Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water

34 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2005

See all articles by James E. Salzman

James E. Salzman

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


From earliest times, human societies have faced the challenge of supplying adequate quality and quantities of drinking water. Whether limited by arid environments or urbanization, provision of clean drinking water is a prerequisite of any enduring society, but it is a daunting task for drinking water is a multi-faceted resource. Drinking water is most obviously a physical resource, one of the few truly essential requirements for life. Drinking water is also a cultural resource, of religious significance in many societies; a social resource, access to water reveals much about membership in society; a political resource, the provision of water to citizens can serve important communication purposes; and finally, when scarce, water can become an economic resource. As recent conflicts in developing countries make clear, managing and mediating these many facets of drinking water is no easy matter. Understanding a society's ability to provide clean drinking water to its citizens, examining how it recognizes the different natures of this vital resource, provides a unique prism on the society's organization, equity, and view of itself.

In seeking to understand better how societies manage such a critical resource, this article considers three questions. How have different societies thought about drinking water? How have different societies managed access to drinking water? And how have these changed over time? These questions are, of course, interrelated. How we think of water, whether as a sacred gift or a good for sale, both influences and is influenced by how we manage access to drinking water. While not an obvious issue to us in 21st century America, management of drinking water as a resource - who gets it, when they get it, and how much they get - matters a great deal.

Written for a symposium celebrating the scholarship of Carol Rose, this article synthesizes research to date from an ongoing book project on the history of drinking water. Using a case study approach, we journey on a wide-ranging geographical and historical tour, briefly exploring drinking water management in societies across five continents, from 5,000 years ago up through today. Along the route, we find that something as seemingly simple as drinking water washes clear a society's views toward the role of government, norms, and the market.

Suggested Citation

Salzman, James E., Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water. Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Vol. 17, No. 3, March 2006, Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 92, Available at SSRN:

James E. Salzman (Contact Author)

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management ( email )

4670 Physical Sciences North
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-5131
United States

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

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