• Sewers and mortality in 19th century Paris

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    Seen recently in the Economic History and Development Seminar at TSE, this paper by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and Lionel Kesztenbaum shows how investments in sewers, which progressed at a higher speed in richer areas of the city, explain the first diverging then converging path of mortality across neighbourhoods (here is the link to the wider project on Rosenthal website).

    Around 1900, after centuries of disadvantage, urban life expectancy passed its rural counterparts. The process can be linked with two broad phenomena: rising incomes and improved sanitation. We focus on Paris during the key period of the health transition (1880-1914) and assemble a longitudinal data set on mortality and income for each of the city’s 80 neighborhoods. We show that life expectancy in Paris was not very different from the rest of the country –around 50 years at age 5– but the difference between best and worst neighborhoods exceeded 10 years. These huge mortality differentials are strongly related to a variety of income indicators. Over time, mortality across neighborhoods first diverged and then converged. This pattern cannot be explained by variation in income or fixed neighborhood characteristics. It is due to the gradual diffusion of sewers that were adopted faster in rich neighborhoods than in poor ones.

    Lessons for today’s policies in developing countries include the fact that divergences in access to excludable public goods, such as sanitation, may result from the implementation of a variety of fee-based investments schemes, including some of the widely advertized PPP types. In these cases, adverse distributional consequences can be wide-ranging, despite improvements in average coverage.

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