Water Engineering Wonders: Changing The Course of Civilizations

Archive Photo of Panama Water Engineering WondersCanal Water Engineering Wondersw

Historically, water has always been both a vital resource and an obstacle; oftentimes, the greatest challenge was finding a secure source. The downfall or success of civilizations throughout history has depended on water resources. Ancient civilizations laid the foundation for the water engineering wonders of our modern age

We look at several engineering projects from both the ancient and modern world which grappled with the most pressing water issues of their day and marked pivotal moments in the history of human civilization. 

The creation of Chicago’s water & sewer systems

As creatures of modern comforts, we’re not apt to consider what came before the toilet flush. In Chicago, the creation of the 20th-century water and sewer systems forced the city to master its most crucial strategic advantage and essential resource: water.

In 1833, Chicago had 350 residents but some 60 years, it was suddenly home to 1.7 million people and globally renowned as a modern metropolis. Following several deadly outbreaks of cholera, a waterborne disease, the city enlisted the engineer of Boston’s water supply system to build the first comprehensively planned sewer system in the country. 

The plan was ambitious: it entailed engineering a new, manmade topography. Because the city was built on a mudflat, there wasn’t enough gravity to move the growing amounts of waste through the pipes. 

First, the city was raised up ten feet by jack-screwing all the buildings. Then, thousands of laborers cranked them into the air, one by one, over the course of 20 years. Sewers were installed that flowed into the Chicago River. However, this created another problem: the contamination of drinking water. 

City sewage, as well as factory and slaughterhouse waste, was being funneled into the Chicago River, which flowed directly into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water supply. While at first the volume of sewage was easily diluted by the water, Chicago’s population tripled within a decade, and suddenly the river stank. 

Amid fears that the sewage would contaminate the drinking water, the city embarked on a goal to build––at that time––the deepest and longest tunnel in history. 

Beginning in 1864, workers dug a tunnel reaching two miles into the lake and 60 feet below the lake’s bottom to create a clean water intake point. Unfortunately, it made little impact on the drinking water pollution. 

The next step was an act of divine proportion: reversing the flow of the Chicago River. Rather than allowing the river, along with all of its mess of excrement, to flow into Lake Michigan, they redirected the waste stream into an eight-mile channel, connecting it with the Des Plaines River. This allowed them to drain clean water from Lake Michigan while directing waste into the Mississippi River. It was an added bonus that this wastewater was now directed straight into St.Louis, a rival city of Chicago. 

Water engineering helped grow Chicago into the city we know today and proved that even something as seemingly permanent as geography can be changed with a little ingenuity. 

The Roman Aqueducts and Plumbing

Water Engineering Wonders Roman Aqueducts

Centuries before the citizens of Chicago first turned on their taps, the citizens of Rome luxuriated in steaming baths, whether in private villas or public baths, piped in directly from springs outside the city. Sewage was flushed out via plumbing and sewers, another testament to their mastery of civil engineering. 

Most ancient civilizations relied on springs, streams, groundwater, and seasonal rains for water supply. This affected their potential for growth as this supply was often insecure. While older civilizations in Egypt and India pioneered the use of aqueducts much earlier, the Romans improved the model. 

The Romans, influenced by knowledge of the water-management technologies of their Etruscan and Greek comrades, built aqueducts throughout the Republic and Empire. Constructed over the course of 500 years, from 312 B.C. to A.D. 226, the aqueducts supplied Roman cities with fresh water to drink and cleanse. The luxury of bountiful water fed their lush gardens and lavish fountains. 

While the image of aqueducts that spring to mind is of monumental, elevated arched stone bridges, the Romans actually built far more underground, keeping the water covered from sunlight, avoiding contamination, and preventing the bloom of algae. 

The majority of aqueducts were sourced by springs. The water was moved along precisely engineered conduits made of stone, brick, or concrete through gravity alone. 

The availability of freshwater made life much easier for the Romans and allowed them to focus their efforts on expanding the Empire. 
Many of the aqueducts were destroyed over time by neglect, but some still stand fully functioning: Agrippa’s Aqua Virgo aqueduct still supplies the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome. 

The Interoceanic Panama Canal

The mastery of the water has played a pivotal role in the expansion of many nations, including the aforementioned Roman Empire as well as the United States. Their takeover of the Panama Canal project from the French was not only a great feat of engineering but likewise, an incredible geopolitical strategy to make the United States the most powerful nation in the world. 

Before it was built, ships sailing between the US coasts were obliged to take a long, dangerous route via Cape Horn in South America. The 40-mile canal which links the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific shortened this journey by 15,000 km. 

