Water flowing through time

Updated: Aug 13

Community care of our water resources, lessons from centuries past.

Entrance to Huétor Vega, near Granada in Spain
Entrance to Huétor Vega, near Granada in Spain

We lived on the south-eastern edge of Granada, Spain, in a beautiful village called Huétor Vega which sits 744 metres above sea level. The climate was not easy: some classify it as Temperate-Mediterranean and others as Continental, at any rate, unless there is shade from a large tree and a great deal of inactivity the summers were unbearably hot and even more so now.

At the time we were in temporary accommodation, my garden therapy was restricted to a small terrace that felt hotter than a pizza oven, it was more than I could bear. I had a drastic solution, I decided to rent an over-large huerto (allotment) in the lower part of the village. It was October and the autumn winds brought a rich smell of rain, but the 850-metre plot still blazed in the sun, I was only armed with tonnes of naïve enthusiasm. The owner, Rafael, a gentle villager who had worked the land all his life, was bemused by this guiri (foreigner) who intended to grow bulbs on his land but without regularly watering them

Horses, mules and donkeys used to plough the allotment furrows
A villager ploughing the furrows in Huétor Vega

The plot was flat but it had to be tilled and given furrows that would run down from the entrance where the irrigation channel entered. I was lent a traditional metal hole that had a curve in the handle and so I began making the ditches by hand. After a sweaty morning and some maths I realized it would take about two weeks just to dig the furrows, so I resorted to mechanical methods, although I would have loved to have worked with one of the local horses.

Furrows dug for irrigation water from the acequia
Furrows dug for irrigation water from the acequia

There were no hoses or electrical pumps, Rafael showed me how to water the land by hand. First, the furrows that were not to be watered at all had to be blocked at the entrance with mounds of soil. If any of the planted furrows needed an extra soaking, the water's advance could be slowed by smaller heaps of soil in the dip of each furrow. When all was ready, three small sluice gates were opened by turning heavy cogs; it was then I realized that I was being shown techniques centuries old that had been passed down through many generations.

Concreted manhole cover access to Acequia de la Estrella

The acequia (irrigation channel) that I used was called the Acequia Del Zute, it runs a 1,630 metres course from a larger irrigation channel known as the Acequia De La Estrella. Over the years, some of the horticultural land has been taken over by asphalt, but before much of it disappeared under concrete the Acequia Del Zute was used to water 20 hectares of land.

Sluice gates Acequia del Zute, Huétor Vega, Spain

As I dug further into the history of the village a sense of wonder and fragility began invading the way I saw the surrounding landscape. The only river into the village, Rio Monachil, flows from the Sierra Nevada mountains; if you look up along this river valley, the many huertos that are dotted along the fluvial terraces provide a verdant scene that is becoming ever more precious.

View of Monachill Valley near Granada, Andalucia
Monachill valley looking east towards Sierra Nevada

It is still so green because it is a living tribute to the hydraulic skills that began more than 1000 years ago. The sluices I opened which brought water from the Acequia Del Zute were made by the Moors probably no later than the 12th century. Although most of the original records were destroyed after the Catholic Monarch’s conquest of the Moors in 1492, the acequias in the village were again registered as Muslim in origin and publicly documented in 1572. Since then and up until 1960 all the fresh water in the village had come from two street wells and the acequias, five in all, linking the village to the fresh water from the mountains, in 1960 the first modern drinking water system was installed.

One of the five main irrigation channels ran through the upper hills of the village. It was named Acecolilla and was built by the Romans, who also constructed a Roman bridge to carry the highest channel over a gully (Barranco De la Culebra) across the eastern slopes. This feat of hydraulic engineering would have been later improved by the Jewish community which had settled in and around Granada, and then completed by the Moors. The Acecolilla had to comprise difficult changes in level, but it was designed with a 3% gradual slope that eventually ran a full 5 kilometres until it reached the edge of the city of Granada. At this time the village was called Veschi and was part of the Roman colony of Betica. Even then, the area was recognised for its productive land and named the ciudad florida, or city full of flowers.

In the hot, sometimes unpredictable Mediterranean climate, water, the crucial raw element of life -has to be managed well. The Muslim conquerors who first came to Spain in 711 by the way of Morocco were Arab male soldiers originating from Medina and Damascus. Accompanying them were also North African Berber converts, together they formed an army with a distant heritage. Their religion, Islam, had been born amongst the nomadic desert tribes who not only understood the vital importance of water, but who also believed in the important symbolic religious purification that water provided, as specified in the Koran.

