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As you might have heard (with or without the assistance of vans with megaphones on their roofracks), a quarter of a million of us in the middle of England are currently without drinking water. Unless you have an interest in the subject of water-borne parasites, you’d have no reason to know the first thing about cryptosporidium. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if, a week ago, not a single one of the quarter-million had even heard of it. Now, of course, it’s a regular topic around a hundred-thousand dinner-tables.
In truth, I still don’t really know anything about it other than its name and its effects on the body (effects which I came to know only too well a short time before I knew the cause), but what I have found most interesting to observe is the social effect of such an event on the human animal.
If the media is to be believed, this relatively wealthy society’s first reaction was panic-buying. Now, whatever the circumstance, panic-buying is an interesting thing. For a start, it rarely has anything to do with a state of panic - indeed, quite the opposite is often true. There’s a problem with the regular supply of drinking water, and you need drinking water to live, therefore the logical thing to do is seek other sources. If that source is in bottles from supermarkets, and you can afford to do so, then it’s perfectly logical to go and buy it. This society has reached a point where it can afford to buy more or less anything it wants, so it’s hardly surprising that this would be the first reaction of the many.
The other interesting thing about so-called panic-buying is that it’s so often a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t need an A-level in economics to appreciate that the sudden and unplanned demand for a particular commodity with a constant supply will cause the both the price to increase and stocks to run short. But it’s not the economics that’s interesting, it’s the sociology. The moment the media utters the words “panic-buying”, whether it’s water, petrol, or whatever, you can guarantee that people will go out and start throwing their money around en masse. Panic, if that’s what it is, breeds panic. I’m reminded of Dad’s Army, whenever Lance-Corporal Jones’s loud cry of “Don’t panic!” would instantly and often unhelpfully create the exact opposite reaction.
So, as a result of the announcement, the demand for bottled water ramped up. The media managed to find places where supplies had run out, or where supermarkets were limiting purchases, but this didn’t appear to last more than a few hours. This part of the world has the advantage of being very central and thus hosts many in the distribution industry, including some of the major supermarket chains. So if the shops did run out, they managed to react quickly enough for me not to notice - in fact there’s so much bottled water piled up on palettes in my local store that it’s kind of obstructive.
Another oddity is that buying bottled water, in a panicked state or otherwise, is still largely unnecessary. Not only does this relatively wealthy society have the financial power to buy water from other sources, but it also has the relevant tools to tackle the problem in its own kitchens. In the broader sense, the problem with the water isn’t that bad. They haven’t turned off the water completely, it still comes out of the taps as normal. You can still wash stuff in it, bathe in it, water the garden with it (if you must), your toilet still flushes, you washing machine still works… the majority of regular applications for tap-water are entirely unaffected. Besides, nobody’s said you can’t drink it: all they’ve said is you shouldn’t let it enter your body without bringing it to the boil first.
Is that it? No magical chemistry? No super-complicated witchcraft? No, just boil it, allow to cool, and it’s fine. Now if only there were such a thing as a simple, cheap device that would allow me to boil water… wait, there is! It’s called a kettle. And would you believe it: I needn’t rush out and buy one. Turns out I’ve already got one, and it’s already sitting in my kitchen not far from the sink. Problem solved. So why on earth are people rushing around looking for overpriced European mineral water?
My kettle can hold a little over two pints, and comes to the boil in three minutes. Used repetitively, this one simple appliance could supply enough safe drinking water to meet the needs of at least 380 people over a 24-hour period. I’d be surprised if any of the hundred-thousand affected households doesn’t have a kettle—-I’d be even more surprised if any of these households contains 380 people with just the one kettle between them. Of course, it’s the places outside the households that are more complicated: the hospitals; schools; offices; pubs; restaurants etc. (and there’s the Carlsberg brewery in the centre of Northampton—-I’d love to know what they do in a situation like this). But essentially the problem is hardly insurmountable; it’s just a mild inconvenience. By reusing a couple of four-pint plastic milk-bottles, and using the kettle and some containers appropriate for cooling, I’ve got a perfectly adequate supply of drinking water at a very marginally increased cost and with minimal dicking about. So when I watch people staggering around the supermarket fully laden with enormous bottles of the finest, purest something-or-other, collected and delicately filtered through the foothills of somewhere-or-other, I’m half-tempted to offer them (and up to 378 other members of their household, if need be) the use of my kettle.
