Photo/Illutration A bridge that collapsed Oct. 3 once supplied water to the northern part of Wakayama city in Wakayama Prefecture. (Satoru Ogawa)

Ruins of massive Roman aqueducts, built to supply water to cities from distant sources, still stand today in countries across Europe that were once territories of the Roman Empire.

When I first gazed at one of those monumental sites, I muttered to myself in awe, “Why on earth did the Romans build such extraordinary structures just to convey water?”

That question revealed my lamentable ignorance. I mean, I had never imagined what life could be like without running water.

In truth, Japan's old capital of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) could not have existed in the absence of technology that enabled the installation of an extensive underground network of wooden water pipes.

Those extraordinary structures still function today, underground as well above ground, supporting our daily lives.

But their deterioration due to age is a matter of grave concern.

According to an Asahi Shimbun report, 40 years is the statutory lifespan of water pipes, but about 17 percent of the existing pipes are now older than that. The primary reason is a shortage of repair funds due to the nation's shrinking population, which translates into less water service revenue.

I was recently alarmed by the Oct. 3 collapse of a bridge into a river in Wakayama Prefecture. The bridge carried pipes that supplied water to the city of Wakayama, where 60,000 households had no running water for a week.

This reminded me acutely of the extent to which the daily lives of many people can depend on just one bridge.

Philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960) wrote in his seminal work “Fudo” that having the ability to provide running water was what enabled the Roman empire to build metropolises, whereas ancient Greece, which existed long before Rome came into being, did not attempt this feat and its cities remained smaller in scale.

The history of civilization progressed in step with population growth and the development of water services. 

But depopulation will not change the fact that water supply will always remain a lifeline.

It was said in the past that “the Japanese people think water and safety are free.”

But today, scraping together funds has become an urgent task if we are to keep using water.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 25     

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.