History of Water Treatment from Ancient Civilizations to Modern Times

| , | March 11, 2024

The history of water treatment is a tale of human ingenuity and necessity, driven by the need to provide safe and clean drinking water to populations.

Ever since ancient times, people practiced water treatment methods. They used methods such as boiling, sieving, and letting water settle to remove sediments and impurities.

As time went by, water treatment methods advanced too, leading to sustainable and smart water treatment processes we have today that utilize modern technologies and make water completely safe for everyday consumption.

The History of Water Treatment: Water Treatment in Early Times

The history of water treatment started a long time ago, 4000 years ago, to be precise.

Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Indian Populations

In ancient Greek and Sanskrit writing, it is already apparent that people knew pure water was important. From cooking water to filtering it, the ancient civilizations knew a fair bit about water treatment. It is the question, however, if the goal was to remove the bacteria from the water or if the goal was to make it taste better.

After 1500 BC, the Egyptians found out that certain substances made the water clearer. This meant that it was somewhat ‘naturally’ filtered, which they depicted quite clearly in the tombs of Amenophis II and Ramses II.

READ MORE: Egyptian Pharaohs: The Mighty Rulers of Ancient Egypt 

Of course, the Egyptians didn’t have microscopes to see the exact process on the cell level. But, that wasn’t needed, since the changes in the turbid water were visible to the naked eye.

READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline: Predynastic Period Until the Persian Conquest

Hippocrates

From 500 BC onwards, a Greek by the name of Hippocrates came into play. The ‘Father of Medicine’ discovered that water was a very healing entity. He thought that the water could be sieved, bringing us the first bag filter.

READ MORE: Who Invented Water? History of the Water Molecule

Again, this wasn’t necessarily to consciously take out harmful bacteria. Rather, it was to make the water taste and smell better. Indeed, the ‘Father of Medicine’ believed that the diseases were captured in the taste and smell itself, rather than the bacteria and other microorganisms.

READ MORE: Ancient Greece Timeline: Pre-Mycenaean to the Roman Conquest

Indigenous Populations and Water Treatment

What shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to water treatment are the elaborate mechanisms in even ancient populations. These might even be more valuable if we take into account the climate challenges of our times.

Indeed, many Indigenous populations and communities have a way of treating water that was – and still is – very effective. Yet, their history is largely unknown to the wider population due to continuous marginalization.

Development of Water Treatment

A ‘development’ in relation to water treatment means per definition that a new situation is an improvement of what it was before. But, what if it was already working perfectly? In such a case, no real development is needed anymore, right?

Some might think that something working perfectly is an illusion. But, when it comes to nature, many Indigenous populations actually have a pretty convincing argument. Their way of living is by default in harmony with nature, rather than usage thereof. This way of living is reflected in their cosmovision.

There are many examples of such a cosmovision. Still, the dominant way we really know about these ways of water treatment is by analyzing the effect of colonization on the Indigenous ways of thinking. The actual ways of knowing are becoming a greater subject of research, but are unfortunately still pretty unknown to scientists.

Beavers and Forests

Due to European settlers and overhunting, the beaver population in the U.S. has been exhausted since the 1600’s. Mostly, this was because their fur was considered ‘valuable’ by the settlers.

Because of a vanishing beaver population, the ecosystems of the U.S. changed rapidly. This led to the water flows being affected heavily since beaver dams are structures that manage the water flows.

The water really became free-flowing, while at a time of great beaver population, the water was obstructed at some points. Respecting the ways of the beaver was therefore of great importance when it came to evenly dividing the water over the land.

Because the beaver population was disturbed, Native Americans became unable to manage their water systems: a system that before didn’t seem to have any problems. It goes without saying that it’s very questionable if the value of beaver fur exceeds the value of the system that they help maintain; the system that provided clean water across the land.

Unfortunately, this is not the only example. Other examples are seen in the instances that the settler population started cutting the forests, creating national parks, or obstructing the presence of Indigenous plant species.

Many advancements in technology, therefore, seem to be focused on the problems that become evident when society doesn’t live in harmony with nature.

