Water Management in the Ancient World

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Water Management in the Ancient World


Water, one of the basic necessities for human life, was the lifeblood of early civilization. Indeed, the ability of ancient societies to harness the power of water facilitated the rise of agriculture and the first urban centers. So important was water to these early people that historians refer to these first societies as "River Valley Civilizations."


The primary characteristic of these advanced societies was their reliance on sedentary agriculture in which people farmed the same land for generations. The combination of rich soil, mild climate, and a reliable source of water gave ancient people the ability to create crop surpluses. This movement away from nomadic wandering to a more localized existence is known as the Neolithic Revolution. It began about 8,000 years ago in the lush, fertile land surrounding the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Huang He rivers. In these "Cradlelands of Civilization" dramatic events took place that would forever change the human condition.

The control and successful management of water had an important impact on early society. Sedentary agriculture created the world's first urban environment. Humankind had to develop ways of dealing with an entirely new social structure. A rigid new class system developed from the necessity of controlling large populations and the requirements of constructing and maintaining extensive public civil engineering projects.

The success of these early civilizations was based upon the movement of water into their agricultural fields. Great irrigation projects directed the substantial amounts of water necessary for agricultural success. Projects of this magnitude needed extensive planning and supervision. An intellectual elite arose to deal with the construction and operation of these systems. These individuals were the first highly skilled engineers in history. Eventually, they also developed the foundation for the discipline of mathematics and the science of astronomy. Mathematical concepts, especially geometry, were developed to deal with the challenges of the construction of the canals, dams, and dikes that controlled the flow of water. The continued success of these great agricultural civilizations also depended upon the accurate prediction of when to plant their crops so as to take advantage of the seasonal rains. These early engineers also had to develop maintenance schedules to repair any structural problems in the irrigation system. Water levels had to be low in order to successfully carry out these projects, so it was of the utmost importance that accurate weather predictions were made.

The same held true for planting. If the seeds were planted before the final onset of heavy rain, it would be washed away. The population would then be faced with potential famine and the political and social consequences that would follow from such a catastrophe. This required the development of highly accurate calendars. The recorded movements of the Moon and Sun formed the foundation for the development of the first calendars, thus many historians of science now believe that astronomy was humanity's first theoretical science. Detailed astronomical records allowed these early civilizations to accurately predict the seasonal changes so important to their survival. The most important aspect of these weather changes dealt with the impact of rainwater on their irrigation systems.

As societies became more accomplished they experienced a population exposition. New ruling elites developed to control both the distribution of food and the ever-increasing urban population. In time, written codes of law were produced to help create an orderly society.


The first successful application of water management was in Mesopotamia. The ancient people known as the Sumerians conquered and occupied the area bordering the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Historians refer to this highly productive land as the "Fertile Crescent." It is in this area, in about 4000 b.c., that the first successful irrigation projects were created. This land became so productive that Biblical scholars now believe that the Fertile Crescent is the area referred to as the "Garden of Eden" in the "Book of Genesis." The weather in Mesopotamia is very harsh and unpredictable. Flash floods are prevalent; therefore, scholars also believe that the story of the "Great Flood" is a myth whose foundation is based on the severe flooding that occurs in this region. This unpredictability necessitated the construction of an intricate irrigation system consisting of canals, dams, and dikes to control, store, and direct the water for use in the fields.

The result of this successful management was the development of the world's first civilization. During this time a system of record keeping was developed to keep track of the food stored in various warehouses throughout Mesopotamia. This system of record keeping evolved into the first written language, known as "cuneiform." The Sumerians used wedge-style ideographs on wet clay tablets to express complex ideas. Over time, a Sumerian literature developed that resulted in the first recorded myth, the "Epic of Gilgamesh." This story centers around the impact of irrigation and sedentary agriculture on human society. It details the new problems faced by the human community as the result of this agricultural explosion. It also describes the struggle between the new emerging urban civilization and the traditional nomadic pastoral peoples. These monumental changes took place as the result of the successful use of water.

