World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

History of water supply and sanitation

Article Id: WHEBN0030411167
Reproduction Date:

Title: History of water supply and sanitation  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: History of water supply and sanitation, History of water fluoridation, Sanitation of the Indus Valley Civilization, Chamber pot, Toilets
Collection: Bathrooms, History of Water Supply and Sanitation, Plumbing
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

History of water supply and sanitation

Aqueduct in Petra, Jordan.

Water supply has been a primary logistical challenge since the dawn of civilization. Where water resources or infrastructure are insufficient for the population, people fall prey to disease, dehydration, and in extreme cases, death.

Major human settlements could initially develop only where fresh surface water was plentiful, such as near major rivers. Over the millennia, technology has dramatically increased the distances across which water can be relocated, but the availability of clean and fresh water remains a limiting factor on the size and density of population centers, and is expected to remain so into the foreseeable future.


  • Prehistory 1
  • Ancient plumbing systems 2
  • Middle and early modern age 3
    • Classic and Early Modern Mesoamerica 3.1
  • Modern age 4
    • Water supply 4.1
    • Water treatment 4.2
      • Sand filter 4.2.1
      • Water chlorination 4.2.2
      • Fluoridation 4.2.3
  • Today 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8


Skara Brae a Neolithic village in Orkney, Scotland with home furnishings including water-flushing toilets 3180 BC–2500 BC

During the Neolithic, humans dug the first permanent water wells, from where vessels could be filled and carried by hand. Wells dug around 6500 BC have been found in the Jezreel Valley.[1] Stepwells have mainly been used in Indian subcontinent. The size of human settlements was largely dependent on nearby available water. Pit toilets and chamber pots were the only alternative to defecation in the open. Devices such as shadoofs, and sakias were used to lift water to ground level. Mohenjo-daro ruins in Pakistan, Dholavira in Kutch district of Gujarat, part of the Indus Valley Civilization, shows that the settlements had one of the ancient world's most sophisticated sewerage system that contained drainage channels, rain water harvesting and street ducts.[2]

Ancient plumbing systems

Throughout history people have devised systems to make getting and using water more convenient.

The Indus Valley Civilization in Asia shows early evidence of public water supply and sanitation. The system the Indus developed and managed included a number of advanced features. A typical example is the Indus city of Lothal. In this Indus city, all houses had their own private toilet, connected to a covered sewer network constructed of brickwork held together with a gypsum-based mortar that emptied either into the surrounding water bodies or alternatively into cesspits, the latter of which were regularly emptied and cleaned. [3][4]

The ancient Greek civilization of flush toilet, dating back to 18th century BC.[6] In addition to sophisticated water and sewer systems they devised elaborate heating systems. The Ancient Greeks of Athens and Asia Minor also used an indoor plumbing system, used for pressurized showers.[7] The Greek inventor Heron used pressurized piping for fire fighting purposes in the City of Alexandria.[8] The Mayans were the third earliest civilization to have employed a system of indoor plumbing using pressurized water.

The Roman Empire had indoor plumbing, meaning a system of aqueducts and pipes that terminated in homes and at public wells and fountains for people to use. Rome and other nations used lead pipes; while commonly thought to be the cause of lead poisoning in the Roman Empire, the combination of running water which did not stay in contact with the pipe for long and the deposition of precipitation scale actually mitigated the risk from lead pipes.[9][10]

Persian Qanats and ab anbars have been used for water supply and cooling in the Middle East.

Plumbing is also known to have been used in East Asia since the Qin and Han Dynasties. [11]

Middle and early modern age

A 1939 conceptual illustration showing various ways that typhoid bacteria can contaminate a water well (center)
Waterworks (Wasserkunst) and fountain from 1602 in Wismar, Germany.

Pail closets, outhouses, and cesspits were used to collect human waste. The use of human waste as fertilizer was especially important in China and Japan, where cattle manure was less available.

