Water and History

Categorie(s): Food for Mankind, Human history and the environment, Population, thematic lessons, Water


Water for people – through the ages

There is plenty of water on earth, but fresh water is rare. Humans are depending on fresh water, personally, but also especially for the production of food. Most human settlements were traditionally started near rivers. Today most cities are still situated along rivers.


Assignment 1

Make a list of big cities combined with the river on which they are situated (look especially for old cities). Find out how old cities not situated on a riverside organised their water supply.

The old civilisations developed mostly in tropical and subtropical regions. The cities were usually situated on riversides, but the food production had to happen in more or less dry areas. Or did it rain more in or around Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Mexico, Cusco in those years? Try to find information about the climate in those years.

Irrigation system in Afghanisatn

Assignment 2

Find out how much rain was and is falling in (one of) these regions – and about irrigation methods used than and now – preferably partly also by making contact with students in those regions.
Try to answer questions like:
• Did it rain more in the historical ‘golden age’ of the region?
• Which crops were grown?
• Do these plants need a lot of water?
• How was irrigation done?
• When, why and how did this civilisation decline?
• How are things now in the region (which crops mainly, what sort of irrigation, water problems)?
• What is still visible of the historical culture in the region? (The footprint of the population of those years)

Tips for the teacher
a Distribute the regions over small groups of students. In this way the class can get an overall picture of the problem.
b. Choose one region and distribute the questions over the groups; the class can make a common study of one region.
c. When you use this lesson in an exchange program with students in an other country, you can ask your students to study the water history of your own country and develop material to inform the students in the partner country. For instance Dutch students could find out how people in their country dealt with the oversupply of water in their country in historical times

Highly developed cultures have disappeared after centuries of prosperity. Partly politically caused but certainly also from ecological causes like deforestation, salination or lack of water.
Many places where great populations were living, are now deserts or semi deserts, where only few people can live. This is especially the case in the Middle East, Northern India and the west of South America
The ‘sustainable footprint’ of these peoples: bare land with little rain, with ruins of cities and fortifications where archaeologists can enjoy themselves in the heat of the day…

Subterranean irrigation system in China


Assignment 3

Choose one of these areas and find out which influence human activity has had on the landscape to-day .

In some of these areas people have developed sustainable systems to keep water available for centuries and even thousands of years. In Persia (now Iran) the water was transported in subterranean canals. In the Negev desert (Israel) a number of cities existed and were fed by local agriculture. This was possible because they had a brilliant system to collect and keep the rainwater in subterranean cisterns. This system survived for 1700 years.

Israël now uses the water from Lake Tiberias for their watersupply – this has made the river Jordan very small. They also use subterranean aquifers which will be empty in time.

In countries where they are using these aquifers faster than rainfall can refill them (USA, Israel, Spain and others), people are making a very negative footprint which has the form of drought in the future. When population and agriculture keep growing and the aquifers are empty, what can be done?

Assignment 4

Taking water from subterranean reservoirs can not go on endlessly. They are not renewable resources
Find information about solutions: desalination of seawater? Transporting Icebergs?
Think of other possibilities and find out if they exist already. (Perhaps you can design something for the designing competition on this site).
Perhaps people will have to learn to use other crops, like desert plants (see theme Desert Plants on this site).

N.B. the next assignments belong to the case “Desert Plants” They can also be used here to make students conscious of the fact that their daily life is connected with these problems.

In southern Spain, Canary Isles and other regions there is nowadays intensive agriculture under plastic, where enormous amounts of tomatoes, bananas, and vegetables are produced.
The plastic greenhouses make more harvests per year possible. The water for irrigation is pumped up from deep layers. This can cause a drying up of the areas in the future

The system attracts also workers, partly living illegally in the region. But without them the production would be impossible.
The use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer can cause other problems.
The system is not sustainable, both from an ecological and a social viewpoint.
Why does it still work? (for the time being)
People in the richer countries must be fed. They want to be able to buy cheap fruit and vegetables throughout the year and they want tropical and subtropical products. City people don’t know the seasons anymore in their eating habits.
By eating tomatoes from Spain, bananas from Tenerife, avocado’s from Israel, green beans from Ethiopia northern Europeans keep this unsustainable system alive.
But the people over there also need their income…
(For the America’s and Asia you can fill in other countries for the same problem)

Assignment 5

a. How much of the fruit and veggies you eat comes from that type of horticulture?
Ask in the supermarket or shop where your family buys food, where the veggies and fruit on the shelves came from, how they have been transported and how long they have been in transit.
b. In this way you can do research on your own footprint in other parts of the world. How sustainable is your personal footprint? What can you do to make it more sustainable?
c. Find out which products from your own country could be used instead.
d. We must not forget the people who must earn their living in that type of agri- and horticulture. How could employment in those regions be promoted in an sustainable manner?

Desert agriculture like in the theme DESERT PLANTS could be a possibility to grow food in a dry climate without damaging the local ecology too much
You could call this ‘working with the ecology’ in stead of working against the ecology – like growing crops needing much water in dry areas

Assignment 6

Working in groups, (possibly international by using e-mail discussions) you can gather information, discuss, research possibilities of agriculture working ‘with ecology’. (This could mean edible cactuses in the desert, but also species needing much water grown in wet places, products that cannot be kept for long, grown near population centres etc).