*Water 4.0*

by on March 18, 2014 at 7:38 am in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new book by David Sedlak and the subtitle is The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource.  I found this consistently interesting, going well beyond the usual anecdotes one finds in the other general “history of water” books.  Here is one bit about Japanese water relations being Coasean in earlier times:

In Japan, human wastes were separated prior to recycling.  Fecal matter was the more valuable commodity, because solids were easier to transport.  In the first stage of the recycling process, landlords sold the feces in their tenants’ cesspools to merchants who were members of a guild that had secured the right to collect the wastes from that part of the city.  The wastes were so valuable that the rent of an apartment would increase if the number of people living in the house, and hence the amount of solid waste produced, decreased.  When it came time to renegotiate the price for the wastes, the guilds sometimes fought with each other for the rights to buy the increasingly valuable fertilizer.

Urine — the less prized waste — was still a marketable commodity.  Because of its lower value, tenants, who owned the rights to their urine, sold it to a group of merchants who were not part of the fecal waste guild.

That discussion, by the way, is drawing upon this S.B. Hanley piece.

Recommended.

Adrian Ratnapala March 18, 2014 at 8:02 am

In what era was this? Was it used for making gunpowder? Even if it was just for fertilser, I expect the price came down after we discovered how to synthesise nitrates.

Ray Lopez opines on Night Soil March 18, 2014 at 9:26 am

I’m surprised that Tc did not know about this market for night soil (feces), as any learned gentleman should know this. Reminds me of the chess grandmaster–I think it was Yusopov–who was a GM but did not know the rule about castling long being legal despite when a square not traversed by the king (such as b1) is attacked.

From an Economist special report, we learn that India, the Middle East, and the American southwest, with a few pockets in north China, are the most water stressed regions.

“The short answer is a pressing need for increased water productivity, without which wider societal cracks will appear. As a study from Veolia Water outlines, 22% of global GDP was at risk owing to water stress by 2010—about US$9.4 trillion— while 36% of the world’s population live in water-scarce regions. 10 In its forecasts, under a business as usual” scenario, by 2050 this risk would swell to 45% of projected GDP, with 52% of people exposed to severe water scarcity “

Jun March 18, 2014 at 10:50 am

TC clearly did know about night soil. The novelty was in the economics of it all.

Rahul March 18, 2014 at 9:31 am

In Europe till 1600’s wasn’t urine a valuable commodity? I faintly recall that the discovery of South American bird dropping piles (guana? ) destroyed that market. Wasn’t there some demand from the tanning industry too?

Govco March 18, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Yes, dried urine produced saltpeter and, as Robert Norton wrote in 1628, gunpowder is “compunded of three Principles, or Elements, Saltpetre, Sulphur and Cole, whereof Saltpetre is it that gives the chiefest violence.” The mix was 75%, 10%, 15%.

England had the best saltpeter by far, since heavy drinkers have more NH4 in their peepee.

carlospln March 18, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Drinkers in England, and you, have urea in their/your urine.

A small part of this is broken down to ammonia by bacteria lining the urethra as the contents are voided.

Age Of Doubt March 18, 2014 at 8:09 am

We think we’re good at monetizing things these days, but we throw so much value away. Not long ago, entire economies were built around around collecting rags or recovering non-excretory things people flushed down the sewer. Ironically, wealth has made us poorer at recognizing and recapturing value.

AndrewL March 18, 2014 at 8:30 am

I don’t know about that. “Sewer diving” back in the day when infectious diseases were less well understood could probably turn a profit, but sewer divers probably had a higher mortality rate.

Now-a-days, the value of sewer trash is probably less than the expected costs of recovering that sewer trash.

Jun March 18, 2014 at 11:20 am

I’m with Age of Doubt here. @AndrewL: it’s a matter of externalities and scale. Sewer trash has a lot of value if the externalities can be dealt with properly (water purification companies would probably pay a lot to have an easier task). And regarding scale, everything has changed since those days. Hand-forged needles have long gone the way of the dodo, same goes with many primitive aspects of waste management. No one’s advocating the comeback of “sewer diving”, perhaps simply proper waste separation, biogas generation, etc

Benny Lava March 18, 2014 at 8:20 am

What did they do with the feces? I hope they didn’t use it for fertilizer.

