Irrigation: Ancient Sumer to the Modern West

Reflections on Chapter 2, Farming in Ancient Times, “Farm; A Multimodal Reader”

While reading Farming in Ancient Times, I was struck by the similarities to other culture’ techniques. I was fascinated by hearing about how the Summarian farmers prepared their fields for cultivation. They used, “dikes, ditches, and mounds,” to flood the fields with life-giving water. 

This was intriguing to me because many farming cultures throughout time and at various locations around the world have utilized a similar system. For instance the acequia system of New Mexican is a community-wide irrigation system that uses dikes, ditches and mounds to feed water from the streams to the various land holdings. The acequias were brought to the New World by the Spanish when they colonized what is now called New Mexico. The Spanish had originally learned how to the acequia system of irrigation from the Moore’s of Northern Africa who had immigrated to Spain. The Moore’s may have historical roots to the original Summarians. In New Mexico the acequia watering system is still used today.

Variations of ditch irrigation systems can be found found all over the world. Even in Utah, many communities use ditch and flood irrigation to water fields and home landscapes. In Moab, for instance, the Moab Irrigation Company was established before the incorporation of the Town of Moab. In the high desert, you must have your water systems before almost anything else. The process for this irrigation system is that water is gravity diverted from Mill Creek, the local creek that runs through town, the water flows through the roadside gutters until the water reaches the fields or yards of people who hold water shares. The water then flows through openings in the curb and runs into ditches where the water is distributed in various ways to water the land.

I know this because earlier this spring, my friends and I began a garden project with utilizes a Moab Irrigation water share. Our project, the CommuniTea Garden, is a public water harvesting demonstration site, park, and meeting space. Every five days, our water share is available and as it flows down the gutter, we open up a little door in the curb and allow the water to rush into our garden, where indented, rock-lined swale systems use gravity to distribute the water slowly through the garden. The water that percolates outward, through capillary action in the soil, nourishes the many grasses, herbs, fruit trees, and shrubs planted in the garden, as well as slowly returns the irrigation water back to Mill Creek via the soil and is returned to the watershed cleaned of any residue it may have picked up during the water’s trip through the streets.

When we water the garden, people always stop to watch the process of channeling water through the garden. Watching the water slowly creep through the rock-lined ditches until it reaches capacity and begins its overflow to the next yard over, is a visually beautiful process and touches on something ancient and ingrained in us. To interact with water, soil, and plant life in a positive way, is what our species has been doing for millennia. When reading the ancient Sumerian text describing their watering and cultivation system, I felt a new connection to the land workers of the past. These time tested irrigation practices have served humans for thousands of years, and when done correctly, can help distribute water resources in a way that extends the possibilities of cultivation to greater regions.

Their gods, are analogous to the gods that have been invoked in many cultures as humans gave gratitude for the opportunity to cultivate and to pray to fate, nature, God, that their seeds and labor would reap a bountiful harvest. Agriculture is dependent on compatible environmental conditions what are out of the hands of humans. In ancient times, and still today, our agriculture depends on the correct conditions to see the crops through to harvest. There is so much that the earth provides to us for free, a concept called ecosystem services. These services are based in the vast interconnections that provide life. The soil microbes, the properties of water, the exact position of the earth from the sun, our human ability to cultivate, work and reason, the miracle of a seeds, all of these things, and more are services but are also called miracles. For these things, I believe, we should all give thanks. And especially for the farmers, land workers and cultivators, whose life is dependents on the daily services of nature, there are many reasons to praise and invoke whichever deity gives the structure to the miracle associated with food production.


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