Water as a Carrier: From Mesopotamia to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Sridhar Vedachalam recently obtained his PhD in Environmental Science from The Ohio State University, USA. He wrote his dissertation on approaches to manage wastewater in rural areas in the U.S.

When humans gave up their nomadic lives and started settling down, civilizations sprang up around water bodies like rivers and large lakes.  Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and Harappan (Indus river) civilizations come to mind immediately. Even the Roman civilization survived and flourished due to an extensive network of water systems. Much later, the birth of modern cities occurred again on coastlines and on the banks of major rivers – London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, etc. This was due to two obvious reasons. The primary reason people settled in these areas was due to unlimited access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and for taking away the waste. As communities formed around these areas, they found water to be an excellent medium to conduct trade and transport goods.

As populations increased, people were no longer able to access clean water for drinking while dumping waste in the same water. This was the reason for the large number of deaths resulting from cholera and plague that struck many parts of Europe and North America during the 1800’s. It was only after the construction of modern day water (and later, wastewater) treatment plants that deaths due to such diseases came down in the industrialized world. Some of these conditions still exist in many developing countries. The idea that separation of drinking water and wastewater is needed to maintain good health hasn’t existed for more than a century, and many of us still fail to make that connection.


Photo: Treehugger

Water is an excellent carrier, not just of goods, but also diseases and harmful chemicals. Fertilizers and chemicals used in our farms end up in rivers and finally the ocean. The same is true with plastic. These chemicals eat up the dissolved oxygen when trying to break down and deprive the nearby fish of oxygen creating a region of low dissolved oxygen. Such regions are called hypoxia. One of the most prominent ones is just off the Gulf Coast of the U.S., Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. There is a large area off the Pacific Coast of the U.S., “The World’s Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch“, with so much plastic that marine life has been severely affected in the region.

Photo: AFP-Getty Images, photo by Torsten Blackwood

To highlight the issue of the plastic waste in oceans, David de Rothschild and his associates came up with the idea of designing a boat made of recycled plastic bottles and sailed it across the Pacific in 2008. If you are reading this blog, I am pretty sure you know about Travel2Change and its mission. There are several other committed individuals, communities and organizations doing work to bring about change in the way we interact with our environment, but is it always meaningful to stop for a moment and look back at how we reached this point? Sometimes, the solutions lie right in the questions, but the key is to ask the right questions.

Thank you Sridhar Vedachalam for sharing this interesting article with us!

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