Colonialism and communicable diseases

Updated: Feb 2

Sophie Byrne examines the effects of engineered waterways on public health crises


Waterways provide ample breeding grounds for disease-causing organisms, including parasites and bacteria, to thrive. For example, stagnant water is an ideal habitat for mosquito larvae to mature and become vectors for disease transmission. When waterways are not properly planned or managed, they can become reservoirs of disease. Key examples of this are the engineering projects that took place under colonial occupations. Colonising countries built infrastructure to fulfil their own agendas, to the detriment of local, native communities. This article will discuss two public health crises that have been caused or exacerbated by colonial infrastructure: malaria outbreaks and antimicrobial resistance.

Dutch colonialism and forced plantation policies


Effects of the atrocities of the slave trade still persist today. In addition to the socioeconomic factors that perpetuated the oppression seen under colonial rule, infrastructure can be a physical reminder of some of the horrific events that took place. Indonesia illustrates a key example of perpetuation of the colonial era. The people of Jakarta (known as Batavia at the time) were forced by the Dutch to construct and cultivate plantations; this slavery is an horrific part of the island’s history.


In areas of seasonal malaria transmission, poor irrigation systems have been shown to increase rates of malaria. In Jakarta, canals were built to irrigate the land on which sugar plantations were built, where local people were then forced to work. The warm climate combined with the stagnant water from the canals allowed disease to thrive. Epidemics of famine and disease plagued the island. Malaria and “putrid fever”, now suspected to have been typhoid, spread particularly extensively around the canals of Jakarta.


Egyptian irrigation


Similar issues have occurred in Egypt, exacerbated by British colonialism. The country’s canal-based irrigation system was expanded under the British. This included construction of the Aswan dam, which was opened in 1902, resulting in extensive flooding in lower Egypt. This led to extensive public health crises, including cholera, malaria and other parasitic diseases, such as hookworm.


At the time, the dam was viewed as an agricultural innovation that would help the British collect debts on behalf of other Europeans who held shares in the Egyptian economy. This financial venture ultimately caused innumerable public health crises and immeasurable damage to Egyptian communities, and the country as a whole.


For example, in Egypt in 1942, workplaces and schools in the towns of Abu Simbel and Ballana were forced to close due to the spread of a ‘mystery’ illness. It killed hundreds of people before being identified as Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest species of malaria-causing parasite. It is transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes, for which the irrigation system provided an ideal breeding ground.


The River Ganges’ coliform crisis


The River Ganges flows through India and Bangladesh. It is used for daily activities, such as washing, as well as being sacred, as it personifies the Hindu goddess, Ganga.


Construction of the Bhimgoda Barrage by British occupiers, on the Ganges, has been associated with elevated rates of malaria in the surrounding areas. It has also exacerbated the long-standing issue of bacterial infections. Despite the Ganges being sacred to many people, it is one of the most polluted waterways in the world. This is particularly due to industrial exploitation and waste disposal. Pollution caused by raw sewage is measured by counting the faecal coliform bacteria per millilitre. In some areas of the Ganges, these measurements exceed the “safe” amounts by over 120 times.


The dam was built by British colonists in 1854, with the intention of flooding the surrounding land for the purposes of irrigation. Nowadays, the dam causes reduced flow downstream. This allows high concentrations of harmful bacteria, e.g. from human waste, to accumulate.


India is one of the highest consumers of antibiotics in the world, which exacerbates the problem. Bacterial cells can transfer genes between one another, and even across species, via conjugation; colloquially known as “bacterial sex”. This means that resistance genes can be transferred from relatively harmless bacteria to more aggressively virulent species.


The introduction of ultimately detrimental infrastructure combined with the long-lasting effects of oppression must make us question whether we really are living in a ‘post-colonial’ era. The damage inflicted upon colonised countries still persists after independence, including in the context of public health. So we must consider: to what extent does colonial infrastructure perpetuate the oppression of colonialism today?


An overview of how antimicrobial resistance arises due to overuse of antibiotics:

During antibiotic treatment, “good” bacteria are killed as well as the disease-causing bacteria (pathogens). Pathogens that survive the treatment may be resistant and able to continue harming the host. In addition, the removal of “good” bacteria may allow harmful species to establish, through lack of competition. This poses a significant risk to the patient and the wider public, if the drug-resistant pathogens make their way into the wider environment.


From Issue 20.

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