Water Technology Through the Ages - Noyna Roy
Updated: Jul 19
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” - Benjamin Franklin
Water is our most valuable resource - every drop enriches our ecosystems, industries and societies. We are facing one of the largest environmental and humanitarian crises: the water shortage. According to the United Nations, around 2.2 billion people don’t have access to potable water services, and this number will increase with our growing population. Only about 2-2.5% of the water on our planet is potable, with 70% trapped in glaciers and groundwater sources. In this article, we venture back in time to study the water technologies applied, and lessons learnt from the past.
The History of Water
Ancient civilisations in Europe (Greek & Roman), The Middle East (Persian, Egyptian & Turkish) and Asia (Indus Valley & Ancient Chinese civilisations) centred around large river basins. Early-age civilisations were located near water basins, such as the Nile River, Yellow River, Euphrates River and the Indus River. The control of water systems played a key role in leadership. Before we discuss the importance of water in politics, we have to understand the ingenious engineering that was used to tame mankind’s scintillating subsistence.
The first successful effort to control the flow of water occurred during the Neolithic age (5700–3200BC) in ancient Egypt, and the first urban water systems were established in the Bronze Age (3200–1100BC), in the Crete and Indus Valley civilisation, for agriculture and irrigation purposes. Later, the establishment of dams, aqueducts and canals improved natality, increased defence and enhanced of state power.
Middle Eastern Water Technology
The Iranian qanat, Moroccan khettara and Omani aflaj were the ancient water technologies that fueled the cities and irrigated the lands of the Middle East. The extreme temperatures and terrains required efficient transport and conservation solutions.
The Iranian Qanat system was widely spread during the Persian empire from 550 to 331 BC; archaeologists found around 22,000 qanats in Iran. Qanats are vertical shafts connected by a sloping tunnel, delivering large quantities of water without pumping. They redefined the irrigation and agriculture industry and established oases. The Iranians tapped groundwater sources using wells and directed the water into qanats, preventing loss from evaporation. Lastly, terraced fields captured the rainwater, a technique used even today when growing olive and other tree species in arid conditions.
The Egyptians developed the “shaduf” (a lift irrigation process) and the “tanbur” (a screw pump to transfer water from a low water body to higher irrigation ditches). These innovative solutions use gravity to limit waste and pump water. The mineral “aluminium sulfate”, invented by the Egyptians, reacts with the bicarbonate alkalinity of the water, trapping the sediments at the bottom. It is found in water purification tablets that are used by many hikers today.
European Water Technology
The Greek and Roman empires pioneered the technology that utilized the sheer force of water to locate and create goods, through techniques such as “sluicing and hushing”.
Ancient Rome relied on the Tiber river as the main water source. Rome’s network of under and overground channels consisted of 315 aqueducts, the majority of which ran underground. Aqua Marcia, the longest overground aqueduct, measuring 56 miles long, was built in 144BC. The Romans used their aqueducts to find gold through sluicing and hushing. The high hydraulic pressure broke apart the ground and washed away sediments to extract gold. The Hydraulic Wheel of Perachora, also known as the Greek watermill, was invented in 300 BC. It removed impurities, as the water fell from a high chute and simultaneously served as a mill that ground foods such as wheat, rice and corn.
Asian Water Technology
The Harappan and Mohenjo-Daro civilization, of the Indus Valley, dates back to 3300 BC. Home to around 35,000–40,000 inhabitants, the Mohenjo-Daro civilisation had approximately 700 wells— around one shared by three houses. Dholavira, an ancient city, located in Kutch, Gujarat (India), used water conservation technologies that are considered an “engineering marvel”. Under the city, several water reservoirs were interconnected with channels and water drains that diverted water from the Manhar River to the smaller site reservoirs. The Indus River and her tributaries are rich in soil and minerals and have high sediment content. To reduce the sediments, the water would pass through several smaller reservoirs to settle the sediments, serving as an automatic filter. The channels were specially designed to reduce the velocity and impact of the flow. They are still intact today.
Dholavira via https://www.trawell.in/gujarat/rann-of-kutch/dholavira
The Qin Dynasty (221–207BC) leveraged the control of water to establish the first united empire in China. Similar to the previous technologies, ancient Chinese civilisations relied on canals and aqueducts (the earliest aqueduct traces back 3000 years). A herculean task, the Lin Canal (219BC) tamed the Yellow and Pearl river by connecting them for transportation and urban protection from annual floods.
Flowing into the Future
The changing weather patterns and increasing global population have already and will continue to put pressure on our water resources in the decades to come. Our actions over the next few years will define the fate of humanity. In ancient times, water transportation and conservation was a priority. We need to apply their wisdom and understand that collective water management requires the active participation of all individuals to ensure that water resources remain available for future generations.
The next article on water management will examine the best practices of the 21st century and discuss the steps we need to take as a global community.
Let’s save the planet, one drop at a time!
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Edited by Aman Majmudar