This knowledge and belief came with them to Spain and over several centuries inspired the building of magnificent monuments and the creation of rural communities whose social practices were deeply interwoven with the irrigation and maintenance of their land, even though most of it was managed by the Mosques or owned by nobles. The basic use of water and the rules of irrigation were passed down through the community and were adhered to by all inhabitants so that their irrigated agriculture would not fail. Their water systems were so closely built around the land and their crops that the law seemed ecological in origin rather than derived from a cultural standpoint.

Great effort was needed from the whole community to ensure that the hydraulic infrastructure was cleaned and maintained, and the sharing of water regulated. This consensus not only occurred within each small community but also between each alquería (farmstead); moreover, a consensus between clans was usually reached because the artificial irrigation system was regulated by Islamic law. Each family that owned or farmed a piece of land had a turn in taking water from the acequia; this turn was measured either in time or by volume. If by time, the divisions of the day were marked by the five periods of Islamic prayer, which in turn were regulated by the position of the sun and the length of the shadows it produced.

After the conquest of the Moors these rules and customs were taken over and adapted by the Christians, who then wrote them down as laws governing the use of the irrigation water. These are the rules that are still used by the villagers today: in real terms this governs on which day and at what hour you can open the sluice gate to your huerto and for how long.

Olives, vines and herbs grown on the hills of Huétor Vega
Olives, vines and herbs grown on the hills of Huétor Vega

The crops grown by the Moors are the same fruits and vegetables that you can see growing in the village today, the Mediterranean diet here is of Arabic origin.

Silk worm on my hand who had been fed on Mulberry leaves
Silk worm we named Snowy who had been fed from local Mulberry leaves

Many of the plants first introduced by the Moors came from their trading routes through Persia, Syria and even from as far as China, whence the silkworm was imported along with the need to grow Mulberry trees. Fruit trees such as Apples, cherries, pairs, lemons, limes and oranges were grown and in between them vegetables such as artichokes, aubergines, cabbages, spinach, turnips, green and white beans, as well as melons and watermelons. There were also many aromatic plants, for example jasmine, lavender, myrtle, roses violets, daffodils and lilies with saffron and laurel. To dye clothes they had plants such as dyers’ madder (Rubia tinctoria) for shades of red and pink, and safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) for the production of yellow dye.

Grapes growing on the hills of Huétor Vega
Grapes grown without irrigation on Huétor Vega hillsides

In the areas of soil that could be reached by irrigation, the land was not used unless absolutely necessary. However, crops such as vines, which were probably introduced by the Romans, were planted on the drier hillsides to produce table grapes, currants and vinegar. In the village this is still practised, and a delicious local wine is also produced.

Of the 5 acequias that once flowed like arteries through the village, only stretches of some of them can still be seen flowing through the open land. Many metres of them are now hidden underground below concrete, modern housing and roads, so the trees and plants which once grew along them have been removed or dried up. Fortunately, the tradition and love of owning an allotment is still very much alive in the village and, for the moment, this prevents some of the horticultural land from being sold for development.

This living landscape is fragile indeed. Only 10 minutes away in another village, a recently built golf course surrounded by expensive houses took an overly large share of the water supply, hence many of the villagers lacked water for several hours per day while water was diverted to the golf course to try and keep it green and attractive to house buyers. Travelling a little further south towards Motril, where a dam was built to supply water for the tourism on the Costa Tropical (and more golf courses) has meant the capturing of vital streams and acequias, while the Alpujarran valleys above and the surrounding vegetation has dried out.

When we lived there, I wondered how long this beautiful village would hold onto its precious parcels of land with an incredible agricultural heritage. This week speaking to a close Spanish friend still living near the village, she told me how many of the trees are dying due to unprecedented heat. Sadly, the acorns we planted and watered until they grew into small trees in the local forest may not have survived. Centuries of care and irrigation know-how cannot cope with the rapidly increasing climate change challenges without revitalising community care, a change in modern, wasteful water habits and a rapid reduction in fossil fuel use. The soil there was so rich it was as inviting as chocolate cake, it has supported bountiful harvests throughout many centuries of tilling and careful water management, I really hope that we have the desire and motivation to protect the land and our precious water resources so that it can continue, wherever we may reside.

This is an edited version of my article which was written for the printed journal - The Mediterranean Garden No 48, April 2007, a short overview is now in the archives: http://www.mediterraneangardensocietyarchive.org/48-flowing.html