Most days this April, I sloshed through puddles on the streets of London, trying to avoid being splashed by the buses with the big signs chastising me to save water, because “we are in a drought.”

Having lived in California, I understand that a month of record rainfall does not make up for a long, ground-hardening drought. From knowing the history of London however, I also appreciate that the current water shortage cannot be put entirely down to the whims of the heavens.

After the war, an enormous amount of council housing was built in the UK. Among the common designs was to have a mews running along the backs of a long row of small, identical houses (some single-family dwellings, some divided into flats). The back doors didn’t open directly onto the mews; rather the rearward space was allotted for smaller structures: Toilets.

Frequently several toilets were clustered to take advantage of a shared water tank on the roof. The tank was open on top so as to catch the rainwater that would be used to flush the privy (through the force of gravity) when the chain was pulled by the user. While it would be wrong to romanticize the comforts of outdoor water closets, it is striking nonetheless that as the population accrued a level of wealth that made external lavatories unthinkable, it also made a decision that countless millions of gallons of rain water were not valuable enough to capture for productive use.


[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.