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 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
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Aqueduct, (Latin: aqua + ducere, “to lead water”) man-made conduit for carrying water. In
a restricted sense, aqueducts are structures used to conduct a water stream across a
hollow or valley. In modern engineering, however, aqueduct refers to a system of pipes,
ditches, canals, tunnels, and supporting structures used to convey water from its source to
its main distribution point. Such systems generally are used to supply cities and
agricultural lands with water. Aqueducts have been important particularly for the
development of areas with limited direct access to freshwater sources. Historically,
aqueducts helped keep drinking water free of human waste and other contamination and
thus greatly improved public health in cities with primitive sewerage systems.

The aqueduct at Querétaro city, Mex.W.H. Hodge

Although the Romans are considered the greatest aqueduct builders of the ancient
world, qanātsystems were in use in ancient Persia, India, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern
countries hundreds of years earlier. Those systems utilized tunnels tapped into hillsides
that brought water for irrigation to the plains below. Somewhat closer in appearance to
the classic Roman structure was a limestoneaqueduct built by the Assyrians about
691 BCE to bring fresh water to the city of Nineveh. Approximately two million large
blocks were used to make a water channel 10 metres (30 feet) high and 275 metres (900
feet) long across a valley.
aqueduct: JerusalemLearn how a tunnel aqueduct helped Jerusalem withstand a
Babylonian siege for more than a year in the 6th century BCE.Contunico © ZDF Enterprises
GmbH, Mainz
The elaborate system that served the capital of the Roman Empire, remains a major
engineering achievement. Over a period of 500 years—from 312 BCE to 226 CE—11
aqueducts were built to bring water to Rome from as far away as 92 km (57 miles). Some
of those aqueducts are still in use. Only a portion of Rome’s aqueduct system actually
crossed over valleys on stone arches (50 km out of a total of about 420 km); the rest
consisted of underground conduits made mostly of stone and terra-cottapipe but also
of wood, leather, lead, and bronze. Water flowed to the city by the force of gravity alone
and usually went through a series of distribution tanks within the city. Rome’s famous
fountains and baths were supplied in that way. Generally, water was not stored, and the
excess was used to flush out sewers to aid the city’s sanitation.

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain.Goodshoot/Thinkstock

Roman aqueducts were built throughout the empire, and their arches may still be seen
in Greece, Italy, France, Spain, North Africa, and Asia Minor. As central authority fell apart
in the 4th and 5th centuries, the systems also deteriorated. For most of the Middle Ages,
aqueducts were not used in western Europe, and people returned to getting their water
from wells and local rivers. Modest systems sprang up around monasteries. By the 14th
century, Brugge, with a large population for the time (40,000), had developed a system
utilizing one large collecting cistern from which water was pumped, using a wheel with
buckets on a chain, through underground conduits to public sites.

Caesarea: Roman aqueduct Ruins of the Roman aqueduct at Caesarea. Ian and Wendy
Major advances in public water systems since the Renaissance have involved the
refinement of pumps and of pipe materials. By the late 16th century, London had a system
that used five waterwheel pumps fastened under the London Bridge to supply the city,
and Paris had a similar device at Pont Neuf that can deliver 450 litres (120 gallons) per
minute. Both cities were compelled to bring water from greater distances in the next
century. A private company built an aqueduct to London from the River Chadwell, some
60 km (38 miles) distant, that utilized more than 200 small bridges built of timber. A
French counterpart combined pumps and aqueducts to bring water from Marly over a
ridge and into an aqueduct some 160 metres (525 feet) above the Seine.
One of the major innovations during the 18th and 19th centuries was the introduction of
steam pumps and the improvement of pressurized systems. One benefit of pumping
water under pressure was that a system could be built that followed the contours of the
land; the earlier free-flowing systems had to maintain certain gradients over varied
terrain. Pressurization created the need for better pipe material. Wood pipes banded with
metal and protected with asphalt coating were patented in the United States in 1855.
Before long, however, wood was replaced first by cast iron and then by steel. For large
water mains (primary feeders), reinforced concrete became the
preferred construction material early in the 20th century. Ductile iron, a stronger and
more elastic type of cast iron, is one of the most common materials now used for smaller
underground pipes (secondary feeders), which supply water to local communities.
Saint-Clément AqueductThe Saint-Clément Aqueduct in Montpellier, France. The
aqueduct was designed by Henri Pitot in the late 18th century. © Durluby/Fotolia
Modern aqueducts, although lacking the arched grandeur of those built by the Romans,
greatly surpass the earlier ones in length and in the amount of water they can carry.
Aqueduct systems hundreds of miles long have been built to supply growing urban areas
and crop-irrigation projects. The water supply of New York City comes from three main
aqueduct systems that can deliver about 6.8 billion litres (1.8 billion gallons) of water a
day from sources up to 190 km (120 miles) away. The aqueduct system in the state
of California is by far the longest in the world. The California Aqueduct convers water
about 700 km (440 miles) from the northern (wetter) part of the state into the southern
(drier) part, yielding more than 2.5 billion litres (650 million gallons) of water a day.