Krigl March 18, 2014 at 9:28 am

Pretty sure they did, just like my grandparents continued to use feces from outhouses in their old houses to fertilize the gardens into the 90s. And just like they do in many countries in the world even today, along with use as a fuel.

Rahul March 18, 2014 at 9:34 am

Sometimes pigs make up an intermediate layer. Apparently they can use some of the residual nutrition in human fecal matter. I may be wrong.

Mark Thorson March 18, 2014 at 10:27 am

I don’t think that works for human waste. It does work for feedlot cattle waste when they’re being fed corn because the corn is incompletely digested and considerable food value remains.

Rahul March 18, 2014 at 11:07 am

Yes, that makes sense. OTOH I’ve personally seen some pretty ancient third world latrines with pigs going crazy & eagerly waiting for every turd that dropped into the gutters as manna from heaven. Maybe it’s just fun & games.

Mark Thorson March 18, 2014 at 4:29 pm

That would explain why Muslims don’t eat pork.

FredR March 18, 2014 at 9:01 am

In “The Savage Wars of Peace,” Alan Macfarlane has a lot of good material on how obsessively clean the Japanese were, at least compared to other societies during that period.

Jun March 18, 2014 at 10:45 am

What I find astonishing is the difference in perceived value between urine and faeces throughout so many civilizations. NPK value is multiple times higher in urine and urine is fairly sterile. I remember running the figures a few years ago and finding out that in a no-loss situation, 1 year’s worth of human urine nearly perfectly matched the NPK value of 300 kg of rice. There was no major marginal gain in adding faeces to the mix and given the complex logistics associated to that, nightsoil isn’t close to making a comeback. Urine on the other hand makes plenty of sense… I’m sure there’s a “market in everything” in recycling urine from public urinals and there isn’t the boom in organic agriculture will change that.

My bet is that had we discovered that a bit sooner through chemical analysis, the green revolution wouldn’t have waited for nitrogen synthesis. More on that on SciAm for instance: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-urine-is-an-effective-fertilizer/

Jun March 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Found one, in Amsterdam: http://inhabitat.com/public-urinals-help-amsterdam-harvest-pee-as-fertilizer-for-green-roofs/

The company is harvesting low-hanging fruit for starters but they believe that Amsterdam’s potential is at 1,000 tonnes of fertilizer for a million inhabitants. Taken literally as phosphorus, though that maybe off by a factor of 2 to 4, that would be enough to yield 340 000 tonnes of wheat or 340 kg per “active contributor”.

To get a feel of what scaled-up sewer diving could eventually become, check out the name of this Jan 2014 study: “Mining Nutrients (N, K, P) from Urban Source-Separated Urine by Forward Osmosis Dewatering”.

John Mansfield March 18, 2014 at 10:49 am

It brings to mind the discovery of phosphorus, the first element to be identified since antiquity. As you may recall, it was produced by the 17th Century alchemist Hennig Brand’s smelly urine experiments. Instead of distilling gold from urine, he found stuff that glowed.

Donald Pretari March 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I’ve often wondered why people who argue for Intelligent Design generally point to the Human Eye for evidence for their view when the fact that Liquid and Solid Wastes are separated in Human Beings seems a much more unlikely occurrence. Oddly, I’m currently reading a book called The Origin of Feces. I used to make fun of Amazon Recommendations, but I just bought two more books on Water besides Water 4.0.

Phill March 18, 2014 at 4:53 pm

I thought it was less of a guild and more of a lower-caste, much like the Dalits in India.

mkt March 19, 2014 at 1:44 am

Right, the “eta” worked in occupations such as sanitation, leather, butchering, embalming, etc. and were generally viewed with revulsion by the rest of Japanese society and had fewer legal rights.

With all the profit to be made (if that article is to be believed) one wonders if maybe there were guilds — but controlled by profit-skimming owners much as pimps profit off of prostitutes. OTOH the wikipedia article about burakumin aka eta says that some of them became wealthy thanks to their monopoly on their trade.

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