The Importance of Water

There has been debate on what singular element has been responsible for the growing development of civilizations. This paper focuses on explaining what that vital element is: water. In other words, water is the most important factor in a civilizations development because it helped advance agriculture, enabled the development of useful tools, and furthermore enhanced the quality of life for people by improving their health.

Firstly, water became essential to advancing agriculture in civilizations. Various early civilizations unwittingly landed in locations that helped their crops thrive since these locations had access to water. What made certain locations more desirable over others was the amount of water it had access to naturally. Evidence of this is seen in the East-West Axis of Migration which is a latitude where many of the earliest civilization settled such as Egypt, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and China (see Figure 1). These civilizations settled here because they would be located near rivers whose water was vital to the growing of their crops.

Figure 1

Growing these crops provided a substantial amount of food necessary to help sustain life. Civilizations began to develop due to the agriculture they cultivated which water made possible to happen.

Another piece of evidence that supports the argument that water is the most important factor to the development of a civilizations is seen with the Huaricanga (3500 BC) civilization. This civilization migrated more inland since El Niño was causing dryness which was unhelpful to their agriculture.  Without water, and therefore no food, this lead to the inability to collect a surplus of food to feed large groups of people who could work on new constructions. This depicts how necessary the resource of water is since it influenced an entire civilization to travel and follow where water would be present. Unlike the Huaricanga civilization, people were migrating towards the Indus Valley Civilization (2600 BCE). The Indus Valley Civilization brought people together because of how close it was to water. With this new surge in people the civilization could further advance in development. The use of water aids in the germination of crops providing fuel to groups of workers that construct new developments within the civilization to keep it growing.

Secondly, water is vital to a civilization’s development because its presence enabled the development of useful tools. Civilizations that lay on the East-West Axis had easy access to rivers and being near the river allowed for easier trade to occur between civilizations for materials and ideas. The materials and ideas exchanged caused growth of civilizations.

Water also made it possible for trade to occur from Mesopotamia to the Indus River Valley. The Indus Valley Civilization gathered resources from afar because of the easy access it had to the river allowing exchanges to be possible. This civilization advanced in tool technology since the river trade route allowed them to gather copper, tin, and wood to make bronze. Having bronze advanced tool technology because it was the first material at this time period that was hard, durable, and light in weight. Because of this, being able to make bronze yielded more advanced tools civilizations would benefit more from (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Thirdly, water is the most vital factor in a civilizations development since it enhanced the quality of life for people by improving their health. Some may argue the contrary and claim that water allowed seaborne trade to be possible which brought microbes into civilizations causing deadly epidemics that lead civilizations to decline. Some would further argue that these microbial-induced epidemics, like the Black Death that arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347, killed many people in the populations such as specialized workers, food-producers, and silk producers. Without the inflow of goods and production of food you do not have a thriving civilization. One could continue to argue that although seaborne trade had a lesser chance of harsher outcomes, South Asian states who were dependent on seaborne trade still suffered these consequences.[1] Being by these large masses of water, oceans, in this case did not help in their civilization advancement and instead caused a decline.

Microbial diseases did kill many people and this did inhibit civilizations to thrive; however, the answer to prevent microbial diseases from ever occurring involved the use of water. For example, in China, the Song dynasty (960-1279) found that, “…drinking tea, steeped in boiling water, undoubtedly reduced intestinal infections killing off most of the microorganisms that lurk in drinking water.”[2] This water helped the Song dynasty preserve its people, resources, and ideas which kept China developing. Also, the Song dynasty of China came up with the idea to use water to wash clothes which further helped reduce microbial disease within the civilization. The people of China used, “Washable cotton clothing [which] may also have a positive implication for health…certainly improved comfort for ordinary people.”[3] China was innovative in identifying different ways to manipulate water to produce beneficial outcomes. Using boiled water in combination with tea and using water to clean clothes decreased human suffering from these microbe-induced illnesses. The “ordinary ones,” who tend to be lower-class, could even use these water-methods for preventing disease. Keeping the lower-class people alive contributes to the stability of the civilization since they are usually farmers helping with agriculture production.

Another example on how water was used to prevent disease, to help keep a civilization prospering, was seen in 2500 BC with the Mohenjo Daro civilization. This civilization developed the first sanitation system that could flush toilets. The sanitation system allowed disposal of feces away from the civilization: many homes had deposit-holes where their waste would enter, water from the wells was gathered, and that water was then poured through the hole to ensure the waste went down. By doing this, all the waste would accumulate in an underground waste reservoir. If not for this sanitation system, fecal matter would be exposed anywhere causing bacterial infections to the people who touched it. This sanitation system, practice of washing clothes, and boiling water with tea leaves all involve water that helps increase the lifespan of its civilians. With limiting the amount of bacterial disease, the civilization can continue to move forward and the people can continue to pass their skills and knowledge to the new generations.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that water was the most important factor to a civilizations development. Without water the crops would not grow and no food would be able to sustain the civilization. Also, water allowed for sea trade that brought bronze and ideas into civilizations helping the development of more advanced tools to be created. Lastly, some argue that water introduced microbial disease into civilizations causing them to decline, but that claim was refuted with the evidence of the Song dynasty of China and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations. Both those civilizations were reliant on water to prevent microbial diseases from occurring and continue to advance their civilizations.

[1] Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall, Rise and Demise: Comparing World Systems. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), p.166-167.

[2] J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), p. 122.

[3] McNeill and McNeill, p. 122.


Chase-Dunn, Christopher K, and Thomas D. Hall. Rise and Demise: Comparing World Systems. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

McNeill, John Robert, and William Hardy McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View Of World History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.