The history of human civilization is enmeshed with the history of water. Water has guided civilization more than any other factor. Early civilizations were centered around water sources; the secure water supply of the Fertile Crescent enabled some of the first large-scale agricultural civilizations. Water allows people to sustain themselves and their animals and determines what can be grown and where. As civilizations learn how to better control water—to irrigate and to predict the weather, for instance—they learn how to grow. Even today we still center our civilizations around water. The Middle East is exploding with wars over clean water access. As the World Bank Vice President Serageldin famously stated, “Many of the wars of the twentieth century were about oil, but the wars of the next century will be about water.”
Reasons for the History of Water
Nowadays, after the growth of industries, clean drinking water doesn’t naturally occur. Scientists continually discover contaminants in fresh water sources and correlates between drinking contaminated water and health problems. Because we need water but it is impure, we have learned to treat water. However, the history of water filtration is not a recent one; water filtration began over 4000 years ago.
Milestones in the History of Water
Some milestones in the history of water include the invention of the microscope, the advent of municipal water treatment, the use of chlorine to purify water, and the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Early in the History of Water
The earliest recorded attempts to filter water date back to 2000 BC, to early Sanskrit writings of water purification methods. These methods include boiling water and filtering water through sand or charcoal filters. The Sanskrits’ biggest motive was to make water taste better, because they assumed that good-tasting water would also be clean. People didn’t yet realize that contaminated water caused disease, and they certainly couldn’t test for diseases in water.
Later Innovations in the History of Water
In 1590, the Dutch glasses-makers Zaccharias and Hans Janssen invented the forerunner to modern-day microscopes. A century later, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, “the father of microscopy,” advanced the Janssens’ invention to the extent that scientists could now view tiny living particles in water that had previously been thought clean. In nineteenth-century London, city officials first linked cholera to bad water quality. John Snow, a British scientist, confirmed cholera bacteria in the Broad Street Pump’s water, proving that taste and visual clarity doesn’t prove water’s pureness. After this event, the British government insisted upon filtering city water, a precedent for municipal water systems. The British municipal water system cleaned water partly by treating it with chlorine.
The History of Water Continues
In the 20th century, people increasingly agreed that every person has the right to clean water. The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 made it a law that every city in the United States must have a water treatment plant. The CWA forced industrial plants to become environmentally friendly and renewed interest in water filtration, making clean water a national goal. Today the history of water continues as we strive to bring clean water to places that still need it.