Acequias (ah-say-ki-as) are water channels; without acequias, much of the world today known for its beauty and cultivation, such as southern Spain and many parts of the New World, would simply be desert.
The author of this admiring look at water systems from the old world to the new is a New Mexican farmer, artist, and writer (Ancient Agriculture) who grew up playing in acequias on his parents’ homestead. In a way, that enjoyment was the beginning of his life’s work. In this book, he examines simple water systems that have sustained food production from the Middle East to the American West. One central feature of traditional acequia systems was that water was portioned, guarded, and controlled—but not sold.
Some examples of traditional water control cited in the book, which contains numerous black and white photographs, include Ses Feixes on the small island of Ibiza in the Balearic Islands. There, watering for “the plots” was accomplished by a series of floodgates and underground channels devised by the Moors (who presumably brought such techniques from the Fertile Crescent). The result was a garden that delighted the eye, as well as a method of food production for the community. Without the help of the Arabic peoples, the Incas developed their own remarkable method of cultivation based on the construction of llanos (level fields) irrigated by channels curiously similar to those seen in the Alpujarra region of southern Spain. Similarly, when the Spanish explorers arrived in what came to be called New Mexico, they saw that the native peoples already possessed a system of water conservation that treated water as “a communal resource and not a commodity.”
Much of the book is concerned with the way that land was granted, and water controlled, in the author’s home region near the Rio Embudo in New Mexico. Using this example, he details the principle of “acequia democracy” in which water is seen as the blood of the body of the earth, not separable from it. As the saying goes,
"la tierra dirije al agua, y el agua guia la tierra" ("the land directs the water, and the water guides the land"). He cites the Muslim “Law of Thirst” that forbids refusing water to any thirsty person or creature. In the irrigation system of channeling, a farmer would receive water in a portion equal to all other farmers, for a certain number of hours (or even minutes) per day. In return, all farmers would spend equal terms of labor cleaning or repairing the acequias. The result is a parity of the harvest: all have had the same chance to grow their food, so all should have enough.
These ancient principles regarding water use are worth examining today, when we arguably practice “water abuse” (witness the rapid draining of the great Ogallala Aquifer). The communal and conservator aspects of the acequias have special implications for those who wish to practice what Arellano refers to as “traditional agriculture,” which has as its purpose not mainly the production of food but instead “the maintenance of the agrarian landscape, the preservation of the environment, and the provision of green belts.”