The Modern-Day Miniature Cistern

This week’s blog post was written by Caroline Cummings, WCO intern and advocate for rainwater collection.

The history of rainwater collection 

The history of rainwater collection dates back to almost 3,000 years ago.  In ancient times, cities used cisterns to collect rainwater for their water supply. Rainwater collection was not just a hobby or a way to save money–it was a way of life! Without modern-day plumbing, societies relied on rainwater collection for survival. Rainwater collection took on many forms back then.

In the Middle East, for example, the armies would use the desert to their advantage and hide cisterns under the sandy grounds carved out of solid rock. With their secret stashes of rainwater throughout the desert, they could hide in remote and undisclosed regions with no fear of any invading enemies, with the surrounding desert acting as a deadly fortress. This allowed them to defeat armies who had no secret underground water supply.

Humeima 011

Cistern in desert of Nabatean city of Humeima 

The Basilica Cistern of Istanbul (known as Constantinople back in the day), Turkey, was originally built as a center for commerce, legal affairs, and art, and was thought to have contained a luxurious garden within its walls. It was eventually transformed into the most famous cistern in the world, but many features of its initial uses remain. As a cistern, it not only provided water to the Great Palace of Constantinople, but provided filtered water; this was one of the world’s first water filtration systems.


Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey

Rain barrels

In the early 20th century, water collection took on its latest form: the rain barrel. Barrels were initially filled with wine, whiskey or oils, but beginning in the 1900s their use included filling them with all sorts of materials, including china, grain, manufactured goods and even gold for shipping across the oceans and continents. Eventually someone thought to collect rain inside of it, thus inventing the modern-day miniature cistern a.k.a. the rain barrel.

Wine barrels

The original rain barrel used for transportation, specifically of wine in this photo

Rain barrels are now used widely across our country as a means for collecting excess rain runoff from roofs and provide many homes with the water they use to water plants, wash cars, and even sometimes flush toilets. Rain barrels can also help minimize stormwater runoff, which helps reduce stormwater pollution.

Like the cisterns, rain barrels can take on forms of their own. Here in Athens-Clarke Country, partnered up with the Stormwater division, you can build your own rain barrel at a rain barrel workshop and start collecting water ASAP. Visit ACC Rain Barrel Program to find out more; the website also has information on where to purchase a rain barrel in the ACC area and instructions on how to build your own at home. Once you have your barrel, there are many ways to personalize it for your home. Brighten Up Your Rain Barrel has some easy-to-follow instructions on how to paint your barrel however you’d like.

buidling rain barrel

ACC locals participating in a rain barrel workshop

Interested in a professionally painted rain barrel and/or supporting local art and environmental education? Be sure to attend the Water Conservation Office’s Roll Out The Barrels event on May 26th at Southern Brewing Company. An auction of rain barrels painted by local artists will occur from 5-8pm in support of Athens Green Schools program. Click here to read more: Roll Out The Barrels.


Did you know?

  • The EPA estimates that using a rain barrel can save up to 1,300 gallons of water in the summer months, when outdoor water usage accounts for almost 40% of all household water.
  • You should not use water collected in rain barrels for drinking or watering plants you intend to eat
  • In Colorado, rain barrels are illegal!



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