to show the difference that social organisation makes to the state
of rivers and the environment
About 400 years ago, there was a city in Japan called Edo. Most of
its one million people got clean water supplied close to their houses.
Human excreta was not dumped into the river. It was used as agricultural
fertiliser. The common people had a say in water management, which
was based on economy and cost-effectiveness. The rivers were clean....
About 2,300 years ago, there was a city to which all the roads
led. The sewers of Rome, however, led to the Tiber river. Its water
was unclean. Huge aqueducts the money for which came from
plunder of other countries fetched water from distant springs.
Water was supplied to tanks, from where slaves had to fetch it for
the rich. Most of the water was reserved for the rich and the powerful....
How do you provide water and sanitation to a city with one million
people without exploiting your rivers and water sources, without
putting filth into them? Not an easy question, by any means. If
there were any easy answers, the state of rivers across the world
would have been much better than it is today. Even rivers with a
sacred religious status, like what the Ganga means to Hindus, have
been polluted to an unimaginable degree.
Human evolution, scientific awakening and industrial revolution
notwithstanding, we still do not have sensible ways to handle sewage.
We callously ease it into the rivers, looking the other way. As
for the availability of clean water, you do not need an expert to
tell you that it is a luxury for the moneyed and the powerful in
many parts of the world.
So, if any human society at any stage in history managed to achieve
a sustainable give-and-take equilibrium with a river, it is essential
to take a close, hard look at it. There is a fascinating example,
but it calls for a trip back in time. Actually, two different trips
into the past, separated by 2,000 years.
The first, a more recent one about 400 years back in time
is towards the Orient, to the city of Edo in Japan, out of
which has grown what we call Tokyo. The other is in the Occident,
is much older, and is called just what it was called then: Rome.
Edo was an impoverished village at the beginning of the 17th century.
By the end of the 17th century it grew into the largest city in
the world, comparable in size and population to Rome at the peak
of its prosperity. Both the cities had waterworks to cater to the
one million people that they harboured. But our story is not about
the similarities. Rather the differences between the two.
For one, the waterworks of Edo were more egalitarian, more hygienic
than the Roman water management systems. The reason: Edo society
was based on the community, especially strong families. Although
the samurai were also martial, the community had a much greater
say in governance, while the Roman society was military in essence.
The question of equity
Despite the elaborate network of water systems there were 578
km of massive stone conduits or aqueducts the Romans were unable
to supply water to most citizens. Not because of water shortage but
due to unequal distribution. The aqueduct could provide 500 litres
per person per day, but there were only 1,352 water tanks and fountains
in the entire city. This is negligible when you learn that there were
3,612 tanks in the northeastern section of Edo itself, which was supplied
water through the Kanda waterworks system.
In ancient Rome, piping of water to individual household was prohibited
until about the beginning of the Christian era as construction and
maintenance work could not keep pace with the growing population.
Servants had to do the hard work to fetch water 17 per cent
of the entire supply of water was provided to the emperor, 24 per
cent to the officials, 39 per cent went to rich families and industry,
and a mere 13 per cent was allocated to ordinary citizens. However,
in Edo, the first city in Japan to have a drinking water supply system,
the approach was different. Water was supplied to nearly all the residents
of the densely populated downtown and to 70 per cent of the people
of greater Edo. Moreover, the city coped quite well with the rapid
urban growth and increase in population. What was the difference in
technology used by the two cities?
benefits of decentralisation
A network of underground wooden pipes branching through much of Edo
was the highlight of the technology at the core of its waterworks.
The construction was done with such care that even the main pipes
were not exposed.
While Roman waterworks did not provide for irrigation, Edos
systems did, and not only for irrigation, but also for development
of new agricultural land and even fire prevention. The Edo waterworks
grew in stages. The construction of Edos first water supply
system began in 1590. Later, it expanded. In 1630 it came under the
Kanda waterworks. The water was mainly drawn from the Tama river,
flowing along the western suburb of the city. The decentralised nature
of Edo waterworks did not mean that they were unsustainable and short-term.
