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History Of Human Drinking Water

par Dr. Jonathan Doyle - Updated May 01, 2023
Water is life – the source and the most important requirement for every living being.
We cannot write the history of human evolution and civilization without mentioning the crucial role of water.
From prehistoric civilization to the primitive era and contemporary society, water always has a grand role in the bigger picture. There is no development nor survival without water – we need it for irrigation, production, and, most importantly, drinking.
The world had four ancient civilization points – the Yellow River, the Indus River, the Nile River, and the two river basins. All of these are related to water. It is the only foundation on which survival was built. So, whenever you pick pour in some water into a glass to drink, you are taking in the history of mankind.
This blog takes a unique yet interesting approach to discuss water. What role has water in humans’ lives over time? How has water evolved? What water-related challenges have we dealt with or currently dealing with? What are the water types, and how do you get the best of them? We have answers to all of these and more in this blog.
So, read on!

Why Filter Water?

The primitive era got people thinking and using water as a primitive resource – just drink some, or you die. It is instinctive – anyone who wants to survive must drink water, and so the search for water to drink never ends. In the early years, there were cases of the disappearance of tribes attributed to the pollution of water sources. Drinking polluted water then comes with many adverse effects on the body. It is even worse for weak individuals, and they mostly end up dead.
The era of the industrial revolution had its fair share of water problems. With more people now inhabiting cities, the available water infrastructure struggled to keep up with the increasing number. Likewise, industries are continuously discharging large amounts of pollutants into water sources. Moreover, there was little or no regard for human safety regarding drinking water. These conditions led to the famous Cholera outbreak in London.
Thanks to the advent of modern medicine and science, the current drinking water safety is higher than before. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Act has been established, which identifies and defines any physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance or matter in water as a “contaminant.” The potential of contaminated water to transmit diseases like polio, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and diarrhea has been properly documented. Over 485,000 deaths across the world are attributed to diarrhea annually. In addition, the water-stressed areas are estimated to serve as home to half of the world’s population by 2025. You can find out more predictions here.

What are the early water filtration practices?

The phenomenon of water filtration has been around for a while. Here are some methods employed in the past;

Settling Water

The early people leave their water to sit or settle, so the particles fall to the bottom. This water purification method is simple and easy.

Heating Water

In the past, people believed heating the water kills its harmful pollutants. Therefore, they boil, dip heated stone into the water, or leave the water to heat under the sun.
Heating water helps achieve purification. It is one of the oldest tricks known to human civilization. In boiling water, some people use leather bags tied to a framework, hood, or metal, even in metal containers or ceramics. In addition, there were special bamboo containers and stone jars used to boil water by dropping very hot stones into the container with the aid of tongs and sticks.

Digging Wells

The harmful effects of the lake and river waters were well recognized in the farming era. To avoid these, the farmers resort to groundwater, which is purer and more accessible than the natural water sources in the open. Subsequently, water from well became the primary water source of farming civilization.
After a keen observation of nature, people in the farming era identified charcoal and stones as possible purification materials for water. This is why you find a layer of stones filled with charcoal, followed by another layer of stones. This practice is prevalent in some parts of the world and helps to purify water.
The discovery and adoption of well water have improved livestock and crop output, leading to an easy population expansion. There is sufficient water with easy accessibility to everyone.

Drinking Tap Water

With the advent of cities and towns came the need to lay water pipes. In addition to being convenient, this advancement ensures the water stays clean. The adoption of water pipe systems marked a revolution in the history of drinking water, considering how primitive underground well water and direct drinking of natural water were.
Tap water was an integral part of history. First, the few rich people who could afford it tweaked the system to get water directly in their homes by turning on the faucet. Then, the entire system relied on an automatic water intake device. The only difference is the mode of delivery; the water being delivered remains river water or well water, but without the stones. So, it is largely unreliable.

Using Calcium Chlorate

The first person to use Calcium Chlorate was John Leal, a sanitation consultant for the water supply company. He then used it to purify water by removing the bacteria present. We have Leal to thank for preventing several possible plagues in the West.
Calcium Chlorate powered the first-ever chemical water purification technology, and it happened in the United States. It effectively eliminated the water safety concerns of the world’s population then, and many people rightly tagged it one of the best inventions of the 20th century. Well-deserved, isn’t it?

Water Infrastructure and Water Filter

There is no doubt about the effectiveness of calcium hypochlorite water purification. However, it is not a universal solution. It was only a matter of time before fresh water-related issues came up.
The 20th century saw more modern industry evolve. The pace of development increased, and productivity rates rose. But all of these came with even more industrial waste and water pollution. Therefore, the world needed something more potent and effective than calcium hypochlorite to keep it safe. New pathogenic microorganisms have been discovered, including carcinogens.
Drinking water pollution
Drinking water pollution was becoming a more worrisome phenomenon, and rightly so. This necessitated the introduction of various strict management measures. For instance, the government improved water infrastructure, and water filters became more prominent.

