History of Sanitation and Water Supply

Canal Construction Sanitation

Throughout the modern history of man we managed to advance our way of life in countless ways with the new technological and medical discoveries. One of those areas that received much attention was sanitation, widespread tradition of health promotion through prevention of human contact with wastewaters (human or animal feces, biologically contaminated water, industrial waste water, sewage, and greywater) and various types of other hazards (physical, microbiological, chemical and biological threats to our metabolism and health). As the human civilization exited stone age and started working with metals in Iron and bronze age, they started developing new knowledge in the fields of medicine, chemistry and architecture and urban planning. All of these advances played a big role in the development of modern sanitation.

History of modern sanitation started with the development of the protected water wells in the Neolithic times. Creation of these wells enabled humans to always have clear water available to them. Removal of waste water arrived with the exploits of Indus Valley Civilization who were the first to introduce public water supply and sanitation. Others civilizations of that time also started noticing the harmful impact of waste water on human health, most notably Babylonians and Ancient Greeks. The largest advance of early sanitation happened in Ancient Rome, where semi-successfully used latrines and sewage drains to divert the flow of sewage water from major cities. Sadly, they were not used by majority of the Roman population, who continued throwing feces on city streets through entire reign of this civilization and majority of European dark and middle ages.

Lack of sanitation in European Dark Ages (which lasted between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the early European Renaissance, 5th – 15th century AD) forced medical and scientific community to truly start combating this dangerous health issue. During this time towns all across the Europe were dirty, crowded, full of feces, contaminated water, and with virtually unknown tradition of keeping personal hygiene. Spreading of epidemics, diseases, tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever caused rapid decline in life expectancy of Europeans (average lifespan was under 30 years!), and all of this culminated in the disastrous epidemic of Black Death plague between 1438-1441 which killed 60 Europeans, or around one fourth of the total population of the entire world.

Modern age of sanitation started in Europe between 16th and 19th century when Pail closets, outhouses, and cesspits became used to collect human waste all over the world. Development of plumbing, latrines and personal toilets by many inventors enabled organized collection of human feces and their distribution to sewage networks. During the same time, the techniques of water purification, creation of drinking water and its transport to the human population started the era where personal hygiene could be easily enforced by everyone. This all culminated with 19th and 20th century “Sanitation Revolution” age in which governments started enforcing strict hygiene rules, with organized garbage collection, development of public health departments, water treatment networks and more.