With the recent trends to be more environmentally conscious, you might think that rainwater harvesting is reaching its peak in popularity. In reality, it’s a method that’s been in practice for thousands of years. Centuries-old cisterns and catchments can still be found around the world and are evident that this practice was thriving for centuries. In fact, modern harvesting is not even as commonplace as it was just a few hundred years ago.
The history of rainwater harvesting goes back much father though and across many cultures who developed rainwater collection infrastructure independent of each other. Here we explore the full history of rainwater harvesting.
Who was the first to collect rainwater?
It’s impossible to say who started collecting rainwater first. As it can be as simple as setting out a barrel, it’s possible individuals had been collecting rainwater for centuries before it was adopted culturally. The oldest known infrastructure though dates as far back as 5,000 BC in the Indus Valley near modern-day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The civilization there boasted one of the most advanced sewage and water supply systems for that era with the technology ingrained into their culture and built into their cities.
It’s clear that the practice of collecting rainwater began well before that. A sophisticated system like that is not developed without precedence and in this case, there is plenty of evidence in the area that the urban installations were the most advanced versions of collection that had already begun. Not far away, a number of tanks were cut from rock to quench the thirst of tradesmen along a busy road.
Water collecting through the ages
Many cultures embraced water harvesting over the next few centuries with many ancient cisterns found in Greece and Israel. It was the Roman Empire that embraced rainwater collecting and advanced the practice significantly. With an evolving culture and a growing urban population, the demand for water was insatiable. Romans developed a bath culture and implemented advanced sewage systems that kept their cities amazingly clean. This increasing demand for water led to many inventive solutions, including the famous aqueducts but also advancements in rainwater harvesting.
As with many cultures before the Romans, rooftop rainwater collection was commonplace and clear evidence of this was found in Pompei where Terra Cotta pipes funneled the water into cisterns to be stored for domestic use. The cisterns are the real star of the show for the Roman empire. They built many over the course of their empire, some of which are large, impressive, and both. They even built the largest cistern ever*, the Basilica Cistern which was 105,000 square feet large and could hold over 21 million gallons of water. While this was the largest, they had many such cisterns to serve the public’s demand for water.
The decline of rainwater harvesting
Over the following centuries, the use of rainwater collection for domestic use fell. WIth new technologies for supplying and storing water were invented, the use of traditional rainwater catchments fell out of practice.
One additional reason rainwater harvesting fell out of practice is that cisterns lacked the technology to properly filter the water to prevent disease. As urban areas grew, and travel became more commonplace, traditional cisterns provided an increased risk of spreading disease. After a while, it was largely only practiced in areas where the location and the climate provided no other choice. A lot of rural homes in Australia rely solely on rainwater collecting to provide water for their daily needs.
Modern Rainwater Harvesting
With the acknowledgment of global warming, the rising prices of local water supply companies, and the increasing scarcity of fresh water, collecting rainwater for domestic uses is beginning to see a resurgence in popularity. In places where water is in short supply, governments are even beginning to subsidize the installation of water conservation systems.
Whatever the cause for the resurgence, there’s no doubt that rainwater harvesting is a simple technology with powerful benefits for both the environment or your wallet. Or your garden of course!