The project had been speculated about since the 17th century, given the strategic location of Panama, as a shortcut for international trade and military transport. France was the first to launch an attempt. They tried to build a sea-level canal based on their experience constructing the Suez Canal. But, no matter how difficult of an engineering project it proved to be, their downfall was maintaining an experienced workforce as yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases killed hundreds of workers every month. The United States succeeded where others had failed by building the canal between 1904 and its opening on August 15, 1914.

How does the Panama Canal work? It’s effectively a bridge made of water. 

This water engineering wonder hoists ships and their cargo above the surrounding mountains by lifting them upwards through a series of locks into the man-made Gatun Lake, 26 m (85 ft) above sea level. It takes ships around 11 hours to pass between the two locks. 

Work on expanding the canal to accommodate the behemoth modern cargo ships began in 2017 by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority. This project added a new traffic lane much wider and deeper than the first, therefore, also doubling the capacity of the Panama Canal and adding a new dimension to this already incredible water engineering wonder.

The Wind-powered Nazca Puquios 

Water Engineering Wonders Nazca Puquios Peru and Chile

In the arid deserts of southern Peru and northern Chile, mysterious aquifers from ancient civilizations continue to provide fresh water to the inhospitable landscape. 

These spiral-shaped holes long evaded attribution, but archeologists now believe that they were built by both the ancient Paracas and Nazca cultures between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, and 200 BCE to 650 CE. These aquifers were the only source of water available year-round in the Nazca Basin. 

The intricately constructed, stone-lined walls shape the opening inlet of the Puquios. The spiral shape uses surface winds to push underground water through a system of deep subterranean reservoirs and canals. The hydraulic system is simple but incredibly effective and allowed communities to retrieve water for domestic as well as agricultural use even during periods of drought.

The water supplied by the Puquios comes from the Andes mountain range by way of underground streams. It remains a mystery how the ancient people were able to locate these streams, however, some theories claim that the famous Nazca lines were etched in order to track the streams through the desert. 

While a few Puquios are still preserved, thousands disappeared after their use was abandoned with the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. 

The Oasis of The Karez 

In China’s Turpan Basin in Xinjiang, the soil is fertile, but the winter sends the landscape into a deep freeze while the summer sun scorches vegetation. To contend with these challenges the Uyghur people devised a water harvesting technology to bring in glacial runoff from the nearby mountain ranges. 

Their system of ancient subterranean tunnel-wells is one of the most extensive in the world. The age and origin of the Karez water system are still unknown with hypotheses ranging from locals receiving knowledge of the technology from Persia 3000 years ago to it being an independent invention of local Uyghur people in the 15th century. 

The system of wells, dams, and underground canals was strategically built to be powered by gravity from the eastern base of the Tianshan Mountains to the Turpan Basin. In order to avoid the precious water evaporating under the burning summer sun, the water travels through underground tunnels anywhere from three to 30km long. The glacial groundwater streams to more than a thousand wells and is used to irrigate the region’s abundant vineyards. 

Local prosperity is directly linked to the karez well-system; a rich harvest of grapes, apricots, melons, and cotton offered opportunities for trade and the region was a notable oasis stopover for merchants following the course of the ancient Silk Road. 

The modern era has claimed some of the karez, but the Uyghur people continue to depend on and love the naturally filtered water of the karaz. 

Maeslantkering: One solution to sea-level rise

Water Engineering Wonders Rotterdam Maeslantkering Dutch Sea Levies

As global sea levels rise many coastal cities are bearing the brunt of wild weather patterns and destructive waves. It’s a challenge they’ve been grappling with for centuries as periodical storms and their accompanying effects have ravaged cityscapes.

Hard engineering projects like sea walls, surge barriers, and water pumps are increasingly being employed to keep the water out. Among the most impressive is Rotterdam’s Maeslantkering, or Maeslant Barrier, which was built to protect a city already 90% below sea level. 

The Dutch have seemingly mastered land and sea, with over 3,700km network of dikes, dams, and seawalls protecting the land they’ve reclaimed from the Atlantic. However, periodic catastrophes, such as the North Sea flood that killed over 1,800 people in 1953, led the Netherlands to develop the Delta Works, a more extensive and modern system to protect against future storms. 

The Maeslantkering was built from 1991 to 1997. It consists of two 210 meters long barrier gates and the two 237 meters long steel trusses that hold them. The barrier is controlled by a supercomputer that initiates closing using an algorithm based on weather and sea level data.

It’s predicted that the barriers will only need to close once every ten years, but this number is set to rise to once every five years over the course of the next fifty years. The barriers are tested once a year and the event receives great public interest–– you can keep an eye on this page to book your tour spot for this year’s test. 

Our future with water

Both friend and foe, water has shaped the course of history and cultures from every corner of the world. No doubt, our dependence on water, as well as its destructive power, will continue to play a remarkable role in future water engineering wonders, in civilizations to come and the planet at large.

By Natalia Kvitkova — Apr 22, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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