Disturbing Water Pollution Incidents in History

1854 Broad Street Cholera Outbreak

The “Miasma Theory” is the biggest incident related to cholera spread in history, as jointly agreed by the medical community. Dr. Snow discovered that many cholera patients developed symptoms after drinking water from a specific pump. In comparison, the slum next door, which housed over 500 people, was down with the worst sanitary conditions. But, even at that, most people there were healthy. The difference? While one group has been exposed to the pump, the other relies on its wells.
Dr. Snow pushed for the removal of the water pump while ensuring that no one could use the water in it. This move helped contain the spread and prevented the cholera epidemic from worsening.
Love Canal Water Pollution

Love Canal Water Pollution

The world identified the need for a hydroelectric power station a century ago. So, a canal was dug to that effect – the Love Canal. But contrary to the intended purpose, the Hooker Chemical Company made the partially dug canal their dumpsite for chemical waste. This went on from 1942 to 1953.
Since 1977, there have been reports of a wide range of strange diseases in the area, from miscarriages in pregnant women to sudden deaths of kids, deformity in infants, rectal bleeding, epilepsy, and more. Ten years later, the residents discovered a black liquid seeping from the ground, which was found to contain several toxic substances. The Environmental Countermeasures Compensation Liability Act was passed in the 1980s, speeding up the conclusion of investigations into the incident.
The former Electrochemical Company and the New York government were named the infringers and instructed to pay a compensation of up to $3 billion to the injured residents for their economic losses.

How did the American Government ensure Water Safety?

In 1974, the United States Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to oversee public health protection and regulation, including the public water supply system. Fast forward to ten years later, the Safe Drinking Water Law was revised to improve the existing regulation and enforcement of drinking water. The final revision of the law was in 1996.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state governments have come up with different strict but important regulations to ensure all public water supply systems operate at the best standards. There are currently clear legal regulations on over 90 pollutants, including radioactive, microbial, and chemical contaminants.
For quality assurance, the authorities set up laboratories to consistently analyze drinking water quality while compelling water plants and public water supply systems to provide water samples for testing and analysis periodically. Not adhering to these directives may lead to severe punishments. Nevertheless, these arrangements have largely improved, and more importantly, assured the water quality and safety in the United States.
When it comes to water purification, America is known for pioneering the best options known to the world at the moment. However, the country’s implementation standards for water safety remain one of the strictest, and the same can be said about the requirements for water purification enterprises. That is why you find only qualified water filters in the U.S. market.

What are the various types of water filters available today?

Thanks to advanced science and technology, there are several water methods to choose from today, including carbon, ultrafiltration, and reverse osmosis systems.

Activated Carbon

Activated carbon filters, sometimes called charcoal filters. The surface area of just 4 grams of activated carbon is equivalent to a football field (6400 square meters). It's the huge surface area that makes activated carbon filters so effective at adsorbing (basically removing) contaminants and other impurities.
When water flows through an activated carbon filter, chemicals stick to the carbon, resulting in cleaner water.
A wide range of water filtration systems has activated carbon as an integral part, which comes from different sources such as coconut shells and coal. The difference between ordinary woods or paper with pores that absorb smells and these materials is the presence of smaller pore sizes in coal and coconut shell. That means the surface area is larger for better filtration performance. You can read about carbon filters here.


Ultrafiltration (UF) is a membrane filtration process. Thie process requires hydrostatic pressure to push water through a semi-permeable membrane, pore size ranging between 0.01 to 0.1 micron, which is much smaller than a human hair. The pressure-driven barrier filtration process in Ultrafiltration (UF) systems is effective against suspended solids, bacteria, viruses, endotoxins, and other pathogens. The end product is highly purified water with low silt density.

Reverse Osmosis

The reverse osmosis system works similarly to ultrafiltration. It is designed to purify water by pushing it through the reverse osmosis membrane under pressure. The contaminants are separated from the pure water molecules on either side of the membrane. The reverse osmosis emmbrane has a minimum pore size of about 0.1 nm. Thus there is no doubt thst RO systems can effectively remove water-soluble contaminants in water. Read more about reverse osmosis in this blog.

Before You Go

Water remains an integral aspect of human history – its purification, management, and consumption. Water is inseparable from our long history of existence and development as humans. This blog, amongst other things, has captured the dynamic relationship between us (humans) and water over time.
guard our planet
In the end, one thing is sure, one of the biggest threats to humanity is an unsolvable water problem. Together, let’s guard our planet.