Environmental Science Page

Jason Thrope

Water Systems:

            As technologies develop, culture incorporates these new technologies.  As labor-saving technologies support development of culture, people also have more time to invent new technologies, creating a cyclical relationship.  The progression of water technologies in the past was critical to the development of advanced societies.  In the modern age, people seem to take water technology for granted, yet those technologies started from humble beginnings.  Through the cyclical process, we now have running water in our houses. 

Around 10,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherer groups gradually changed to a system of agriculture.  Ehrlich points out the affects of this change: “agriculture started a positive feedback system that put humanity on the road to sociopolitical complexity.” (Ehrlich, From Seeds to Civilizations, 236) The agricultural system allowed for a growth in population and eventually the development of cities and nation states.  While examining this positive feedback system, it is critical to understand the importance of technology.  The development of many technologies during this time influenced the development of advanced societies and culture.  In this essay, I will focus on the progression of water technologies and how they affected this development of societies and culture.

One of the first problems that arose from the transition to agriculture was the need for water.  The fields for farming needed water, and scarce rainfall was not sufficient.  Therefore, “the origin of irrigation is inseparable from that of agriculture.” (Drower, Water Supply, 520) The technology of irrigation was developed at this time to move water to the fields from nearby rivers.  Along with provision of irrigation for the fields, the means of providing drinking water also expanded with the development of water carrying techniques.  The creation of aqueducts to transport large amounts of water over considerable distances also developed: “Remains of aqueducts near the Syrian coast show how the Phoenicians led water long distances over uneven ground by channels and embankments.  The gardens, fields, and orchards of their narrow but very fertile coastal plain had a perpetual supply from the mountain streams of Lebanon.” (Ibid, 531) The transportation of water was extremely important because it sparked cultural changes.  Once these technologies were developed, Societies could expand and were no longer confined to a geographic area restricted by a water source.  This led to the expansion of societies and the development of more culturally developed societies, such as Egypt and Greece.  In turn, the expansion of these societies, and the reduced need for manual work led to further technological change.

In Egypt, the development of water technologies helped the Egyptians to survive and progress.  At first, the Egyptians merely depended on the flooding of the Nile to water their crops.  However, the Egyptians eventually began to develop irrigation technologies: “In early times the irrigation was done with pots dipped in the river, by means of a criss-cross of channels into which the water was poured.” (Drower, Water Supply, 542) The invention of the Shaduf, a wooden device for lifting water, was used to aid this irrigation and to water the Egyptian gardens.  The Shaduf was extremely effective and allowed the Egyptians to grow vegetables and flowers.  The Shaduf enabled the creation of pleasure-gardens, which become a part of Egyptian culture.  The means for irrigation in Egypt not only helped the farmers, but it also helped beautify the home.  Eventually, irrigation schemes “enabled perennial irrigation to be practiced on a far larger scale, and presumably turned the depression into a market-garden where cereal crops, as well as fruit and vegetables may have been grown.” (Ibid, 545) The development of this new irrigation system also helped control the flooding of the Nile by carrying away, and then returning surplus water to the Nile.  Water technologies in Egypt helped Egyptian culture and society to thrive.

In Greece, water technologies progressed to an even higher level than in Egypt.  As Chant points out, “Greek systems of water supply and management could be quite complex, involving aqueducts, closed-pipe systems, settling tanks, cisterns, and fountain houses.” (Chant, Greece, 72) The constant, consistent supply of water to Greece had many cultural implications.  Public baths were created to promote cleanliness, but more importantly, they provided a social center where people could interact and relax.  Wells and a public supply of drinking water made it easier for people to survive and thrive in Greece.  “The Classical Greeks were among the first to be concerned about the effects of public health on urban conditions, and laws were passed controlling the dumping of waste, and the digging of open drains and cesspools in public places.” (Ibid, Greece, 73) This is a prime example of how technology sparks social change.  The invention of these drains and cesspools created a new cultural thinking on waste and cleanliness. 

These new cultural ideas helped Greek society develop and made Greek cities into cultural centers where people came to live and trade.  Chant explains the impact of these water technologies: “Thus the notion of urban public works and amenities occurs for the first time in Western history; it would remain part of the politics of the urban built environment, even after the return of monarchal rule.” (Ibid, Greece, 78) Water technologies in Greece lead to a change in culture (development of public works and amenities) which in turn led to new technologies and the progression of urban city-centers.

By examining these ancient civilizations, it is clear that the development of water technologies caused social change.  As water technologies gradually developed, societies became more and more civilized.  The positive feedback mechanism, in which labor-saving technologies allowed for these social developments, promoted the creation of more water technologies.  It seems that technological and cultural development go hand in hand.  We may take it for granted that we have running water and sewer systems in our houses, but our culture and many other technologies developed from a simple agricultural need, through a cyclical process.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2/5/06