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Water is essential for life. In addition to consumption, water is used for travel, power generation, hygiene, recreation, agriculture, industry, ritual, and more. While water covers about three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, less than 2 percent of it is fit to drink. Access to water continues to play a crucial role in the location and movement of peoples and communities.
Water covers nearly 75 percent of the Earth’s surface and is an integral component of every living being. Fresh water is essential for human survival; while a person can live for weeks without food, one can only survive a few days without water. Throughout history, the location of available water has played an important role in human development and influenced settlement patterns and farming, social customs, religion, transportation, and power generation.
The availability of fresh water for human and animal consumption and crop irrigation has influenced human settlement for many millennia. Even though water covers much of the Earth’s surface, less than 2 percent of it is potable. While many different peoples have learned to adapt to harsh or unforgiving environments, water from natural springs, rivers, or rainfall is a necessity for survival. During the early history of humans, the availability of water played an important factor in their survival strategy.
During the Neolithic Age, hunters and gatherers stopped migrating, built permanent dwellings, and became farmers and herdsmen. When they chose a site to build their towns, it was usually near an available water source, such as a river or lake. One of the oldest towns, Catalhuyuk in Turkey, serves as a model for these early Neolithic sites. Catalhuyuk, which was established around 7500 BCE, was located very close to several standing bodies of water, and archaeologists believe water was available near the town all year round. Its farmlands appear to be several kilometers farther away from the town than the water supply, underscoring the importance of easy access to water. This model can also be seen at other Neolithic sites, like Choirokoitia in Cyprus, which dates to 7000 BCE.
As the population steadily increased during the period from the Neolithic Age to the Iron Age, settlements began appearing in areas where water was not readily available in large quantities or was not available throughout the year. To survive in these regions, humans had to find ways to adapt their survival strategy to provide enough water to sustain life. One of the most widely practiced solutions was to collect water during times when it was plentiful for use at a later time when it was scarce. Different cultures found various ways to accomplish this. In Greece, Italy, and Mesopotamia, the farmers relied on winter rains to provide enough rainfall to allow summer “drought farming.” The winter rains provided enough water that farmers could successfully grow crops with minor modifications to their schedule. They would plant their crops in the early spring while the soil was still well watered from the winter rains and harvest them in the early summer before all the moisture was lost from the soil due to warm and arid summer weather patterns. Inhabitants in these regions relied on natural springs and rainwater collected in large cisterns to ensure an adequate drinking-water supply for the summer and fall months.
In Arabia, the Nabataeans used a system of rock-cut channels and pipes to collect rainwater for storage in underground cisterns, which were lined with waterproof cement. In Egypt, the Nile provided water for irrigating fields, and the annual flooding of the river deposited new soil on the fields and prevented soil depletion. In the Hellenistic Age, an elaborate system of irrigation ditches was implemented to expand the amount of cultivable land. This irrigation system continued to develop and expand through the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods.
In ancient Persia farmers developed the underground irrigation systems known as qanats as early as the first millennium BCE as a method for delivering water to their crops. A qanat was an underground enclosed canal that collected groundwater in the mountains and carried it to fields in low-lying areas using gravity. Along the length of the qanat, shafts would be placed at regular intervals to allow access to the water channel for cleaning and repair. Qanats often involved extensive engineering, were up to 40 kilometers in length, and were buried up to 100 meters below the surface. This system of irrigation was adopted by the Arabs and Byzantines. There are more than forty thousand known qanats in Iran with many still in use today.
Collecting and storing water for long periods often created a new problem when the water became impure or collected sediment. Many ancient civilizations developed techniques for purifying stored water in an attempt to produce better drinking water. Ancient Sanskrit writings dating to 2000 BCE describe different methods for purifying water by boiling or using sand or charcoal for filtering out impurities. Egyptian tomb paintings depict a device for fi ltering water that allowed sediment and other impurities to settle to the bottom of a collection device, allowing the clear water to be collected from the top.
While farmers needed to live near water sources for crop irrigation, as cities grew larger they also needed water for the sustenance of their citizens and for maintaining sanitary conditions in the city. Cities depended upon engineers to design systems for delivering water from its source across many miles to its final destinations in the city. Both Rome and Constantinople developed impressive aqueduct systems for bringing water to numerous baths, fountains, and private houses. During the third century CE, Rome had nine functioning aqueducts, which provided over 3 million gallons of water each day to the city. The longest of these aqueducts was more than 95 kilometers in length. The beginning of the aqueducts was simply a channel cut into the earth with a slight downward gradient that used gravity to move the water toward Rome. As the aqueduct left the hills and approached the city the water channel was carried on raised arches, often more than thirty meters above ground. These channels were 1 meter wide and 1.8 meters high so that workers could enter the channel for cleaning. Three of the aqueducts are still functioning today.
