How Plumbing Has Shaped Our World

by Jamie Grant on January 14, 2014

Plumbing has been part of the essential infrastructure for a healthy and prosperous society since humans stopped trailing herds of animals around the globe and settled into an agrarian civilization. This article prepared for All Fix Plumbing

Plumbing The Past

Since that time many advances have been made by different cultures in the art and science of managing water sources and resources. Whether that is the process of getting fresh water piped over vast distances such as the Romans accomplished with the construction of vaulting aqueducts. The Ancient Egyptian Culture managed to manipulate monsoonal floodwaters to create perhaps one of the most enduring cultures our planet has seen. The Babylonians mastered hydraulics with the hanging garden of Babylon these incredible gardens were completely dependant on thousands of litres of water being fed to them daily with no use of powered pump. The Harrapan people worshipped water and made amazing advances in water management and the treatment and disposal of wastewater. The tiny Minoan culture is credited with inventing the very first flushing toilet in 1500BC. Admittedly this was more a manual labour job, with some poor unfortunate forced to pour water through a series of levels to flush the refuse away, quite unlike our mechanical devices of today, but all of the principles were still in play. Archimedes, a Grecian genius, who made a massive advance with the Archimedes screw a simple device designed to lift water up and allowed much more control over the medium of water.

 

Every culture, every society of people has had to deal with one fundamental question; how do we deal with the waste that we produce. Across all societies we have often opted for isolation and removal. These principles, whilst sound on face value proved to be difficult to implement in the face of human desire to reproduce. European society entered the dark ages, a time where much of the technology our predecessors had access to was lost and forgotten. The population was growing swiftly, cities were groaning under the weight of people and squalor was everywhere. It is said that during this time bathing was a far less regular ritual than we observe in our modern day society. Bathing was often a community affair with large communal baths that were similar in purpose to bathing houses we still see today in the east. Bathing was so popular that people would indulge in having a bath as regularly as every week! The lucky bathers would often take a meal whilst in the bath, and it was well known for bacchanalia of all kinds to occur in the community bathhouses. Nobles would often have gilt tubs with ornate water heating systems and indulge in all manner of carnal pleasures whilst bathing. This may also account for the rapid rise in population. However human cities became cesspools and disease ravaged the world, the Bubonic plague borne on the back of rats escaped the sewers laden with fleas, carrying death within.  Human population sought to expand, but the weight of numbers drove us to squalor, disease and despair.

Growth and Decay

Perhaps one of the greatest advances of modern civilization is the modern septic system. Dealing with our own waste is a problem that has literally plagued humanity for our entire settled history. A lack of sanitation will breed plague and disease such as Cholera caused by the seepage of sanitary systems into drinking water. The nature of contagion has been a difficult one to discern and scholars in mediaeval times spent years blaming humours, vapours even miasma for the depredations that disease and pestilence brought upon them, with out being aware that it was their own faeces that poisoned them.

plagueAs sanitary processes became more and more refined we were able to conglomerate in larger numbers, cities expanding like at no time ever before in the history of man. It is my assertion that one of the large contributing factors in our rapid expansion into large urban centres of millions and millions of people is our ability to manage our own waste production and refine the by products such that they are far less harmful to the environment.

In cities where the sanitation conditions are inadequate, inefficient or even largely non-existent, life is miserable and plagued by illness and disease. Port-au-Prince in Haiti has no central waste treatment plant and most human waste is removed by collectors and dumped in large cesspools. After Haiti was ravaged by earthquake and flood these meagre systems broke down and illness spread swiftly. Unfortunately the aid workers that the United Nations sent to Haiti also brought Cholera from Nepal where the disease is endemic to the region. It was a fault in the Nepalese peacekeepers sanitation system that leaked from their base into the water supply. The disease took a foothold in the water and has sickened over 650,000 people and an estimated 8,300 have perished. The U.N. has refused to take responsibility for the spread of this disease and will not directly comment on the lawsuit being brought against it. Here for more on this topic: http://news.msn.com/world/united-nations-sued-over-haiti-cholera-epidemic

Plumbing Possibilities

So what does the future of sanitation look like with a population that is relentlessly expanding?

This all depends on how much money countries are prepared to spend on improving their sewerage systems. Unfortunately the trend of spending on sanitation in the world is declining, yet there are some amazing new technologies just being birthed that may be able to take human waste and use it to produce biogas, a precursor to electrical power. Yet these German made systems are expensive and require well-maintained sewerage systems to function.  http://www.dw.de/germany-leads-the-way-in-wastewater-technology/a-16599085

Utopian vision

Utopian vision

It may perhaps be a utopian vision of turning our waste into power and becoming energy efficient and free from the contaminating nature of our refuse. Whilst the technology to transform waste into power may be nascent, the problems facing large population centres with inadequate sanitation are monstrous and unlikely to disappear soon. The main issue with implementing waste conversion technology is implementing that technology in the places that need it the most; underdeveloped countries. The waste treatment systems in these underdeveloped nations are not able to accept the conversion treatment plants without significant investment in the infrastructure, often an expense that developing nations cannot afford.

We face similar problems today to that of the dark ages, with massive population threatening the stretched resources and technology of the times. Whilst the invention of septic systems may be called revolutionary, it may take a miracle to pull humanity out the shit this time.

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How Plumbing Has Shaped Our World
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Plumbing has been part of the essential infrastructure for a healthy and prosperous society since humans stopped trailing herds of animals around the globe and settled into an agrarian civilization.
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