In fact, the opposite was true. Their durability can be judged by
the fact that it served the city for 300 years and was operational
Another interesting contrast is the development of water supply
technology with regard to war and peace. While ancient Roman waterworks
were a display of the military prowess of the Roman empire, the
people of Edo used military engineering in developing domestic water
supply systems. Water was often used in the warfare that went on
for about 100 years prior to the Edo period, which lasted from 1603
One famous example of this was when a feudal lord who later became
the ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, used a very clever tactic
of inundation to successfully siege a castle. In no time, the imaginative
warrior designed and built an earthen wall to encircle the castle,
made precise calculations to draw water from the nearby river to
flood the castle and drive out the enemy. In peacetime, such technology
was used for constructing waterworks. There was another benefit
of building the waterworks, namely, the soldiers were employed in
the construction activity, providing them employment and gainfully
utilising their potential. During the Edo period, 32 waterworks
were completed in various parts of Japan. Of these, 25 were completed
in the 17th century, when attention shifted from war to municipal
Recent excavations reveal the high level of knowledge and expertise.
Huge flumes (water channels that drive a mill wheel) were dug out.
These were the main trunk lines. The floor of such channels was
made of wood. It featured grooves filled with sand and clay in order
to make the floor durable and impervious. The sides were made of
rectangular stones placed one on top of another. The top was also
covered with huge slabs of stones. The secondary pipes were made
of hollowed logs or planks placed one on top of another, while the
smaller population was provided water through with bamboo.
The grand symbols and their cost
Military in nature, the Roman society built huge, expensive aqueducts.
To them, these were symbols of a high civilisation and a display of
their power, not just at home but also in conquered lands. The main
factor behind the construction of these large projects was war and
governance of other countries and races.
For example, take the Aqua Anio, which was completed in 269 bc. This
was funded by the plunder from the defeat of King Pyrrhus of Epirus
in the north of Greece. Similarly, the spoils of wars with Corinth
and Carthage provided for the Aqua Marcia, built in 130 bc.
Another reason for constructing huge aqueducts, especially in regions
conquered or occupied by the Romans, was to create grand
symbols of the Roman Empire and its high civilisation.
The cost was, obviously, not a limiting factor, and Rome spent lavishly
The people of Edo, however, were quite aware of the expenses of
constructing waterworks. The Roman water systems were maintained
by the bureaucracy for the state and used, therefore, without equity.
The Edo waterworks were people-driven.
Due to insufficiency of funds from the government, some construction
works were completed through funds acquired through repeated petitions
by townsfolk. People were conscientious and cooperative, afeature
conspicuous by its absence in Rome. Though the Edo society was ruled
mainly by the samurai or warriors, the common people had a strong
say in management. Public participation existed during those days,
and this was the driving force in the development of efficient waterworks.
Clean water, clean ecology
The ancient Romans treated their rivers as sewers, dumped garbage
and sewage into the Tiber. Because of this, the riverwater was not
suitable for drinking. Consequently, water was drawn from distant
sources like natural springs and Tiber was used more as a receptacle
for untreated sewage.
Edo had a more sensible approach. Water from the Tama river was
well utilised by its inhabitants. The people of Edo utilised human
excreta as fertiliser for agriculture, a tradition that continued
into the 20th century. Even Tadashi Ogawa, the current director
of the Japan Foundation in New Delhi, can recall the management
of human waste: I remember how people used to sell excreta.
He says the riverwater was largely free of contamination and was
even suitable for drinking. This also cut down the expenses on a
Initially, Edo depended on the small rivers and streams that eventually
entered the Edo Bay. But, due to an increase in population by the
mid-16th century, this was not possible. There was a need for more
sophisticated means of water supply. By the end of the 17th century,
two major and four supplementary systems, supplying water to every
part of Edo, were already completed.
But the saddest part of the story is that modern Japan is pursuing
the same Rome-like model and forgetting the beauty and sustainability
of its traditions. Although untreated waste is not dumped into the
rivers even today, nobody uses excreta as fertiliser. A rich tradition
is dying out.
While the whole of ancient Rome had only
wells, just the northeastern section of Edo had 3,612 tanks