A 1,000-Year-Old Irrigation System in Spain Is Getting a New Life

A 1,000-Year-Old Irrigation System in Spain Is Getting a New Life
Restoring old irrigation channels in Granada, Spain. (Photo: MEMOLab/ELENA CORREA JIMENEZ)

Researchers in Spain’s arid Southeast are working to restore Islamic-era acequias, canals that form an irrigation system in Andalucia’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

Muslims invaded and ruled Southern Spain in the 8th century, bringing in irrigation techniques that increased the production of different crops like citrus fruits and rice. The Sierra Nevada irrigation system, fed by melted snow and nearby bodies of water, relies on gravity to carry water across large farming areas without the need for external power. The channels that make up the system were dug into the ground and often lined with stones.

Some local farmers still use parts of the system to irrigate crops, but many of the channels are blocked after years of disuse. The Guardian described in a story earlier this month how the system was active into the 20th century, but as the local farming population declined, parts were abandoned. However, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the original builders means the acequias are still poised to sustainably transport water in the area — they just need a little TLC.

Water flowing through a cleared channel.  (Photo: MEMOLab/ELENA CORREA JIMENEZ)Water flowing through a cleared channel. (Photo: MEMOLab/ELENA CORREA JIMENEZ)

Archaeologist José María Martin Civantos, coordinator of MEMOLab at the University of Granada, is helping lead this effort. He sees this project as a testament to how pre-industrial wisdom can be an important tool in managing water resources in the future.

“We want to preserve those landscapes and all the environmental values that they have,” Civantos told Earther. “[This project] empowers the local community and also recovers traditional ecological knowledge… It’s about agrarian policies, environmental policies, and the territorial planning. The idea [behind] the activity is not just the restoration.”

Civantos says efforts to restore the irrigation system by clearing out unused channels began in 2014. Volunteers and university students have worked with locals to restore the hydrological system so that water usage for local farming can become more efficient in the face of increasing droughts.

A Spanish livestock and farming association recently reported that about half of the country’s agriculture will be affected by current droughts, with large impacts to farmers of traditionally rain-fed crops like olives and grapes

“We are in the more arid areas of Europe…it’s something natural in our area. But of course, the effects of climate change are more visible in many ways,” Civantos said. “Desertification is increasing, but it’s not only an effect of climate change, it’s also an effect of land use changes… the over-exploitation of the aquifers.”

In the case of the acequias, Spain’s history has become a tool to help mitigate how climate change will affect the country. The drought has also revealed some of the country’s recent history: After a drier-than-usual winter, the Alto Lindoso reservoir’s water levels dropped to only 15% capacity, revealing the sunken village of Aceredo. The town was intentionally flooded in 1992 after the reservoir was constructed, but with the water now so low, people have been able to once again walk the streets of this ghost town.