Social Aspects of Water
Water has also played an important role in social customs. Bathing was an important ritual in ancient Greece and Rome. Public baths became common in Greece starting in the fifth century BCE. Adopted by the Romans, bathing became an important social aspect of everyday Roman life by the first century CE, and an important center for social interaction between citizens. Every town would have at least one public bathing structure, and houses of wealthier citizens would have private baths. These bathing complexes would have rooms with differing water temperatures: cold water, tepid, and hot water baths. Larger complexes even had large swimming pools. As the Roman Empire expanded in the second and third centuries CE, these complexes became more and more elaborate with vaulted ceilings, glass windows, exotic artwork, and intricate plumbing systems. The baths built by the Roman emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) in 217 CE could accommodate over 1,600 bathers at the same time. The se bathing complexes were an important tool for the spread of Roman culture and ideas throughout the empire. Bathing is still an important aspect of some modern cultures like Japan and Finland.
In ancient Greece and Rome, water was an important element in religious rites. Natural springs were considered powerful locations and often became cult worship sites. Along with fi re, water was used as a purification element in birth, marriage, death, and sacrificial ceremonies. The idea of water as a tool to purify or remove evil is reinforced by the numerous flood stories from around the globe that recount how god(s) cleansed the Earth of evildoers and made a fresh start with a chosen one, such as Noah in the Old Testament, Deucalion in Greek mythology, Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the East African story of Tumbainot.
In Greek philosophy and cosmology, water was considered to be one of the four basic elements of the universe in addition to fire, air, and earth. The pre- Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus, writing in the late fifth century BCE, believed the principal element of all things was water, and everything else in the universe was a creation of water.
In Zoroastrianism, cultivation of the soil was praised and any action that promoted cultivation was encouraged. This motivated the Sasanian kings who ruled Persia (modern-day Iran) from the third to seventh centuries CE to build dams and extensive irrigation systems.
In early Christianity, water was seen as a symbol of purification and life. In Byzantine church liturgy, the blessing of the water was an important ritual and was believed by the church leaders to commemorate Jesus Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Water remains an important purifying element in modern religions. In many modern Christian sects, baptism (either by sprinkling or immersion) in water to wash away earthly sin is an initiation rite of the faith. In Islam, believers wash their hands, arms, feet, and head to cleanse themselves before praying. Judaism also uses water to purify believers and to cleanse them after coming into contact with unclean items, such as a dead body.
Transportation and Empires
With so much of the Earth covered by water, boats have been a necessity for exploration and travel. Travel via water transport, until modern times, has been faster and less expensive than travel overland. The edict issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian in 301 BCE, which was designed to control maximum prices, provides historians with enough information to formulate standard costs of transportation during this period. The document shows transporting goods overland cost between 30 and 50 percent more than sending them by boat. Travel time was also significantly less, provided the weather was favorable.
As commerce increased, merchants and nations tried to find ways to increase the speed and capacity of ships. This led to the development of the carrack and caravel, ship types that could carry larger cargoes and sail faster and required fewer sailors. Another method of shortening the time of sea travel was the creation of canals that linked major bodies of water, eliminating circumnavigation. This led to the building of the Grand Canal (486 BCE), Erie Canal (1825 CE), Suez Canal (1869), Corinthian Canal (1893), Panama Canal (1914), and Rhine-Danube Canal (1992).
Cities or nations whose citizens became skilled at seamanship or building boats were able to capitalize on this and create large empires, commercially or militarily. By the eighth century BCE, the Phoenicians were able to create a trading network that included the entire Mediterranean Sea and as a result spread Phoenician culture to many different regions. The success of the Phoenicians was repeated on a smaller scale by the Venetians in the Mediterranean and the Hanseatic League in the Baltic Sea in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE.
Cultures that relied on overseas transportation for their commercial goods often developed a strong navy to protect their commercial interests. In the fifth century BCE, the city-state of Athens was able to use its strong maritime presence in the Aegean to create the Athenian Empire. In the fifteenth century CE, England was able to use the development of its mercantilist policies to create both a strong merchant marine and a strong navy. England was able to use its naval power to further its political policies abroad and build up an empire that spanned the globe.
Water has also been used to drive machines and create energy. One of the earliest inventions was a waterwheel that used falling or fl owing water to drive a shaft that would then turn the mill. Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to use waterwheels to power mills for grinding grain into flour, and this practice continued through the medieval period.
With the development of a successful steam engine in the early eighteenth century, the use of waterwheels declined. In the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, waterwheels were used to supply power to sawmills, grain mills, and textile factories. In 1882 the first power plant that derived its energy from water was constructed in Wisconsin. By the early 1940s hydroelectric power provided nearly 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Today, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden depend heavily upon hydroelectric power.
Water in the Twenty-First Century
Since the mid-1980s many nations have come to realize that water is not a limitless commodity and that steps have to be taken in order to protect this valuable resource for future generations. In the twenty-first century several key water issues have emerged. First, as the world’s population increases, more countries are unable to meet the increased demand for drinking water. Second, industrialization leads to increased pollution, which further decreases the amount of available drinking water. Third, continued urbanization and deforestation have led to increased flooding and soil erosion. Fourth, as countries look to augment their existing water supply, conflicts over water sharing, particularly of international rivers, have increased. Increased public awareness about these important environmental issues has resulted in the formation of international agencies that are attempting to solve these problems and implement water resource management plans.
While access to clean water is an increasing concern, it is thought that there is currently enough water for everyone. The problem is the inefficient and ineffective management of water resources. As such, every year millions of people die from waterborne diseases because of their lack of essential access to a clean water supply. Some of the possible remedies to water shortages and inequities include recycling and redistribution.
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