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Water is Life

illustration by Sarah George

Next year, we will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, or the Confederates’ War as we say in Louisiana French. Between 1865 and 1870, after the terrible mortality associated with the deadliest war in American history, life expectancy in the United States was about 45 years. According to a study by the Census Bureau in 2008, the average life expectancy in 2015 will be almost 79 years. This represents a dramatic increase of 75%. A hundred and fifty years can seem like an eternity, but to put things in perspective, I had a great-great uncle who died in 1990 at the age of 103. So he was born in 1887. On the other side of the family, my maternal grandfather was born in 1892. I knew both of them well, and others of their generation. They were teenagers before the First World War, the Great War, which began in Europe a hundred years ago this year. If at that time they knew people in their sixties or older, and I'm sure there were, they knew survivors of our civil war. All that to say I knew people who walked alongside a generation that lived in a world very different from ours, the antebellum period. Since then, we have made huge strides to improve our standard of living. Among the biggest and most important differences is the almost doubling of the number of years a person can expect to live.

Without too much reflection, you can think of many reasons for this dramatic increase. Certainly technological, industrial and medical progress played an important role. New drugs, antibiotics, and devices for a rapid and accurate diagnosis have contributed greatly. But the number one reason that extended life by such a remarkable factor is something that we take for granted today and, if we do not take into account its fragility, which could become a rarity as in the time of Louisiana in the Confederate States. A good number of scientists, including David Cutler of Harvard and Grant Miller of Stanford, attribute much of this progress to something as simple as access to clean water. "We found that clean water was responsible for nearly half the total mortality reduction in major cities, three quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two thirds of the child mortality reduction." In other words, life expectancy was so low because many children were unable to reach adulthood. They did not reach adulthood because they could not open the tap and expect clean water to come out in large quantities.

Today in Louisiana, we are at a critical point in our history. In many respects, our state exists because of water. It is literally defined by water: the Mississippi, the Sabine, the Pearl and the Gulf of Mexico are our borders. Combined with the many bayous, creeks, streams, wetlands and estuaries, they provide not only the means to earn a living, but life itself. Other states have phases of regular or chronic drought. In Louisiana, we have the opposite problem. This overabundance of aqueous wealth requires us to act as grateful stewards of our resources. We also have another important resource that sustains the population. The oil industry plays a key role in the economy of the state, it goes without saying. It is also accused of having done great harm to our ecosystem, from the invasion of saltwater through canals it dug to chemicals that are found in our drinking water. It is said that water and oil do not mix. That may be true, but we have to discover a way to make them live together, to keep the quality and the quantity of life that we know thanks mostly to the progress that has been made in public health and industrial innovation since the War of the Confederates. We have no choice. Our life in Louisiana depends on it.

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