People need and use water in many forms. For farming, power, drinking, washing. And homes and cities need a way and a place to send the water after it has been used for all of those purposes, when its name changes to “sewage.” Water can be used for transport and commerce; sometimes it is a barrier as much as an open pathway. It is our skill as a people, working with iron and stone, that determines how useful water can be to us, for all of our uses.

In this slide show of images from the archives of Scientific American, we present some of the ways in which humans use, avoid, or build around, one their most precious commodities.