No Outhouse in Eden - A Story of Unintended Consequence

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    By Jim Knapp


    There really wasn’t any need for a water closet, outhouse, bathroom or loo in Eden. That’s because there were only two residents. They could leave their business just about anywhere without disrupting the place. Leave it for a couple of weeks and nature would make it disappear. Common courtesy would demand that you dig a hole or flip a rock, but it wasn’t necessary. As long as Adam and Eve had a clear stream for drinking water and lots of space they were set.

    Even for our tribal ancestors there wasn’t much need for anything fancy. Dig a pit and voila! Most tribes moved around a lot anyway so it was easy to leave their troubles behind.

    The Birth of Plumbing:

    What really gave sewerage a leg up (so to speak) was when people started building cities. The advent of the early cities of the Middle East, Indus Valley, China and Mesoamerica couldn’t move away from the accumulated dung that they made, and there was way too much of it to just leave it around. Moving it by “hand” wasn’t a pleasant option, so some other form of transportation was called for. The most common solution was to use running water in man-made trenches as a transportation device to carry the effluvia away from inhabited areas.


    Roman toilets had water running under the seats and there was also water running in the trough by one’s feet for washing hands.

    Problem solve, right? Wrong. The water needed to carry the effluvia away took water away from other uses, and the grey water had to go somewhere; like nearby streams or lakes. Unfortunately adding water to feces creates the perfect slurry for growing bacteria and parasites. The unintended consequence of getting rid of that much human waste using water as a transportation medium was to reduce the amount of fresh, clean water for people to use while creating a bacterial frappe of dysentery, typhoid and cholera that ended up in local creeks, rivers and lakes (often also serving as the source for freshwater). The polluted Thames River became the Great Stink of London in 1858.

    Polluting the local bodies of water made it necessary to either find sources of freshwater from further afield or to filter the dirty water that was handy. Getting “potable” water to citizens of urban areas caused the creation of freshwater distribution systems; think aqueducts. As early as 1500 B.C. the Minoans of Crete brought fresh water to their residences using tubular clay conduit - the first pipes.

    Water distribution systems created an additional problem. Having access to fresh, clean water delivered to residents increased water usage. When San Francisco installed a water distribution system in the 19th Century (to cut down on water-borne illness) average water usage per person went from 3-5 gallons per day to 40-50 gallons a day. All that extra wastewater had to be dealt with, creating a needed for bigger and bigger wastewater collection and treatment systems. That makes the plumbing trade a lot like Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction! Talk about job security.



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