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Dr. John Broich, Case Western Reserve University – History of Municipal Water

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. John Broich of Case Western Reserve University explores the contentious history of the municipal water supply. 

John Broich is an assistant professor of history and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His teaching and research interests include environmental history and the history of public health policy and technology. His latest publication is the book London: Water and the Making of the Modern City. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University.

About Dr. Broich

Dr. John Broich – History of Municipal Water

In 2005 the chairman and CEO of Nestle, Peter Brabeck, gave an interview in which he called the concept of a public right to a low-cost water supply an “extreme” one. Water, he said, should be sold like any other foodstuff by corporations like, well, Nestle. Every so often the internet rediscovers this interview and outrage ensues.

But he was right. The idea that local governments have a responsibility to provide their citizens plentiful, safe water is a radical one. It’s just that we’ve forgotten it. When the idea surfaced in Britain and the US around 150 years ago, people recognized it as extreme. There was a fierce debate about the appropriate role of the market in water supply, about the correct scope of government, and so on.

My recent book rediscovers this debate. In most cities, the radical concept that governments do have an obligation to assure a safe, reliable water supply won out from Birmingham to Liverpool to New York. And now we, especially in the US, take that expectation for granted. …Well, most of us; not Nestle.

My book focuses its attention on London because paradoxically, the government of the capital of the avant garde never took responsibility for providing its citizens with water. It tried at the end of the 1800s, but failed. There were those in Parliament who saw socialistic dangers in placing water supply in the hands of London’s government. And they successfully took a stand against London.

It is a ripe moment for rediscovering these old debates about whether the marketplace or public should assure a water supply. With clean water became ever more scarce—and more valuable—it’s a good bet we’ll be forced to rehash the issue soon.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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