Sure, it might be somewhat irreversible at this point. That is to say, most of us live in concrete jungles anyway. Yet, it’s interesting to think about the argument of Indigenous populations, since it questions the very idea of technological development as a way out of the climate crisis.

The Roman Empire and Water Treatment

The Romans had some major innovations when it came to water treatment in the Western world. For example, during the Roman Empire, aqueducts became way more popularized.

READ MORE: The Most Important Roman Inventions: Aqueducts, Roman Numerals, Sewage Systems, and More!

Aqueducts

Technically, the Assyrians built the first man-made structure that could carry water from one place to another around 700 BC. However, the Romans started building many of these structures, so they were really the ones that popularized them.

It was useful in the Roman Empire simply because the empire itself was so big. Every city had to be supplied with water. In the city of Rome alone, more than 400 km of aqueduct were present. Building all of the eleven aqueducts that made up these 400 km took over 500 years to complete.

READ MORE: 15 Examples of Fascinating and Advanced Ancient Technology You Need To Check Out

After the Fall of the Roman Empire

While many fields see an increased sophistication when it comes to its development, the development of water treatment has some setbacks. These would occur during the Middle Ages, a time that is generally known to have few scientific innovations and experiments in general.

Francis Bacon

While there were already quite some advancements before, many of these were forgotten. This was partly due to the fact that many of the Roman aqueducts were destroyed, while the knowledge about them wasn’t passed on very effectively. In this sense, it’s actually quite similar to the Indigenous populations as described earlier.

But, Bacon for the rescue. Sir Francis Bacon, a man who seemed to engage in societal disciplines all over the board, started experimenting with seawater desalination. Basically what he did was try to remove the salt particles of seawater. It didn’t really work, but at least he got the acknowledgment for trying and inspiring future scientists.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Seemingly more successful in his attempt was a Dutch scientist by the name of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. His objective was to see what exactly was in the water that the people drank.

Antonie ground and polished lenses, until the point that he was able to achieve greater magnification. Because of this, he was able to identify microorganisms in the water; the basis for infectious diseases.

John Snow

In the late summer of 1848, a new cholera epidemic struck London. The disease had already killed many thousands of people, most notably during the previous epidemic in 1831. The first symptom of cholera was queasiness, followed by stomach ache, vomiting, and diarrhea so severe that it caused victims to die of dehydration.

A clever physician by the name of John Snow was thirty-five at the time. He had seen death due to cholera all around him from his birth onwards, so he was eager to find out why it could spread so easily. Many physicians suspected that it had something to do with the air, but nobody had proven it as of yet.

Snow became obsessed, so he started interviewing his patients about very specific topics. He found out that the first symptoms of his patients were related to the digestive system. After a long study, he found out that patterns of the disease could be linked with specific water supplies.

The discovery by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made John Snow interested in the little particles of the water. He came to see it as a possible cause of the cholera epidemic.

Most of the reasons why water treatment was performed to begin with was to make it taste and smell better. Sure, there were some suspicions about its relationship with health, but nobody really focussed on that. Good-tasting water was the main objective. Snow changed this narrative.

New Norms for Water Treatment

After the discovery of John Snow, the norms for water shifted. It now focused more on the actual safety of water as derived from the microorganisms. This resulted in the fact that water chlorination became more widespread. Also, water softening was invented, which would become the legal standard from the 1940s onwards.

From there it was another thirty years before the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which developed the principle that everyone has the right to safe water. This, too, sparked a movement that actually fought for the rights of clean water, since it was now ingrained in the legislation. The acts led to two things.

On the one hand, there were advancements in water treatment, while on the other hand, the low quality of water in some regions became more apparent. Both of these developments really came together in the growing market for whole house water-filter systems. While it was first a societal encounter, nowadays you have tailored solutions for any household.

As should be evident, the history of water treatment is quite eventful. But, it’s not odd that it is this way. In the end, water is the very thing that makes us able to live. Therefore, finding the right way of handling water is a thing of great interest to many populations and thinkers.

Nowadays, you are able to get water filters for your personal use, something that has long been beyond any stretch of the imagination.

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