After the adoption of gunpowder, municipal outhouses became an important source of raw material for the making of saltpeter in European countries.[12]

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 sown into the special soil beds to produce earth rich in mineral nitrates. The nitrate rich-earth is then further processed to produce saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, an important ingredient in black powder.[13]

Classic and Early Modern Mesoamerica

The Classic Maya at Palenque had underground aqueducts and flush toilets; the Classic Maya even used household water filters using locally abundant limestone carved into a porous cylinder, made so as to work in a manner strikingly similar to Modern ceramic water filters.[14][15]

Modern age

Until the Enlightenment era, little progress was made in water supply and sanitation and the engineering skills of the Romans were largely neglected throughout Europe. This began to change in the 17th and 18th centuries with a rapid expansion in waterworks and pumping systems.

Water supply

Chelsea Waterworks, 1752. Two Newcomen beam engines pumped Thames water from a canal to reservoirs at Green Park and Hyde Park.

An ambitious engineering project to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire to London was undertaken by Hugh Myddleton who oversaw the construction of the New River between 1609 and 1613. The New River Company became one of the largest private water companies of the time, supplying the City of London and other central areas.[16]

It was in the 18th century that a rapidly growing population fueled a boom in the establishment of private water supply networks in London. The Chelsea Waterworks Company was established in 1723 "for the better supplying the City and Liberties of Westminster and parts adjacent with water".[17][18] The company created extensive ponds in the area bordering Chelsea and Pimlico using water from the tidal Thames. Other waterworks were established in London, including at West Ham in 1743, at Lea Bridge before 1767, Lambeth Waterworks Company in 1785, West Middlesex Waterworks Company in 1806[19] and Grand Junction Waterworks Company in 1811.[20]

The S-bend pipe was invented by Alexander Cummings in 1775 but became known as the U-bend following the introduction of the U-shaped trap by Thomas Crapper in 1880. The first screw-down water tap was patented in 1845 by Guest and Chrimes, a brass foundry in Rotherham.[21]

Water treatment

At the same time, the first experiments into water filtration were made. Sir Francis Bacon attempted to desalinate sea water by passing the flow through a sand filter. Although his experiment didn't succeed, it marked the beginning of a new interest in the field. Fathers of microscopy, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke, used the newly invented microscope to observe for the first time small material particles that lay suspended in the water, laying the groundwork for the future understanding of waterborne pathogens.[22]

Sand filter

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

The first documented use of sand filters to purify the water supply dates to 1804, when the owner of a bleachery in Paisley, Scotland, John Gibb, installed an experimental filter, selling his unwanted surplus to the public.[23][24] This method was refined in the following two decades by engineers working for private water companies, and it culminated in the first treated public water supply in the world, installed by engineer James Simpson for the Chelsea Waterworks Company in London in 1829.[25][26] This installation provided filtered water for every resident of the area, and the network design was widely copied throughout the United Kingdom in the ensuing decades.

The practice of water treatment soon became mainstream, and the virtues of the system were made starkly apparent after the investigations of the physician John Snow during the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Snow was sceptical of the then-dominant miasma theory that stated that diseases were caused by noxious "bad airs". Although the germ theory of disease had not yet been developed, Snow's observations led him to discount the prevailing theory. His 1855 essay On the Mode of Communication of Cholera conclusively demonstrated the role of the water supply in spreading the cholera epidemic in Soho,[27] with the use of a dot distribution map and statistical proof to illustrate the connection between the quality of the water source and cholera cases. His data convinced the local council to disable the water pump, which promptly ended the outbreak.

The Metropolis Water Act introduced the regulation of the water supply companies in London, including minimum standards of water quality for the first time. The Act "made provision for securing the supply to the Metropolis of pure and wholesome water", and required that all water be "effectually filtered" from 31 December 1855.[28] This was followed up with legislation for the mandatory inspection of water quality, including comprehensive chemical analyses, in 1858. This legislation set a worldwide precedent for similar state public health interventions across Europe. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was formed at the same time, water filtration was adopted throughout the country, and new water intakes on the Thames were established above Teddington Lock. Automatic pressure filters, where the water is forced under pressure through the filtration system, were innovated in 1899 in England.[23]

Water chlorination

In what may have been one of the first attempts to use chlorine, William Soper used chlorinated lime to treat the sewage produced by typhoid patients in 1879.

