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Water, the backbone of civilisations

22 April 2016
Pont du Gard aqueduct

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It is unfortunate that most of us take our water supply for granted. Water for society is like blood for the body: we rely on it to keep us going. But how often do we think about the journey our water supply has taken through the ages?

Many countries around the world do not enjoy the luxury of a continual clean water supply. But it's a feat that not even developed countries have had for long. Over the next 3 posts, we will discuss the history of public water supply - it's a fascinating journey. This first item is about infrastructure and logistics - getting water from its source and to the people.

The primary logistical challenge

Early settlers had little choice but to dwell around major freshwater sources, usually rivers or springs. Such places are relatively scarce though. It is an often cited fact that two thirds of the Earth is covered in water. 97% of that, however, is undrinkable salt water. Out of the remaining 3%, two thirds are captured in glaciers and ice caps. As for water potentially suitable for human consumption, most flows underground. Overall, only 0.009% of Earth's water is situated in rivers, streams and springs.

To overcome these geographical constraints and inhabit places with no surface water, humans started digging wells and building aqueducts. One of the oldest wells ever found was discovered in 2014 in Jezreel Valley, Isreal. It dates back to around 6500 BC!

The Indus Valley civilisation is famous for the first water management system. It contained hundreds of ancient wells, water pipes and toilets. However, the first evidence of proper water supply comes from Crete, from people who formed the Minoan civilisation. They were the first to to use underground clay pipes to quench thirst of their settlements.

It wasn't until the Romans that large-scale engineering projects kicked off. Indoor plumbing became the norm and pipes were supplied by often breathtaking aqueducts such as the Pont du Gard aqueduct in Nimes, France - the cover photo for today's post.

In the early first millenium, Persians invented Qanats, gently sloping underground channels with a series of vertical access shafts, used to transport water from an aquifer under a hill. This system was vital in the dry and hot climate that Persians settled in, and granted them a reliable supply of cool and clean water from up to 30 miles away.

The Maya pioneered both water pressure and water purification. They carved limestone and used it as a filter, not dissimilar to modern ceramic filters.

In the 3rd century AD, dam building boomed in Spain and supported the country in becoming a world power later on.

It can be easy to underestimate the connectedness of the world prior to the modern age. But the historical advances in water engineering that disseminated throughout the world command real respect for our ancestors.

Water supply in the UK, a timeline

  • 1325 first pipeline, connected Cambridge to a spring 1km away
  • 1574-82 London received a sophisticated water pump powered by five wheels
  • 1805 Pontcysyllte, Britain's largest aqueduct was built in Northern Ireland
  • 1847 Water from sources 25km away started flowing into Bristol thanks to an aqueduct
  • 1848 Five reservoirs are built in the Langendale Valley, 15 km from Manchester
  • 1859 Loch Katrine, in Glasgow, opens providing the city with a supply
  • 1866 Most of London is connected to Joseph Bazalgette's sewer network - reducing contamination of water supply
  • 1880 Britain's first all-stone dam was built on the River Vyrnwy for Liverpool