Over four thousand years ago, the Persians came up with an ingenious method of irrigation known as the qanat. It is a word that its etymological roots in the Arabic qanat, which means ‘channel’. Designed for use in arid regions, the qanat system collected as well as transported water over large distances. This engineering marvel allowed ancient Persians to grow food on ever-larger plots of land.

It was this very engineering marvel that allowed humanity to move from a nomadic lifestyle of hunters and gatherers to a settled society. A long time ago, there was, in essence, no concept of government. We lived in tribes that were essentially large families, and each had a chief or head of a particular lineage or ethnic group. The entire notion of a centralised government that ruled over a collection of states actually started when people developed farming. All the great empires of the ancient world catapulted into existence because they had access to water through irrigation systems.

The ability to transport water from rivers, lakes and ponds and into crop fields was what allowed humans to mitigate and cushion themselves against the inconsistent patterns of rainfall that characterised our existence in hunter-gather societies. These manmade channels and dams started a historical trend that set humanity off on a completely different quest on earth. It was a formative and definitive transition of an early band of humans who no longer wanted to be at the mercy of the seasons.

It was not, by any means, an entirely foolproof plan. Famines, droughts and floods still happened back then, the same way they do today. But as settlements and cities grew, people began to make deals with one and another; by sharing surplus in times of need as well as helping each other to build canals or repair damage when waters overflowed in them.

The qanat was the basis for habitation, construction, and prosperity. It is a vital turning point in the culture and civilisation of the Iranian Plateau as well as the catalyst that led to urbanisation and modern society.

The River Nile

In neighbouring Egypt, the River Nile was–and still is–the lifeline of the people. Can humans count on rainfall alone to provide for their needs of their crops? Rainfall was, and remains, spasmodic in many regions of the Near East. So how did Cairo–a city with an average rainfall in the low twenties, become one of the main exporters of food to the Romans? Was it a miracle sent from the heavens?

No. It was the marvel of the human mind. A feat of modern engineering.

The Nile passes through Cairo, Egypt’s capital city.

The Pharaohs, Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt had always made the welfare of the Nile a top priority; and deservedly so. It was, and in some cases, still remains the main source of water in Egypt. Managing the Nile and its annual floods took centre-stage in Egyptian society, allowing the civilisation to rise to prominence as well as flourish.

The credit goes not entirely to the government, but to the engineers and scholars who developed ways to predict the course of the river. Equipped with a deep understanding of the water cycle, famers were able to work out how to best harness the fertile silt-covered land that resulted from the annual floods. From the abundance that ensued, administrators were able to develop a tax system to provide revenue for the government.

In 1971, the Aswan High Dam was constructed to regulate the flow of the river. Flooding of the Nile still occurs annually, with almost half of the water being drained into the sea. The dam effectively created a 500km-long lake, called Lake Nasser that reaches into Sudan. The dam controls floods by channeling the flow of the river and supplying water for irrigation throughout the year–doubling the agricultural yield of the nation as well as supplying water during periods of drought. Water from the dam is also used to feed 12 power turbines, effectively providing half of Egypt’s power demands.

On the surface, it may seem that the great and legendary River Nile has been seemingly completely subjugated to human control. We have increased our ability to grow crops and even used the modern technology of hydropower to further tap into the power of the river that had shaped Egyptian society over millennia.

While it may appear that we humans have finally brought the river under our control… but perhaps all we have done is deepened our dependence on it.

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