The Journal of Emergency Management reports:
Threats to water, a requirement for life, make for compelling story lines. The movie Batman Begins includes a poisoned water supply as a plot point, for example. But threats to the water supply aren’t just the stuff of modern fiction.
“The idea of poisoning drinking water goes back a long way,” said James Salzman, a professor of law and environmental policy at Duke University and author of Drinking Water: A History. The Roman emperor Nero is said to have poisoned his enemies’ wells in the first century. J. Edgar Hoover obsessed over threats to the water supply during World War II.
For all the drama of someone slipping poison into a reservoir, however, the reality is that many of the threats to both drinking water and wastewater are more mundane, ranging from wildfires to maintenance issues.
The infrastructure for drinking water is massive. From treatment plants to the distribution network, it consists of millions of miles of pipes and has millions of access points. “When you just look at the numbers, it’s obvious that the drinking water system is impossibly big to completely protect,” Salzman said. “That’s the bad news. The good news is that our systems are designed intentionally to protect against threats.”
The myriad threats eventually creep into the emergency management realm. During a disaster, it’s imperative to have access to potable water. There are instances where a hazard — natural or man-made — can turn into a disaster because of contamination to drinking water.
There are, of course, small-scale “instances every year where the system fails, and there are boil water alerts,” Salzman said. “In terms of drinking water, we can get that into a disaster area quickly. The concern is sanitation: How do you get the waste away?” If sewage contaminates the water supply, there’s a risk of cholera, typhoid and other diseases. “You’re basically back in the 19th century.”
There are many sources of threats to the water supply, some caused by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally, and some natural. Although in movies, the villain may sneak up to a reservoir and pull a test tube full of poison out of his coat, the reality is that with most chemicals in most reservoirs, it would not be nearly that easy.
“You’d need several dump trucks of cyanide or arsenic to poison a large water supply,” Salzman said. It would be difficult to acquire that much poison without attracting notice, let alone get it into the reservoir. Then there’s the fact that the reservoir water is monitored, so authorities would realize something was wrong.
The system is constantly under attack from biological threats, Salzman said. Whether the problem happens naturally or is introduced intentionally, the water system has built-in protections such as chlorination. “Cholera is bad whether it occurs naturally or is put into the reservoir, and the system is designed to neutralize that,” he said.
Source: To read the article in its entirety the May issue of Emergency Management,