One of our family’s favorite spots is a knoll that to the north is sheltered by a small Garrigue forest and to the south is blessed by an unsurpassed view of our vineyards descending toward the marshes of Camargue (and in the evening the lighthouses that dot our part of the Mediterranean). On the center of this hilltop sits a modern version of an ancient invention that changed the course of Mediterranean agriculture – the noria.
Although this wonder of hydraulic engineering is locally known as a noria, if we want to be accurate it’s actually a “sakia”, since it was powered by an animal and it raised water from a well, and not a river. The way it worked was a follows: a donkey with blinders (to prevent dizziness) walked around the well turning a horizontal wheel, which was engaged with a vertical one, causing it to turn. The vertical wheel activated an endless double chain of buckets which still hang deep down into the well. The water then fell into a canal on either side of the chain that fed into reservoirs that were used for irrigation.
Sources differ as to where it was invented – some say Hellenistic Egypt, others Persia or even India. But there’s general agreement that it originated in the 3rd century BC and spread rapidly. By the Middle Ages it had spread across Europe, in the 17th century the Spaniards brought it to the New World and as our cast-iron version testifies in many places the invention remained in use well into the 20th century. Derivatives of this invention are still being used in Asia, the Middle East, and in the Iberian Peninsula.
Mechanisms for water supply and irrigation have been the two principle technologies underlying many of the world’s greatest civilizations. Faced with the combined effects of climate change and the increasing world population, farm irrigation is an ever more critical topic. According to the National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (IRSTEA), irrigation is responsible for 40% of food production today and will continue to be a necessity for any sustainable agriculture. As IRSTEA states on their internet site “… the challenge for world farming is considerable: we will have to double production by 2050 to feed the future population of 9.5 billion people, while climate scenarios indicate a decrease in fresh water resources available in most areas of the world.”
As our little noria reminds us responsible water use needs to be a core principal for all of us if we are to ensure sustainable food supply through irrigated farming that adapts to and helps reduce climate change.