The History of Water Supply and Drainage

The Importance of Sanitary Water 

Since civilization began, the history of water supply and sanitation has been a longstanding logistical challenge to provide clean water and sanitation systems. Without such sufficient water resources and working infrastructure with adequate sanitation systems, disease was rife and many people died prematurely from water-borne illnesses like cholera and typhoid.

Early human habitations were often built next to water sources so raw sewage was initially transported to a natural body of water like a river or ocean, where it would be diluted and broken up.

Over the millennia, technology has dramatically increased the distances across which water can be relocated resulting in a much more sophisticated sewage system. Additionally, treatment processes to purify drinking water and treat wastewater safely have been improved in line with 21st century standards.

Bronze and early Iron Ages

In ancient Peru, the Nazca people employed a system of interconnected wells and an ancient underground watercourse called puquios, subterranean aqueducts which allow water to be transported over long distances in dry countries without the loss of water.

Forty-three puquios in the Nazca region of Peru were still in use in the early 21st century and relied upon to bring fresh water for irrigation and domestic use into remote desert settlements.



Near East 
The Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System is a complex irrigation system of the island city Shushtar, Iran from the Sassanid era. The remarkable site includes the Salasel Castle, the tower where the water level is measured including dams, bridges, canals mills as well as the operation centre of the entire hydraulic system. 


Ancient China 
Some of the earliest evidence of water wells are located in China. The Neolithic Chinese discovered and made extensive use of deep drilled groundwater which they used for drinking water.  The Chinese book titled The Book of Changes contains a description of how the ancient Chinese population maintained their wells and protected their sources of water.



Indus Valley 
The Indus Valley, Pakistan was a Bronze Age civilization that shows very early evidence of public water supply and sanitation. The system the Indus developed was incredibly sophisticated for the time and featured a number of advanced features.

Let’s take the Indus city of Lothal (c. 2350 BCE) for example. In Lothal all the houses had their own private toilet which was connected to a brickwork covered sewer network. The network was held together with a gypsum-based mortar that emptied into the nearby bodies of water or into cesspits, the latter of which were regularly emptied. 


Medieval and early modern ages

In Nepal, the earliest drinking water supply system dates back as early as 550 AD. Known as the dhunge Dhara or hiti, the system consists of carved stone fountains through which water flows uninterrupted from underground sources. These are supported by a series of ponds and canals that form an elaborate network of water bodies, created as a water resource during the dry season. This network of waterworks relieves the water pressure caused by heavy monsoon season rains.


In historical Islamic communities, the history of water supply dates back to the Abbasid Caliphate (8th-13th centuries). Its capital city of Baghdad, Iraq had a total of 65,000 baths, along with a sewer system. Cities of medieval Iraq had water supply systems powered by hydraulic technology that supplied drinking water along with much greater quantities of water for ritual washing, mainly in mosques and hammams (baths).



Post Classical East Africa 
In post-classical Kilwa (present-day Tanzania) in Eastern Africa, plumbing was prevalent in the stone homes of the natives. The Husuni Kubwa Palace, originally home to a medieval ruler as well as other buildings for the ruling elite and wealthy included the luxury of indoor plumbing.



Medieval Europe
There is little record of other sanitation systems (apart from sanitation in ancient Rome) in most of Europe until the High Middle Ages (around AD 1000 to 1250).

Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding were widespread throughout Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages, resulting in pandemics like the Plague of Justinian (541–542) and the Black Death (1347–1351), which killed tens of millions of people and caused high infant and child mortality, due in part to poor sanitation.

Flash forward to the 16th century when inventor and courtier Sir John Harington invented a flush toilet as a device for Queen Elizabeth I (his godmother) that released wastes into underground cesspools where sewage was stored.

In London, the contents of the city's outhouses were collected every night by commissioned wagons and delivered to the nitrite beds where it was laid into specially designed soil beds to produce earth rich in mineral nitrates. The nitrate rich-earth was then processed to produce potassium nitrate, an important ingredient that went on to be used in the making of gunpowder.



Modern age

Sewer Systems and Treatment 
The incredible growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution quickly led to terrible overpopulation, which only acted as another source for the outbreak of disease. In the 17th and 18th century a rapid expansion in waterworks and pumping systems began. Wealthy individuals enjoyed 19th-century flush toilets that drained into public sewers; and the practice became the norm as indoor plumbing became more common, based on large-scale supply networks such as the Croton Aqueduct in New York.

In the modern age, one of the biggest developments achieved was the construction of a network of sewers to collect wastewater. Instead of the waste flowing into the river or sea, pipes were rerouted to access modern sewer treatment facilities. Even today, in cities like Rome and Istanbul, their networked ancient sewer systems continue to function today as collection systems for those cities' modernised sewer systems.


With the onset of the industrial revolution and related advances in technology, the flush toilet began to emerge into its modern form. The credit for inventing the flush toilet goes to Sir John Harrington, who invented a water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe through which water ran to flush the waste in 1592. Unfortunately for him and modern civilisation, it wasn’t until 1775 that watchmaker Alexander Cummings developed the S-shaped pipe under the toilet basin to keep out the foul odours.



Treatment and Supply 
Between 1609 and 1613 an ambitious engineering project called ‘The New River to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire to London. The artificial waterway was undertaken by Hugh Myddleton, who oversaw the construction to supply London with fresh drinking water taken from the River Lea and Chadwell Springs. The company was to become one of the largest private water companies of the time, supplying the City of London and other central areas.

By 1692, the first civic system of piped water in England was established in Derby using wooden pipes, which was common for several centuries.


The Sustainable Development Goal 6 formulated in 2015 includes targets on access to water supply and sanitation at a global level, improving water quality, reducing pollution and supporting sanitation management in local communities. Decentralized wastewater systems where water is purified and distributed are also growing in importance to achieve sustainable sanitation.


Health Aspects related to water. 
Long before studies had established the germ theory of disease, or any advanced understanding of the nature of water as a vehicle for transmitting disease, traditional beliefs had cautioned against the consumption of water, rather favouring processed beverages such as beer, wine and tea.

For example, in the camel caravans that crossed Central Asia along the Silk Road, the explorer Owen Lattimore noted, "The reason we drank so much tea was because of the bad water. Water alone, unboiled, is never drunk. There is a superstition that it causes blisters on the feet.”