But enough smart-arsery. In this household at least, for the minor inconvenience, some good has come out of the cryptosporidium revelation. First, it explained why I was having to spend quite so much time on the toilet, and what I needed to do to put a stop to this (there’s a mildly amusing irony that, when you’re in this state, helpful soles often bring you tap-water so that you don’t dehydrate - the moment I stopped the rehydrating, I was basically fine again).
Secondly, it’s forced me to consider how I clean my teeth. This is something I’ve been doing unassisted for over a quarter of a century, so it’s not something I need or have cause to think about very often. Following this incident, a couple of very minor changes have been made to the habit of a lifetime, and standards of dental health remain as they were. But it has made me realise just how much water I would usually use during the process of cleaning my teeth, and that I should now do so more consciously.
Also, it has reminded me of the value of tap-water. Not only is it there in abundance when I need it, but also that somewhere or other is a team of people in lab-coats ensuring that it’s clean and safe. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever had to put even the slightest thought into whether or not the water’s clean. The truth is, the vast majority of the time, it’s exceptionally clean and safe thanks to an army of boffins and engineers I’ll never meet, and whom I’ve never really thought about before. It’s the oldest of clichés, but I am starting to appreciate drinking-water now that I don’t have it. But that’s just the thing—-I do have drinking-water. At this precise moment I’ve got enough standing by in my fridge to last the weekend, and I have the means to receive an seemingly infinite amount more.
In the office, as in most, we have water-coolers - and you should know at this point that I’ve always found these things irritating for both practical and environmental reasons. The water is supplied via heavy diesel-powered trucks in large polyurethane bottles; the coolers eat electricity 24 hours a day for the marginal luxury of the water being fractionally cooler than from the tap; the coolers and spare or empty bottles get in the way; they seem to break down all the time and, because they’re electric, there’s this assumption that the IT department should be able to fix them; what’s more there’s really nothing wrong with the mains supply for which we have to pay anyway… I could go on. There are people who will only drink from the cooler rather than the tap, not because the water’s chilled, but because it’s in some way cleaner. Not only do they believe this, but they’ll voice surprise and concern whenever they see me filling a glass from the tap. At this point I’ll stifle my contempt and light-heartedly point out that there are many greater dangers in the world than tap-water—-smoking’s a good one.
But now cryptosporidium has given me another good reason to dislike office water-coolers. The water that I drink from the tap (and that is the central ingredient in my diet of tea; pasta; rice; and occasionally Super Noodles), is delivered to me only after a big gang of people who know infinitely more about water safety than I ever will have said it’s okay. And, when it isn’t okay, they drive up and down with megaphones; stuff leaflets through my letterbox; get on the local and national television and radio news; etc. I’m sure there’s a similar, if smaller, group of boffins looking after the water that’s put into the large polyurethane bottles and onto the heavy diesel-powered trucks… but once it’s on the truck, they’re powerless over it. Those bottles will doubtless sit in a corner of the office for weeks, maybe months, with no real protection from sunlight or anything else that I’m told can affect the quality or safety of drinking-water. In many ways it’s reassuring to know that the water company, while I imagine are embarrassed and massively worse-off, are actively checking this stuff, day in day out.
Finally, it’s made me mindful of what it is to live within this relatively wealthy society. We have unfaltering access to water and, when there’s even the smallest problem, we also have the means to find other sources - be it filling our 4x4s with bottles from the supermarket or flipping a switch on our kettles. Meanwhile, over a billion people have no access to safe water. Yeah, a billion. More than twenty percent. Also, something like a third of the human population don’t have access to electricity. I don’t want to sound like an Irish rock-star or a fading comedian about this, but these are significantly greater obstacles than anything we could face in this society.
We’ve got everything we need and more, and yet still we’re panic-buying. The best thing about cryptosporidium is that, for a moment, it’s put me back in my place.