There is much that’s celebrated about fire, but the human ability to create and control it merely pushed us up several rungs in the club of intelligent animals. Our ability to collect, channel and treat water, however, gave us villages, towns, cities, and civilisation.
We could possibly live without fire, but water remains our most essential resource. Not surprising then that the story of human development orbits around sources of water and all the largest ancient settlements of human endeavour sprang up in river valleys. Where there was a source of water to harness, there was also a need to manage and treat it.
There is much in the early history of water treatment that is lost from archaeological record, because of the organic methods that were likely used, but some of it can be surmised. The management of water involved architectural structures and so a record of those survive. The fact that cities in the Indus Valley used canal systems and clay pipes for water distribution and sewerage is something we know from the archaeological record of the era, but since they also had large public baths and were not ignorant of fibres and fabrics, it is not too far fetched to imagine some basic filtering techniques would have been known and used.
The legendary gardens of Babylon were reportedly irrigated by a complex system of aqueducts, cisterns and rudimentary screw mechanisms to raise the water from the close-by river. Whether or not the gardens were historical fact or exaggeration, the descriptions of all the efforts and methods required to irrigate them are very sound and it would seem senseless to imagine those who described such wonders of engineering and water management were not aware of simple treatment techniques to purify the water that fed the gardens. Simple physical techniques like settling tanks were built into the system, if cisterns and aqueducts were involved, so the gardens of Bablylon, whether fact or fiction, would have been a wonder of engineering and water treatment as much as one of architecture and horticulture.
The Roman empire was a great example of the importance of water supply and treatment. One of the anecdotal aspects of Rome’s success in long overseas campaigns was their naval fleet, which could travel further than their contemporaries because of stored drinking water, which they discovered would not go bad if silver coins were dropped into it. This rudimentary disinfection served the Empire well. On the flip side, the city of Rome was supplied by water from a vast aqueduct, and the homes of the richest were the first known in history to have indoor plumbing using metal pipes. Lead was unfortunately the easiest metal to work with, and it’s likely heavy metal poisoning played some part in the decline of the Roman Empire’s golden era. Water treatment, or the lack of it, has very likely made and broken many more empires than we know.
The efficiency and growth of cities today, which are easily equal to the empires of old, depends very heavily on water supply capacities, and also on effective water and sewage treatment. As our populations increase water becomes a more crucial element of our future. Treating and purifying the water we have to work with will continue to be crucial to our future as a civilisation.