Researchers help to restore ancient irrigation systems

Climate change and unsustainable farming methods are causing desertification and migration worldwide, but university researchers and students are looking to the past to help grow crops and revive community practices to bring productivity back to barren land.

One day later this year Carmen Aguiló Rivera (22), an archaeology student at the University of Granada, is planning to wake around 6 am and make her way with her group to help clean 1,000-year-old irrigation channels, known in Spain as acequias.

With a pick or shovel in hand, she will work alongside local farmers and an expected 100 or more volunteers – including students from the Complutense University of Madrid and the International University of Andalusia – on a project that aims to bring the cultivation of crops back to life.

And at the end of the day Carmen will break bread and share a glass of wine with the agricultural workers, as she has done many times before.

“I hope to specialise in hydrology, but what I love about this is that it is collaborative work. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction,” she says.

Noelia Jiménez Jiménez (21), also studying archaeology at the university, agrees.

“We have received a great welcome and have been able to fully enter the community and learn about their problems,” she says. “They understand both the economic and social issues, and are very appreciative of what we do.”

Carmen and Noelia form a part of the University of Granada’s MEMOLab (Laboratorio de Arqueología Biocultural) scheme, supported by local and European funding, to restore water systems in the Alpujarra mountains in Spain’s Sierra Nevada.

The systems were originally constructed by Arabs to promote agricultural diversity when they inhabited this land.

“The Islamic agricultural revolution was the first green revolution. They brought together techniques and knowledge about water, soil, plants and also how snow behaves,” explains José María Martín Civantos, professor of archaeology at the university.

Community involvement

However, after the 17th century Spanish ‘Reconquest’, the system gradually fell into disuse as the skills and techniques to maintain it were gradually lost. Also lost was respect for traditional methods and farming communities that used ‘simple’ methods to survive and thrive.

Without human intervention, when storms arrive or the mountain snow melts, the water simply runs away. The acequia system, however, enables locals to control the water flow and ‘soak the mountain’ so that it can be stored in aquifers, which are rocks and sediments that hold groundwater in empty spaces underground.

While the system is sustainable, efficient and requires little technology, it does need people to maintain it, and any intervention needs to involve local participation. “It raises issues of local ecological knowledge, governance and policy,” says Civantos.

“People don’t believe peasant farmers could devise anything this complex,” he continues. “The Romans built aqueducts and other waterworks, but it was always for the glory of the state. This work was done so ordinary people could survive.

“Recovering this system – which began in Cáñar in the Alpujarras in 2014 – involves recognising an important part of our heritage. Every year the dams have to be raised, galleries, springs and ponds have to be cleared and, above all, the irrigation ditches have to be cleaned.

“Muslim Spain was primarily an agrarian society. You can’t understand the glory of Córdoba or Granada without it.”

Global initiatives

Civantos points out that similar initiatives are being developed in a number of Latin American countries, including Peru, as well as in highly advanced states such as California, where modern irrigation approaches no longer function.

“We also know of some examples to recover irrigation systems in Iran, Switzerland, Austria, oases in the Sahara Desert in Tunisia, and the area around Milan in Italy, with the recovery of traditional irrigated pastures linked to the rich tradition of Grana Padano cheese,” he says.

In Peru the Inca irrigation system originally came from the Spanish, according to Dr Daniele Zaccaria, associate professor in agricultural water management for cooperative extension at the University of California, Davis.

Now, Peruvian teams are recovering amunas (irrigation channels) in the Sierra de Lima.

“There are different experiences [in Peru] of amunas recovery, such as the channels in: Huamantanga in the upper basin of the Chillon river, Canta province; San Pedro de Casta in the basin of the Rímac river, sub-basin Santa Eulalia, Huarochirí province; and San Andrés de Tupicocha in the upper basin of the Lurín River, Huarochirí province,” Javier Antiporta, of iMHEA-CONDESAN (the Regional Hydrological Ecosystem Monitoring Initiative), National Agrarian University La Molina, Lima, told University World News.

“They are all being restored via an ancestral technique that increases the water supply during dry months.”

Back in Spain, more than 80 kilometres of irrigation ditches have now been recovered, involving over 1,500 people.

“The next one we hope to restore is the Aynadamar, which supplied water to the Albayzín [district] and the city of Granada from at least the 11th century until the 1980s,” says Civantos. “Working together creates community and there are celebrations afterwards, with good food and wine. One is as important as the other.”