In a paper published in 1894, Moritz Traube formally proposed the addition of chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite) to water to render it “germ-free.” Two other investigators confirmed Traube’s findings and published their papers in 1895.[29] Early attempts at implementing water chlorination at a water treatment plant were made in 1893 in Hamburg, Germany and in 1897 the city of Maidstone England was the first to have its entire water supply treated with chlorine.[30]

Permanent water chlorination began in 1905, when a faulty slow sand filter and a contaminated water supply led to a serious typhoid fever epidemic in Lincoln, England.[31] Dr. Alexander Cruickshank Houston used chlorination of the water to stem the epidemic. His installation fed a concentrated solution of chloride of lime to the water being treated. The chlorination of the water supply helped stop the epidemic and as a precaution, the chlorination was continued until 1911 when a new water supply was instituted.[32]

Manual Control Chlorinator for the liquefaction of chlorine for water purification, early 20th century. From Chlorination of Water by Joseph Race, 1918.

The first continuous use of chlorine in the

  • Blake, Nelson M. Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the US (1956).
  • Cain, Louis P. Sanitation Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis: The Case of Chicago (1978)
    • Cain, Louis P. "Sanitation in Chicago: A Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis," Encyclopedia of Chicago (2004) online
  • Galishoff, Stuart. Newark: the nation's unhealthiest city, 1832-1895 (1988). in USA
  • Hammer, Mark J., and Paul A. Chadik. Water supply and pollution control (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009)
  • Juuti, Petri S., Tapio S. Katko, and Heikki S. Vuorinen. Environmental history of water: global views on community water supply and sanitation (IWA Publishing, 2007)
  • Teresi, Dick; et al. (2002). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science--from the Babylonians to the Maya. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 352.  
  • Weidner, Charles H. Water for a city: A history of New York City's problem from the beginning to the Delaware River system (Rutgers University Press, 1974)

Further reading

  1. ^ Ashkenazi, Eli (Nov 9, 2012). "Ancient well reveals secrets of first Jezreel Valley farmers". Haaretz. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  2. ^ Mughal, Muhammad Aurang Zeb. 2011. Mohenjo-daro’s Sewers. In Kevin Murray McGeough (ed.), World History Encyclopedia, Vol. 3. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp. 121-122.
  3. ^ Khan, Saifullah. "1 Chapter 2 Sanitation and wastewater technologies in Harappa/Indus valley civilization ( ca . 2600-1900 BC)". Retrieved 9 April 2015. 
  4. ^ "Maya plumbing: First pressurized water feature found in New World". Penn State. May 5, 2010. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  5. ^ "The History of Plumbing - CRETE". Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  6. ^ "Fieldnotes". Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  7. ^ "Ancient Inventions Showers". Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  8. ^ Jaffe, Eric. "Old World, High Tech". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  9. ^ "Lead Poisoning and Rome". Retrieved 4 June 2013. 
  10. ^ Hodge 1992, p. 308
  11. ^ Chavalas, Mark. "Great Events from History: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476 C.E.". 
  12. ^ Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Kenneth Chase
  13. ^ Instructions for the Manufacture of Saltpetre, Joseph LeConte, 1823-1901
  14. ^ Environmental and Water Resources Milestones in Engineering History. Tampa, Florida, USA: ASCE Publications. March 15–19, 2007. 
  15. ^ "Maya plumbing: First pressurized water feature found in New World". Science Daily. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  16. ^ "Water-related Infrastructure in Medieval London". Retrieved 2007-03-24. 
  17. ^ The London Encyclopaedia, Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, Macmillan, 1995, ISBN 0-333-57688-8
  18. ^ Royal Charters, Privy Council website
  19. ^ West Middlesex Waterworks historyUCLA Department of Epidemiology
  20. ^ Lambeth Waterwork historyUCLA Department of Epidemiology
  21. ^ "A Little About Tap History". Retrieved 2012-12-17. 
  22. ^ "The Use of the Microscope in Water Filter History". Retrieved 2012-12-17. 
  23. ^ a b Filtration of water supplies (PDF), World Health Organization 
  24. ^ Buchan, James. (2003). Crowded with genius: the Scottish enlightenment: Edinburgh's moment of the mind. New York: Harper Collins.
  25. ^ History of the Chelsea Waterworks
  26. ^ Christman, Keith. (1998). The history of chlorine. Waterworld, 14 (8), 66-67.
  27. ^ (2008) Par S. William Gunn, M. Masellis ISBN 0-387-72263-7Concepts and practice of humanitarian medicine [2]
  28. ^ An Act to make better Provision respecting the Supply of Water to the Metropolis, (15 & 16 Vict. C.84)
  29. ^ Turneaure, F.E., and H.L. Russell (1901). Public Water-Supplies: Requirements, Resources, and the Construction of Works (1st ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 493. 
  30. ^ "Typhoid Epidemic at Maidstone". Journal of the Sanitary Institute 18: 388. October 1897. 
  31. ^ "A miracle for public health?". Retrieved 2012-12-17. 
  32. ^ Reece, R.J. (1907). “Report on the Epidemic of Enteric Fever in the City of Lincoln, 1904-5.” In Thirty-Fifth Annual Report of the Local Government Board, 1905-6: Supplement Containing the Report of the Medical Officer for 1905-6. London:Local Government Board.
  33. ^ Leal, John L. (1909). “The Sterilization Plant of the Jersey City Water Supply Company at Boonton, N.J.” Proceedings American Water Works Association. pp. 100-9.
  34. ^ Fuller, George W. (1909). “Description of the Process and Plant of the Jersey City Water Supply Company for the Sterilization of the Water of the Boonton Reservoir.” Proceedings AWWA. pp. 110-34.
  35. ^ Hazen, Allen. (1916). Clean Water and How to Get It. New York:Wiley. p. 102.
  36. ^ V. B. Nesfield (1902). "A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability". Public Health: 601–3. 