The most dominant people in ancient Mesopotamia were the Babylonians, who developed a flourishing civilization around 1800 b.c. King Hammurabi unified Mesopotamia and constructed an extensive irrigation system. He was so successful that the population of the area grew to unprecedented levels. He developed his famous legal code to ensure the proper regulation of his society. So important was the movement and management of water that a section of Hammurabi's Code deals with the regulation of construction guidelines for his irrigation system.

The reign of King Nebuchadnazzar (605-562 b.c.) marked the high point of the sophisticated utilization of water under Babylonian rule. His palace had an extensive water system, which consisted of both a private shower and toilets. His administrative buildings also used an advanced system. Water was so highly prized in Babylonia that a ritual evolved around washing one's hands before a royal audience as a sign of great respect. There was also an extensive drainage system under the palace complex to dispose of the waste from the sacrifice of animals. The most important and elegant water system of the time was Nebuchadnezzar's fabled "Hanging Gardens." They were constructed as a gift to his wife, in which he attempted to recreate the beautiful mountainous green landscape of her native land. The structure consisted of multiple levels of stone covered with rich soil and irrigated by an underground system of pipes. So magnificent was this structure that it would be designated one of the "Seven Wonders of the World."

Water was also very important in ancient Egypt and would have a profound impact on both Egyptian culture and its economics. The Nile River Valley was very fertile and did not require an extensive irrigation system. Instead, a highly accurate calendar was needed to predict the annual flooding, when the river would deposit both fertile soil and life giving water upon their agricultural lands. This abundant existence led to the development of a belief in the afterlife; it was the hope of every Egyptian that the fruits of this earthly existence would be extended into eternity. An elaborate system of funeral rituals developed and was designed to ensure a successful transition to the afterlife. The body was prepared for the journey through the process of mummification. An extensive system of waterbased waste management was developed in the Egyptian mortuaries to aid in the disposal of the byproducts of mummification. The Egyptians also constructed pyramids to house people on their journey to the next world. Since it was believed that basic human needs would remain the same in the next life, the pyramids were built with sophisticated water systems that included individual bathrooms.

The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus River Valley were similar to Egypt in that the water flowed freely into the agricultural lands. Fed by the melting snows of the Himalayas, the Indus provided a steady source of water for its civilization. This resulted in a highly productive agricultural sector that formed the economic base for the two great cities. Each was laid out on a square grid pattern that was subdivided into streets. Numerous public baths were supplied with water by a citywide water system. Archeologists in Mohenjo-Daro unearthed the largest public bath in the ancient world. Known, as the "Great Bath," it measured approximately 39.4 feet (12 m) by 23 feet (7 m) and it was 7.9 feet (2.4 m) deep. The private homes of wealthy aristocrats and merchants also had intricate water systems that included indoor plumbing.

The most powerful civilization in the classical period, Rome, made great advances in the movement and use of water. Rome was the most populous city in the world and maintaining its supply of fresh water was a constant challenge to the city's authorities. This problem was overcome by a system of aqueducts that transported fresh water from the countryside into the urban areas.

Roman cities used water in unprecedented amounts. Every Roman city had a system of public baths that were the envy of the classical world. They all used underground pipes, and many of them had heated floors and hot and cold running water. These baths were the great gathering places in the Roman cities, and both men and women used these facilities. The private homes of well-to-do citizens also had running water that flowed continuously through a nozzle. The great sporting arenas also had large and extensive systems of waste disposal, both for their patrons and to wash away the refuse from the gladiatorial contests. The great Colosseum, located in Rome, could be flooded so that mock naval battles could be conducted for the enjoyment of the spectators. Over time, Rome's water system proved to be a terrible liability. Roman engineers used lead pipes to move water throughout their cities. Prolonged consumption of water with high lead content poisoned their bodies and was one of the major factors that led to the decline of the Roman Empire.

Today, as in ancient times, water plays an essential role in the lives of every human being. Pollution, especially from toxic waste, threatens the world's supply of fresh water. If the nations of the world refuse to implement programs to protect this vital resource, the future of current civilization will be threatened.


Further Reading

Kenoyer, Jonathan M. Ancient Cities of The Indus ValleyCivilization. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1994.

Romer, John. People of the Nile: Everyday Life in AncientEgypt. New York: Crown, 1992.

White, K. D. Greek and Roman Technology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.