Hamilton Kent

Wastewater infrastructure through the ages


Courtesy of Hamilton Kent

Water and waste water management infrastructure has evolved hand-in-hand with human civilization for thousands of years. What is astonishing is how incredibly important this technology still is in present day, and most people aren't even aware of it's presence or function! You would think that, by now, cities would have this thing pretty much covered, but the billions of dollars spent every year on repairing and improving this infrastructure is a sure sign that, as society continues to evolve, how we handle our water and waste will continue advance in lock-step.

To illustrate this, we gathered together a quick look at water and wastewater infrastructure over the centuries.

High technology solutions

Let's start with a recent development, where The Metro Vancouver Regional District in Vancouver, Canada, recently completed the largest diameter microtunneling project ever attempted in Canada. For the uninitiated, microtunneling installs pipelines with minimal disruption to the surface, and it's kind of a big deal.

Here is a great primer on microtunneling and why it has become such an important infrastructure technology.

Also called trenchless tunneling, microtunneling is designed for pipe placement in high-density urban areas where the disruption of digging a standard trench would be too costly. In Vancouver, the project called for concrete pipe with an internal diameter of 10-feet and required more than 2,600 feet of concrete pipe, HDPE liner and all the associated gaskets. The American Concrete Pipe Association has covered this story on it's website with thorough information on the project.

Where it all began

Somewhere around 4,000 BC we started to see the production of sump pits fed by clay pipes to collect sewage, which was washed down the pipes with buckets of water. This points to how early we discovered the importance of sanitation, because these systems would have been costly to build and operate yet they have been found throughout the geographies once inhabited by the Babylonians. Check out this story from the We Are Water Foundation, which describes how these developments came to pass and includes some incredible pictures of these cisterns unearthed in archeological gigs.

What's that smell?

The 1858 cholera outbreak in London, U.K., known as The Great Stink, shows us that the lessons learned from the Babylonians were largely unheeded by the English. A heat wave roasted the sewage that was dumped directly into the River Thames. Everyone knew dumping sewage into the river wasn't a great idea, but what they didn't know was that the practice of burying the sewer pipes near wells was also contaminating the drinking water. It turns out the unsealed pipe joints allowed effluence to leach into the groundwater. Thankfully, now we have gaskets to handle this job.

The We Are Water Foundation has chronicled this as well, with an amazing reproduction of an 1887 illustration showing how sewage leaks from these joints into the water supply (it's part of the same story linked to above).

Fast-forward about 130 years and we can see that London is still working on the problem of pollution in the Thames. This YouTube video posted by the Associated Press documents the U.K. capital's massive underground sewer tunnel project.

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