Irrigation began at about the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia (present day Iraq and Iran) using the water of the flooding Nile or Tigris/Euphrates rivers.
The flood waters, which occurred July through December, were diverted to fields for 40 to 60 days. The water was then drained back into the river at the right moment in the growing cycle.
Water Level Measurement
The annual flood season along the Nile was unpredictable without records, so the Egyptians created a flood gauge called the Nilometer.
The simplest design was a vertical column submerged in the river with marked intervals indicating the depth of the river. A second design was a flight of stairs leading into the river.
The nilometer data was then used by the ancient Egyptian priesthood who mystically predicted when the flood would occur.
The first major irrigation project was created under King Menes during Egypt’s First Dynasty.
He and his successors used dams and canals (one measuring 20 km) to use the diverted flood waters of the Nile into a new lake called lake "Moeris."
Cross-section of pipe made with cement and crushed rock by the Romans to carry water.
Similar pipe was used a century ago to carry domestic water into the San Gabriel Valley of California.
Babylonian King Hammurabi; was the first to institute water regulations within his kingdom.
This early code covered:
A) The distribution of water proportionally based on the acres farmed.
B) A farmer’s responsibilities in maintaining canals on his property.
C) The collective administration of the canal by all users
Shaduf / Shadouf / Shadoof
(Shadoof) A large pole balanced on a crossbeam, a rope and bucket on one end and a heavy counter weight at the other. By pulling the rope it lowered the bucket into a canal or river.
The operator would then raise the full bucket of water by pushing down on the counter weight. The pole could be swung around and the bucket emptied in a field or different canal.
This development enabled irrigation when a river wasn’t in flood which meant higher ground could be used for farming.
(Egyptian Water Wheel) A wheel with buckets or clay pots along its circumference, the wheel was turned by the current of the river.
The flow filled buckets by immersion and as it rotated the upper buckets are emptied by gravity into a trough or aqueduct. The empty buckets then returned to be refilled.
The Noria provided the ancient world with its first non-human operated lifting device.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, were created under King Nebuchadnezzar in Mesopotamia.
What is lost to history is how the gardens were watered although it is known they were irrigated.
(Kareze in Mesopotamia) The development of this technique allowed the use of ground water to become the primary source for crop irrigation.
A Qanat was built by first digging a vertical well into sloping ground. Once the well was completed a tunnel was dug nearly horizontal to the lower end of the well. The natural slope would allow well water to travel by gravity down the tunnel and emerge some distance down slope from the well.
Construction of Qanats was labor intensive and vertical openings were placed every 20-30 meters to allow the tunnel diggers to breathe and to remove the debris from the tunnel. Once the tunnel was completed, the area had a constant source of water. Qanats are still in use today and at least 20,000 still operate from China to Morocco.
Persian Water Wheel
(Persian Water Wheel) The first use of what is now called a pump. This device was an endless series of pots on a rope which ran over two pulleys.
The oxen-powered device powered a cogged wheel allowing the pots to enter the water supply, fill and then be raised and emptied.
The Sakia was similar to the Noria except that it was powered by an external force rather than the flow of the river’s current.
While visiting Egypt the Greek scholar Archimedes created this device which consisted of a screw inside a hollow tube.
The screw was turned and as the bottom end of the screw rotated, it scooped up water. The water traveled up the length of the screw until it poured out the top of the tube.
Today the principal is used in transporting granular materials such as plastic granules used in injection molding and in moving cereal grains.
When the first use of a windmill occurred is unknown, although drawings of a water pumping windmill from Persia (current day Iran) exist.
This design had vertical sails made of bundles of reeds or wood which attached to a central vertical shaft.
Irrigated Acreage Worldwide
Irrigated acreage worldwide reaches 19,760,000 acres. This compares with an estimated 600,000,000 acres today.