Two weeks ago, my hometown of Portland, Oregon was hit with a boil water order, due to possible contamination in our local water supply. In an instant, daily life changed. It was no longer safe to drink from the tap, all ice made for the past few days had to be discarded, and any recently-prepared drinks were also suspect. Many restaurants simply closed their doors, unable to rapidly boil all the water needed for food preparation and cleaning. Even at home, it became much harder to do simple things like grab a glass of water or brush my teeth.
Although Portland's water problem cleared up within 24 hours, it was a stark reminder that seemingly simple services like water are so essential to my daily life that I rarely think about them at all. Here's a look at some services I take for granted. Share your own in the comments!
1. Clean Water from the Tap
On Friday, May 23, Portland told 670,000 residents of the metro area that their water might be contaminated. This came after a series of water tests that showed E. coli and fecal matter contamination in several local reservoirs. Text messages, emails, and phone calls spread through the city, but most people I know saw the alerts first through social media. (I got a cell phone alert five hours after seeing the news on Twitter.)
I dumped all the ice in my freezer, shut off the ice-maker, set up a few pots of water to boil, and went about my business. That night at a comedy show, huge signs said "OUR ICE IS SAFE - FROM AN OUTSIDE VENDOR." At the restaurant nearby (one of those that remained open), a long list of items had to be removed from the menu. By the following morning the boil-water alert was lifted.
While this boil-water business was a hassle (and even a safety hazard, as people can burn or scald themselves when boiling water), it was also a stunning reminder of how easy it still was to get clean water. After all, the taps still ran and the gas lines still fired up the range. It wasn't that bad; the water wasn't full of toxic chemicals, unlike the water my family in West Virginia is still dealing with. I didn't have to walk miles to get clean-ish water; it came to me and I could make it clean by flicking on a burner.
According to charity: water, nearly 1 billion people worldwide don't have access to clean water. The WHO estimates that 3.6% of global disease could be prevented simply by providing access to clean water. And 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases primarily "attributed to unsafe water supply, inadequate sanitation and hygiene." These are all reminders that water is a vital basic need, and a billion of us don't have access to it.
2. A Clean, Private Toilet
I live in a house that's about a hundred years old. When it was built, it had an outhouse in the back yard because there was no indoor plumbing. Now that's just a memory, with 50s-era indoor plumbing and a pair of bathrooms. It's hard for me to imagine life without a toilet...and the fact that I have my choice of two is truly a luxury.
In other parts of the world, things can be different. In the slums of Pune, India, a single public toilet can serve 1,000 people every day. Here's a video featuring Swapnil Chaturvedi, a toilet cleaner living in Pune, who has set out to provide clean toilets for the urban poor:
See also: 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome, featuring "Mr. Toilet."
3. Access to Vaccines
I live about a mile from a supermarket with a pharmacy inside. It offers a variety of common vaccinations, many of which are free if you have health insurance. Every year I go in and get a flu vaccination, and it's an extremely simple process. They even give me a 10%-off coupon for groceries—quite a bargain.
But not everybody has such easy access to vaccines. Many vaccines require careful "cold chain" treatment to remain effective, and that's a serious challenge in rural areas. There are also disaster scenarios where transporting vaccines can be tricky even in the developed world; I know my local pharmacy would not have trouble keeping up if a flu pandemic struck at the same time as a major earthquake. That's where stockpiles and rapid delivery systems come in.
Around the world, there are massive stockpiles of all sorts of things, including vaccines. Within the U.S., the CDC maintains a Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) system, allowing for emergency aid in the event of attacks, pandemics, natural disasters, you name it. Here's a video describing how it works, and you can read about some surprisingly fascinating stockpiles as well:
There's a public library down the road from me. It's a good long walk, or a quick bike ride, and inside are plenty of books, computers, and reference librarians. It's an incredible resource, in part because it draws together the community—the library is a unique space in which any community member can show up and learn, free of charge. Libraries are the only public spaces we devote to learning, aside from schools.
Libraries lift communities. Last year, we profiled 4 Innovative Libraries Transforming Lives Around the World. Here's one:
See also: Why Libraries Matter, a short film showing how New York City's public libraries are making a difference for New Yorkers every day.
I rarely go to a physical bank anymore, though they seem to be everywhere. For the most part I just don't need in-person banking services, since my smartphone and bank cards can do all my daily tasks—including depositing checks by taking pictures of them, which still feels like science fiction to me.
But in many parts of the world, banks are simply not available. In South Asia, 78% of working adults are "unbanked," meaning they don't have a bank account at all. Even in the U.S., an estimated 1 in 12 households is unbanked. Technology is helping in many areas, but there's still a long way to go. You can read more about the state of banking around the world in our roundup of Modern Banking Services You Might Take for Granted.
Share Your Story
Have you been reminded lately of a service you might take for granted? Share your story in the comments!