Irrigation history

When you water your patio plants, you likely grab your watering can and fill it form a convenient hose nozzle. Or maybe you water them directly from the hose. Whether it’s from house water, a local canal, or even well water, when you need to water your yard, the steps you take are straightforward. However, there’s a huge history of irrigation long-before the hose we know today. I’d like to look at some of those more unique and

It won’t come as a surprise that the history of irrigation doesn’t start with hoses.

Lake Moeris and Flood Irrigation 

Around 5000 years ago, in 3100 BC, Egypt’s First Dynasty was under the ruling of King Menses. During his rein he began the creating the first major irrigation project for crops by creating the Lake Moeris. The man-made lake was fashioned to take advantage of the seasons when the Nile flooded. Each year, the Nile River flooded lower pastures, so the Ancient Egyptians created dams and canals to trap the flooded water. The excess water was routed throughout the fields of the grains and food crops via canals. The lake no longer exists as it did in the past, but it was used for over a thousand years. While it was in use, there were many developments of irrigation along the way. Now, it’s become a highly salinized lake, known as Birket Qarun, where tilapia and other salt-water fish thrive.


The Shadoof

Around 700 BC Egypt, as well as the area of Meospotamia, began utilizing the Shadoof, a method of irrigation in which a bucket is on the end of a tall crossbeam, with a counter weight on the other side. The shadoof bucket would be lowered into the river, then raised by implementing the counter weight, swinging the bucket into a separate canal.  This meant that higher land could still be irrigated, despite the fact it was above the flood level.  Similarly, the Egyptians went on to create and use the Water Wheel, the first irrigation tool that didn’t require human labor to function correctly.

Drip Irrigation in China

Drip irrigation has to be relatively recent, right? Not exactly. While they certainly didn’t require backflow prevention devices, the Chinese used a form of drip irrigation around 100 BC. Farmers filled un-glazed clay pots with water and buried. (Similar to this idea.) The water would slowly leach out into the soil around it, providing the plant roots with water, just as traditional drip irrigation does today.

Archimedes ScrewArchimedes_screw

Around 250 BC the Archimedes Screw was developed by Greek engineers. Some argue that Archimedes created it himself, while others believe it simply happened to be developed during his lifetime. The irrigating contraption uses a large tube, with a screw-like device inside. The lower piece is submerged into a body of water. As the screw turns inside, the water is pushed out the top–typically into a canal.  This allowed water to be moved to higher ground, but it required someone to turn it by hand.


Roman Aqueducts

600 years after the Archimedes Screw was first used came the amazing Roman Aqueducts. While the Romans weren’t the first to use aqueducts and canals, they evolved and perfected the Aqueduct Process. The longest known Aqueduct from the Roman Empire was a length of 60 mile, serving 8 cities at the time. Instead of focusing on one area, the architecture and creation of the aqueducts allowed such large amounts of water to be transported across the land.  This was the first major change in how cities could be established; it was no longer necessary for people to rely on irrigation from flood plains, or living relatively close to a river to water their crops.



Over the last 100 years, irrigation has evolved dramatically.  From the loud impact sprinkler of 1933 (and still regularly used for kids to run through on a hot summer day!) to  the Center Pivot of 1949 (which allowed irrigation to be mobile) to the Advancement of Fertigation, irrigation has continually made interesting strides.

Perhaps my favorite advancement in irrigation is that of irrigation software. Whether it’s just scheduling your drip irrigation to turn on at a certain time, or have the software automatically adjust how long to water based on the rain forecast for that day, there is an abundance of ways to have technology help out how you irrigate. If you’re heading out of town for a week, you no longer need to find a neighbor kid that will water your plants for ten bucks–just use a phone app to turn the water on and off. (As kids, my sisters and I were often “hired” to check on my neighbors plants. Inevitably there was one we’d forget completely. I don’t think we were the first choice of the neighborhood.)

Today there are entire trade-shows and conventions focused solely on irrigation.  With water become scarcer, irrigation will only continue to advance to become even more effective. As population increases, so does the necessity to grow produce effectively–and you can count on irrigation advancement being a huge part of this.

Irrigation history

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