History of Drinking Water

Early settlements and towns were always built near a source of water. Without water humans cannot live. Accordingly, the California drought has brought on threats of limited water available to grow crops and meet the demands of our thirsty state. Contrary to history, which originally had water as the impetus in choosing a final location for human civilizations to settle, modernized infrastructure has changed all of that. How does the history of drinking water lead us to the tap water that we use on a daily basis for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and brushing our teeth?

Historically, humans have relied on a safe drinking water and sanitation for survival. In the early Neolithic period, also referred to as the Stone Age, wells were dug and used to capture water-using containers. In India, the Indus Valley Civilization created complex sewage and drainage systems. As civilizations became more sophisticated, they created systems to deliver water to towns. The Indus Valley Civilization had an intricate sewage system, which included public and private baths, and toilets that would drain waste into an underground sewer system.

The ancient Greeks are often coined as having created the first advanced water delivery and wastewater collection and rightfully so. Being the first civilization to utilize a system of clay pipes for both water delivery and waste removal, their systems also included the first flushing toilet and pressurized showers. The Mayans were also one of the earliest civilizations to have pressurized water.

The Roman Empire also had a sophisticated aqueduct system with public wells and water delivery infrastructure including the use of lead pipes. At approximately 300 BC, Rome had a population of about half a million people, which required a supplemental water supply source. The Romans created a complex system of pipes to deliver water from canals and aqueducts. It is important to note that during this period, the Persian Qanats had systems for collecting a water supply and in East Asia during the Qin and Han Dynasties plumbing was in place.

Old rusty water tap in village

During the middle ages, medieval European cities created open canals that would serve as channels for wastewater. In 1370, the first covered sewage canal was created in response to minimize the smell from sewage. Queen Elizabeth I had a flushing toilet that would release waste into cesspools, which was created by her godson during the 16th century. Ancient Mayan Civilizations utilized underground aqueducts, utilized flushing toilets and even filtered water using carved limestone.

From the 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution took off, and pumping and waterworks projects were also booming, however the overpopulation of cities led to disease and death.

In 1802, Paris was home to the Ouricq canal, a system built by Napoleon, delivering 2.5 million cubic feet of water per day. The challenge was that from that system, the Seine River was receiving as much as 100,000 cubic feet of wastewater per day. Years later, in 1832 the Paris cholera epidemic brought attention to the fact that an alternate solution for wastewater discharge was necessary. Eugene Belgrand is known for having developed a large-scale water supply and waste management in France. Between 1865-1920, roughly 372 miles of aqueduct were built delivering spring water to the people.

During the mid-18th through the 19th century, significant progress with sewage systems were developed in Germany. The wastewater systems reduced the death rate from Typhoid. In the United States, the first sewer systems were built in Chicago and Brooklyn in the late 1850’s.

old deep well

It was during the 19th century when flushing toilets became common practice. First only the privileged wealthy were able to pay to have their waste drain into public sewers, but soon thereafter indoor plumbing became widely used in homes. As cities grew the concern of discharging wastewater into surface waters without treatment became a concern. Outbreaks of disease were prevalent and public health advancements helped to reduce disease that was being transmitted through water.

The first treated public water supply, which provided filtered water to all residents within central London boundaries was the Chelsea Waterworks Company in London. The filtration system, originally designed by the owner of a Scotland bleachery, John Gibb, was copied and used throughout the England. As the practice continued, the discovery of the correlation between the famous Broad Street cholera outbreak and the flawed sewer system strengthened the proof that proper treatment of drinking water and safe wastewater systems were necessary.

In 1879, chlorine was first used to treat wastewater produced by patients with typhoid. A few years later, Hamburg, Germany began to use chlorination for water treatment and the city of Maidstone, England was the first city to use chlorine to treat the entire city’s drinking water supply. By 1905, chlorination of drinking water supplies became commonplace as a means to mitigate typhoid outbreaks.

In 1908, chlorination in the United States also became the conventional method for treating public drinking water supplies. With rapid adoption, the means of disinfecting drinking water by using chloride of lime grew throughout the world. Shortly after, in 1910 Major William J. L. Lyster, Army Medical Department created a solution of calcium hypochlorite to treat water. This method set the foundation for today’s public water treatment systems.

In 1974, the United States Environmental Protection Agency passed the Safe Drinking Act ensuring safe public drinking water. Public water agencies continue to provide safe, reliable water supplies to people throughout the world. While processes and treatment have advanced, much of the methods and strategizes utilized by early civilizations still play a part in modern-day drinking water treatment. Moving into the future, as challenges with water scarcity continue, looking for alternative ways to treat available water and wastewater through advanced technologies and approaches like desalinization and indirect potable reuse will become more frequent and common place. In fact, we can dare say we are moving quickly into a new stage in the history of the drinking water story.


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