The sun torments the brow, the ground crackles and snaps beneath your feet – and you can think only of water.
Before we’d ever been to Spain we didn’t know much about acequias – the ancient conduit system of water distribution – but once there we were fascinated by them. (See below for our short clip).
On our many walks to and from Órgiva most acequias lay silent, like blood-drained arteries waiting for a transfusion. But on certain days the torrents came, rushing to feed the area’s gardens, terraces and groves. And that’s what they’re all about – an officially-run system of control and water management where people pay for their share. It doesn’t come often – every week or two but when the sluice gates are opened, directing water to your land, you make the most of it – even if it’s 2am. The gushing sound is lovely and a dipped hand can help cool the blood.
When visiting people’s properties it was a common topic of conversation: where’s the water source? Normally, a soft lawn, abundant flowers or trees bristling with fruit showed there was a decent source on the land. We learnt that water rights are attached to land, not to the owner.
Las Alpujarras are on the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada and the mountains, with their melting snow in spring and summer, provide the water that pops up in myriad springs all year round – guided to where it’s needed.
Acequias – from the Arabic al saqiya, literally ‘the bearer of water’ – were brought to Spain by the Moors in the 8th century. Before them, the Romans and Visigoths had built irrigation systems but it was with the westward spread of the Islamic empire that agricultural and irrigation techniques really took off, improving on what had come before. Many of the rulers of al-Andalus were from Syria, and the climate and landscape here resembled that of Syria – hence the introduction of the irrigation methods.
After the the fall of Granada in 1492, most of its Muslim population headed for Las Alpujarras. In 1568, after refusing to convert to Christianity, the final – and failed revolt – led to all Spanish Moors being expelled. However, villages kept two families on to keep the knowledge of the acequias alive.
One person we met said they had around two hours’ worth of water every 10 days or so. It temporarily turns their land into a quagmire but days of relentless heat means it soaked into the arid soil within a few hours. He told us you can even call a mobile and ask for extra water using a credit system! The old and new combined.
There’s loads we don’t know about acequias – so please comment below about your experiences of this fascinating system that replenishes land carefully tended to for generations. Without them, there’d be far fewer olives, almond and fruit tress, vines, flowers and, of course, wildlife.
It took us a while to pronounce the word: Ath – thek – key – er. We think…
© con jamón