Economy & Business

‘Raw Water’ Makes a Mockery of Human Suffering

Children drink water from a hand pump in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 2017. (Reuters photo: Caren Firouz)
It’s a play-act of poverty that puts ‘slum tourism’ to shame.

Every few months, there’s a new trend that promises life-changing health benefits — a spice, or a juice, or another mundane consumable, often with an Indian or East Asian name thrown in to make it seem ancient and exotic. We see these things, laugh, and move on with our lives. We live and let live.  

“Raw water” is the newest such trend. Customers are paying for the privilege of drinking water that is unfiltered, untreated, and unsterilized — and apparently they want it so badly that it is often out of stock. Numerous brands have emerged to cater to this fast-growing niche. A fool and his money are soon parted, and in free countries we should accept that. But this particular fad makes me recoil with disgust.

You see, “raw water” is the norm in much of the world — and it is no laughing matter. It results in stunted growth in children, crippling disease, birth defects, and an endless list of other tragic outcomes. A recent World Bank study, conducted across 18 countries, revealed that only 20 percent of these nations’ rural inhabitants had access to clean water. In some countries, access to clean water has gotten worse over the years. In Haiti, for example, half as many households have access to clean water as did 25 years ago. Perhaps our best and brightest envy this situation, seeing in it increased access to their beloved “raw water,” but I think we can safely assume that the people of Haiti would prefer water that doesn’t put them into a vicious cycle of getting sick, losing bodily fluids, needing more water, getting sicker, and so on.

I spent many years living in some of the countries studied in the report. Even as a child, it was not hard to understand that the tap water was not, under any circumstances, to be consumed. We always had cupboards full of bottled water on hand for cooking or consumption. It was an adjustment, but an easy enough one for American expats to make. First Worlders encounter a similar situation when vacationing in the Third World, where hotels make sure to keep rooms stocked with bottled water for tourists.

Of course, as Westerners, we were considerably better off than the bulk of the population among which we lived. It cost us little to send for bottled water, whereas for the local poor and middle class, access to the clean stuff was a time-consuming luxury. Imagine, every time you are thirsty, having to seek out water, filter it, boil it, and so forth. The United Nations estimates that the labor hours spent on water collection alone in Sub-Saharan Africa amount to 40 billion per year — equivalent to all labor activity in France. Yet people still do it, whenever possible, because they knew all too well the perils of “raw water.”

Per the Water Project, something like 80 percent of illnesses in developing countries are linked to poor water and sanitation. A jerry can of water weighs over 40 pounds, and because adults and boys are busy in the work force, most are carried by girls under 15 across distances of many miles. Once the water runs out, those girls must make another trip to fetch more.

Even the humblest of us in the developed world know that we can open the tap and enjoy water cleaner and safer than most of the world has access to. We take it for granted: Usable water is the norm throughout the OECD, as it has been for decades.

Tacitus and Ibn Khaldun wrote of decadent civilizations drinking themselves to death, but for our new leaders, that is passé.

Tacitus and Ibn Khaldun wrote of decadent civilizations drinking themselves to death, but for our new leaders, that is passé. Instead, they have decided to rebel all the way and simply drink death in the name of health. Startups have rushed to feed this pathetic desire for novelty, each trying to outdo the other in ignorance. One of their leaders, Christopher Sanborn, has changed his name to Mukhande Singh, the better to grant his dirty water the legitimacy of exotic culture. His customers might be surprised to know that the ancient Indians practiced water treatment — using dreaded “chemicals,” no less. Likewise, Greek, Sanskrit, and Ancient Egyptian writings demonstrate that water purification was a public-health concern for classical civilizations, long before modern germ theory, and that methods of filtration and chemical treatment were commonplace in their time.

To put this absurdity in perspective, consider that in the world’s “Middle Income Countries,” per capita income ranges from just under $3 to $34 a day, and that “raw water” bottles in the US cost $36.99 each. Or, put another way, in order to ingest “raw water,” the cause of 20 percent of child deaths worldwide, rich Americans have taken to spending more than most people in the world earn in a week. In doing so, not only are they rejecting millennia of widely understood science, but they are putting their lives and the lives of those around them at risk, in order to indulge in a patronizing play-act of poverty that puts even so-called slum tourism to shame.

Jibran Khan is the Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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