See also

Public access to fresh water is one of the Millennium Development Goals. It hasn't been met.

During the beginning of the 21st century, especially in areas of urban and suburban population centres, traditional centralized infrastructure have not been able to supply sufficient quantities of water to keep up with growing demand. Among several options that have been managed are the extensive use of desalination technology, this is especially prevalent in coastal areas and in "dry" countries like Australia. Decentralization of water infrastructure has grown extensively as a viable solution including rainwater harvesting and stormwater harvesting where policies are eventually tending towards a more rational use and sourcing of water incorporation concepts such as "Fit for Purpose".

Desalination appeared during the late 20th century, and is still limited to a few areas.

Many industrialized cities had incomplete public sanitation well into the 20th century. Outhouses in Brisbane, Australia, around 1950.


Water fluoridation has been carried out since the early 20th century, to decrease tooth decay. The practice remains controversial, though.


U.S. Army Major Carl Rogers Darnall, Professor of Chemistry at the Army Medical School, gave the first practical demonstration of this in 1910. Shortly thereafter, Major William J. L. Lyster of the Army Medical Department used a solution of calcium hypochlorite in a linen bag to treat water. For many decades, Lyster's method remained the standard for U.S. ground forces in the field and in camps, implemented in the form of the familiar Lyster Bag (also spelled Lister Bag). This work became the basis for present day systems of municipal water purification.

The technique of purification of drinking water by use of compressed liquefied chlorine gas was developed by a British officer in the Indian Medical Service, Vincent B. Nesfield, in 1903. According to his own account, "It occurred to me that chlorine gas might be found satisfactory ... if suitable means could be found for using it.... The next important question was how to render the gas portable. This might be accomplished in two ways: By liquefying it, and storing it in lead-lined iron vessels, having a jet with a very fine capillary canal, and fitted with a tap or a screw cap. The tap is turned on, and the cylinder placed in the amount of water required. The chlorine bubbles out, and in ten to fifteen minutes the water is absolutely safe. This method would be of use on a large scale, as for service water carts.”[36]

[35] Over the next few years, chlorine disinfection using chloride of lime were rapidly installed in drinking water systems around the world.[34]

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.