17th JUNE 2022.
In the context of the climate crisis, the drought warnings in Spain are clear. According to the government, 74% of the country is at risk of desertification because of climate reasons, and it is not because it rains less. Overall, the difference in the amount of rainfall is not remarkable, but the intensity and the fact that it falls in less time. On the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, we recall a water management system from a thousand years ago: Ditches in Granada
In southern Spain, it is Sierra Nevada, a sheer mountain chain where it is the highest summit in the Iberian Peninsula, Mulhacen -3479m. In the VIII century, Muslims in Al-Andalus developed ditches in Granada´s mountains as an ancient nature-based solution to water its field. They built a canal network with dams and pools, still in use at many points. It canalises water from the ice melting through canals carved in the rock to filter it down through the mountain, which comes from water sources hundreds of feet below.
It delays the water inside the mountain and stocks it as long as possible to have water in Summer. “As the farmers say, they entertain the water”, Jose María Civantos, Professor of History and mediaeval archaeology at The University of Granada, tells us. “It was an innovative and complex system thought and built by the countryside people.”
It might have been Roman precedents, but the main contribution from the Muslim world in the VIII century was the way of management. The water rights were linked to the land, not the owner, and the farmers belong to irrigation communities that agree on water use.
The canal management and its maintenance were a shared duty. Traditionally, owners shall participate in the cleaning tasks or hire someone to do it on their behalf. This management style supports the community feeling. Unfortunately, Civantos regrets, “This model is ending because of cultural and social changes and the loss of community feeling.
The current value of the ditches
Although there is no exact figure, MEMOlab calculates that only in Granada and Almería are around 550 irrigation communities with more than 90,000 land owners, and they move the water across 15,000 miles of ditches. Therefore, in 2014, MEMOlab started a scheme for recovering and maintaining the ditches in Granada.
Those historical gutters have many benefits for the ecosystem which are not recognised. “They are natural corridors and blue and green infrastructure. Those are examples of ancient nature-based solutions”. It supports biodiversity as a drinking place for animals and expands humidity for plants. Furthermore, it works as a firewall in an area that suffers tens of wildfires each summer.
Climate change affects us all, but mainly those who work with nature. However, the main risk for the ditches in Granada is the land use, “mostly because of the intensive agriculture,” Civantos complains. He names the over-exploitation of the underground aquifers as the main reason for draughting small rivers and natural springs. “We are drying the humidity in the soil and killing them of thirst. Moreover, we poison it with fertilisers and chemicals”.
Without ditches, there is no agriculture. It could be substituted with a modern water system for intensive agriculture with its negative environmental impact. Ditches have proved as sustainable and resilient water systems through the centuries. It has created a specific landscape feature key to secure our past and guarantee our future.