a small area like a city is that it gets filthy, and it gets filthy fast. The problem with living in filthy places is disease. Water borne, airborne and vermin borne diseases boom when there are lots of people in dirty places. The reason settlements didn’t grow beyond villages is disease would keep populations small.
Before sewers, sewage flowed freely in the streets. It eventually flows into the nearest surface water and leaches into the groundwater completely contaminating all water supplies.
Cities will quickly regress into a similar state once the efficient removal of waste is interrupted. I have written about what a breakdown of the sewers system will look like. In a long term scenario, people will either move or they will throw their waste into the street.
This seems so foreign to us, but that is exactly what happens when waste services stop. People don’t want to bring their own waste somewhere safe. They will dump it at the nearest convenient location. The average person will not be concerned with contamination, just the smell. If you have ever lived through a garbage strike then you know exactly what I am talking about. Illegal dumping, or just leaving garbage where it normally would be picked up becomes the norm. The same thing happens with sewage if people go long enough without working sewers. In fact, imagine a garbage strike, with sewage flowing in, around and through the garbage. I can promise you that the smell from this combination will be horrendous.
Have you ever wondered why the penthouse, the most desirable suite was on the top floor? It isn’t because of the view. It is because of the smell at street level. In ancient cities the higher off the street you lived, the higher status you were. The only other option is to leave the city. The best historical example of this is the palace of Versailles, the king of France had a new palace built outside of Paris because he couldn’t stand the smell. The smell from the rivers of sewage in the streets was unbearable.
Seventeenth century France is one thing, but modern North American cities are different right? The only difference between a middle ages disease ridden city and a modern metropolis, is sanitation from functioning sewers. These sewers can and will breakdown in many disasters. This is largely the reason why disaster clean up is so dangerous. This is why mold grows so fast after a flood. This is why people who try to ride out a storm often get sick. Because the sewer system mixes with the other water and goes everywhere.
Sewers and sanitation are things we only think of when the system breaks down. When civilization is literally depending on functioning sanitation, it seems like an odd thing for people to ignore. Hopefully I have convinced you to stop ignoring what happens to your sewage.