Facts and figures about water and civilisation

Nearly all the great civilisations of the world have evolved around water, which provided the key not only to supplying freshwater, but also to agriculture, trade, transport and defence. Civilisations such as that of the Roman and Venetian Empires, the Omayyad Dynasty and the Egyptian Civilisation were all founded on their access to water, which provided their population with the means to both survive and expand.

In both the past and present, human progress has been conditional on advances in water science and their application through engineering and technology for the benefit of society.


The art of the bath and its social importance were so great in ancient Rome that, by the end of the Republic (first century B.C.), supplying water and building bath facilities had become major questions in the life of the city. The construction of spectacular public baths, by successive Roman emperors, was a way of impressing citizens with the power and prestige of their rulers.

In ancient Rome, wastewater was carried away in a series of sewer drains emptying into the Cloaca maxima, a former stream in ancient times that had been transformed into a drainage channel, probably during the 6th century B.C.

The amount of water distributed in ancient Rome has been estimated at about 1 million m3 per day. Supplied to the centre of the city by aqueducts, the water flowed out into the numerous public fountains where collecting basins had been built. These fountains were the source of water for the whole city, for drinking, hygiene, putting out fires, or just for the enjoyment and pleasure of the citizens.
The first Roman aqueduct was built in 312 B.C. under the censor (Roman public official) Appius Claudius Caecus. Three more were built during the Republic in order to distribute water to the centre of the city. Connecting cities to water supplies was a characteristic trait of the entire Roman Empire. Some of the remains of Rome’s mastery over water may still be seen today in the aqueducts near Segovia and Tarragona in Spain, at Istanbul and Antioch in Turkey, Catania in Sicily, and in the Gard bridge in the south of France.

Water was essential to the survival of the city of Rome. When the Goths swept down through Italy in the 5th century, one of the first things they did to break down the defences of Rome was to destroy its water supply. This lack of water continued to prevent Rome from recovering its former glory until the Renaissance, when new architects managed to restore the water supplies to Rome, allowing the city to be repopulated and expand once more.

Without the Nile River, an immense desert would extend from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. This river is responsible for the high population density of this region, and for the intermingling of cultures which has always characterised the area. People migrating from arid lands over the centuries found refuge on the banks of the “river god”. The Nile brought the water that allowed life to exist, making communication and crop irrigation possible. Each year, its muddy floods fertilised and regenerated the land.

During the time of the Pharaohs, the Nile was worshipped as a divinity, and there was even a bureau to measure flood levels so that the proper amount of taxes could be levied on farmers. The higher the flood, the more the land was expected to produce.

In the valleys from Moche to Lambayeque situated in the northern Peruvian desert, the Chimъ civilisation which flourished from A.D. 750 to 1450 depended on a system of raised irrigation canals. This northern zone was in its heyday, the most populous region of the central Andean coast. Both the river valleys and the inter-valley deserts were cultivated with the aid of irrigation networks. The canals were earthen or stone-lined aqueducts that carried the water from the mountains over the desert.

Information from:
‘Water and Ethics: A Historical Perspective’ [PDF format – 346 KB]
the Water and Civilization section of the ‘Sound of our Water project’ website

Source: UNESCO Water Portal, January 2006

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